Two Diametrically Different Kalimba Playing Approaches

Careful, precise, and planned – or Wild, Free, In-the-moment – both are important

Orderly and planned…. or wild and free? How about BOTH?

When I’m asked how I learned kalimba, I tell this story: while I had known what a kalimba was since the age of two, I only discovered how wonderful kalimba music could be when I was 24 and I witnessed an amazing player close up. I immediately went out and bought a kalimba, and then I wandered alone in the wilderness for 10 years, finding my own way.

In that wandering, I found that my path branched in two opposing directions. On one, I tried to learn songs exactly, with precision and repeatability. On the other, I aimed for pure delight in the spontaneous flow that come only from improvisation. And over time I learned that these two approaches enhance each other.

Today we’ll talk a little more about improvisation versus learning specific riffs and songs, and see two recently-made videos that illustrate these two starkly different ways of approaching kalimba playing.


Before 2005 when I started Kalimba Magic, there was essentially no kalimba instructional material available. This means that if you wanted to really dig into the kalimba, you had to teach yourself. The kalimba seems simple – not too many notes, and they are all right in front of you. It seems that you should be able to figure it out, right?

The confidence inspired by the utter simplicity of this little instrument leads many to just jump right in. And hence, without formal training or learning songs to be practiced again and again, most people spend most of their time improvising on the kalimba. Some continue through to greatness, but many do not see the real possibilities of the instrument, get bored, and fall away.

Let me share something that was incredibly liberating for me.

After I’d been wandering in the wilderness just making things up on the spur of the moment for around 10 years, I realized that I was a pretty good kalimba player, but that I really needed to have repeatable songs that I could play precisely and well. That doesn’t mean that I was turning my back on the magic of improvisation – it means that I wanted something sturdy that I could amaze people with, basically without the warm-up time that improvisation often requires. Yes – warm-up time.

I remember often staying up late to play the kalimba. In the first 10 minutes of playing, I was good. After playing for three hours, I was ready to play in Carnegie Hall. I was also ready to fall asleep. When playing improvisationally, I was really amazing after hours of warming up… but I realized what I wanted was to be that good in the first 10 minutes of playing. 

So, I concentrated on writing, learning, and performing set pieces of music. After working in that direction for another 10 years but needing a way to work smarter, I came up with kalimba tablature, which permits me to notate exactly what music I have in my head, make it do whatever I want it to do, and make it permanent… and then in my own time, I can practice that music precisely over minutes, hours, or days. A lot of the pieces of music I created are now found in my many kalimba books and kalimba downloads.


This song was totally prepared. The parts were composed and written out in tablature, practiced, and learned. (Missing are the 25 takes with errors that we did before we got one with only non-obvious errors!)


And through all this deliberate work of perfecting my music and my skills, I have never closed the door on the untamed improvisational music that I started out with. There is actually a vital symbiotic relationship between creative, flowing improvisation and controlled, preset music, despite their seeming to be so diametrically opposed.

Often in my wild improvisations, I come up with a riff, a seed, or even a complete melody line, that I realize is too important to just toss back into the sea of improvisational ideas. If I toss the idea back, yes, it will likely come back to me in the future, but I cannot say when that will happen. But if I make note of the idea (on tablature), I have captured it. Then I can reconstitute it by reading it off the tablature anytime in the future, and I can work it, build it, hone it into a complete song… which I then will have to work and practice to learn thoroughly. So you see, improvisation feeds the precise preset songs I create and arrange. If I ever stopped improvising, I would soon stop writing.

But the energy flows the other way too.

Being very familiar with your instrument can be a huge boon to giving you a way to be creative with it. Many great jazz musicians, for instance, started their musical lives learning and studying classical music. The labor and time needed to learn an instrument, to become relaxed and conversant with it, can give a player the dexterity and mental abilities needed to become competent at improvisation on that instrument.

By diving in to my books, downloads, tablature, and other instructional materials, you are availing yourself of a wide and deep pool of understanding and skills that have taken several decades to develop and refine. And this will give you ever more tools and understanding that will ultimately help you in your own kalimba journey.

The two videos here demonstrate these different approaches to playing. In each video, I am playing with a different musician friend of mine. The video above features me and my employee and bandmate Mike Ankomeus, playing the 17-Note Heart Kalimba. This is a song that our bandmate Heidi Wilson wrote, and I arranged for 17-Note kalimba on melody and 10-Note kalimba on accompaniment. It took me about an hour of playing to come up with the parts, and about 20 minutes to notate the parts in tablature. Then it took me probably 10 hours of practice, spread out over a month, to get good enough on my 10-Note accompaniment part. I know that Mike practiced for this performance too, though I cannot say how long he took to get as good as he is here. In that song, every note was meticulously prepared, and we sought to reproduce those notes precisely.

Now, in the video below, everything was totally improvised. Neither I nor Andrea Eckardt had a precise idea of what was going to happen until about a minute before we recorded the video. We had practiced with guitar and this particular sansula tuning for a total of about 30 minutes. It came out pretty well… but don’t think that we instantly had this the first time we played together. Behind this was hundreds of hours we spent learning how to listen to each other and how to follow each other, another lovely part of improvisation. See the blog post “Exotic Sansula Tunings – C Major” for a breakdown of how an improvisation (another one from Andrea and myself) works, from the inside.


This performance was totally improvised. It sounds like an actual song because my guitar playing adheres to standard musical rules of structure, playing phrases 4 times before moving to another section, and coming back to those sections. But really, neither of us knew what to expect when I hit RECORD. (Missing are the six less-coherent takes I deleted before recording this gem.)

This lesson is so full. You need both the wild improvisation and the careful studied work. Those two playing methods feed each other. Beautiful, isn’t it?

Now, if only Conservatives and Progressives could learn this lesson!

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