Using the Kalimba for Meditation

Some meditative thoughts on the relationship you have with the instrument in your hands

Abisha writes:

“How do I meditate using the kalimba?”

I answer:

“How can I play kalimba and NOT meditate?”

Actually, I have a bit more to say about it than that.


It seems that there is not much to playing the kalimba – that it is easy to pluck it, and that you can’t really control anything about the note, except for when you play it and how hard you pluck it. But to me it’s much more subtle.

Can you find it in you to play a perfect note?

Meditate on one note

Simplify. Zoom in and just play one note. You are both actor and observer. Master and student. Play the note with intention. Feel your strength as you approach the tine. What is this sound about? Even though it is you who play the note, the instant of plucking is immediately gone. Who is it that listens to the note? How does the note sustain, and how does it die down? How does the time before the pluck relate to the time after the pluck?

Can you do anything to the note after it is plucked? Can you make a vibrato or wah-wah by covering and uncovering the sound holes on the front or the back of your kalimba? What is expressed by these sound modulations? Can you let go, and simply observe? Can you let go, and be played by the kalimba?

So you can see there is a lot of duality implicit in playing just one note – that is, there is much to meditate on, and to meditate through and beyond.

Giving up Control  

After you have zoomed in and meditated on just one note, create a string of One Notes. Don’t try to create any more than that. Don’t try to control the process. Let the process control you. Let your thumbs and the kalimba guide you. Let each note sound on its own, live its life, and die its death. And then out of the silence that follows the note’s death, let another note rise up and dance its little life.

The notes live their lives, they dance their dance, it is beautiful to behold, but we do not become attached to any one of these notes. We know there is an infinite supply of notes waiting to be born, to dance, and to pass.

Can you fully hear and fully appreciate each note? Each one is here but for a moment, and then it is gone.

If the stream of notes coming from your kalimba begins to sound like a song you know, stop, empty your brain, and start over. Just play One Note.


Opening the Tap

There is the part of your brain that learns songs, and can stand up proudly and play those songs with accuracy and deliberateness. While this “musicianly playing” is a very important skill – it makes performance possible – right now we want to get underneath that part of your brain. We want to open our minds, and our playing, up to something that is beyond this prepared music mind.

Where does this music beneath music come from? I don’t know. I used to think it came from a spiritual entity, like God or an angel, or Oversoul 7. When I let go of my prepared musical ideas and just let the music come, it can certainly feel as if I am being played by a higher intellect than inhabits my brain. But I don’t believe that.

I believe that when I let go of my ego-based musical self and let the music come through me, that the source of this music is probably within me, but deeper, and perhaps more ancient than I can define through words.

Another possibility is that when I let go of my will for the music, that I turn to the immediate moment for the creative musical spark. Instead of reproducing something from a page or from memory, I am producing something anew in response to what is before me – the sounds in the room, my immediate feelings or thoughts or lack thereof, and perhaps I am picking up on the expectations or feelings of others. And all of this can be woven into an ephemeral crystal lattice of music, created by a mind that weaves together various threads into the fabric of Now.

Juggling Notes

Generate one note, without thought. Measure how long it takes for the note to stop. Your goal is to throw out notes at a pretty regular pace, about two or three times as fast as a single note lives, so the notes are overlapping. It is a lot like juggling, and the notes will each intersect with their precedent and antecedent notes. You do not worry or think about what notes you play. Your job is to merely put notes out in a steady manner. Enter deeply into the physicality of the playing. Patterns that are strictly right-left alternating will be the easiest things to do, but that is not required. Do what your thumbs are led to do.

Rather than pay attention to what notes you are playing, pay attention now to how they sound. At this level, it is likely that nothing sounds bad. Quite a bit of it will probably sound good, and some of it may sound very good.

Who is playing the kalimba? And who is observing? There are certainly many different ways to derive music from your self, your thumbs, and your mind and heart.

Changing Focus, Learning to See

When I am tense and trying to learn a particular thing on kalimba, I will often focus on just one thumb at a time. Sometimes, I want to do this because it helps me understand how the thumbs’ parts fit together. But sometimes I can’t help but to focus on just one thumb at a time. When tense I cannot see the big picture; it causes me to focus just on what is immediately in front of me.

But what’s wrong with that, since it seems that I am focused on the NOW – ? What is wrong is that I can only see one side of the picture. The NOW consists of both left thumb and right thumb. I cannot focus on one or the other, but I must broaden my awareness to be able to see both left and right, and even further, how left and right are dancing with each other to create a whole.

Of course, reality is usually a lot more complex than just your left thumb and your right thumb. But kalimba playing is an effective and beautiful model for reality. We need to look beyond the immediate focus of our eyes, we need to broaden our focus until we see more – perhaps until we can see all.

Trance-Inducing Music

Mbira music is explicitly created to induce a trance state in the listener. Its traditional compositional methods really do play to the tendency to drift off in the music while listening to its magical strands. But I think kalimba music in general lends itself to the trance state.

Primarily, I think the complex left-right interaction within the player’s mind can put the player into a trance-like state, and I think that the magically repetitive music then sort of leads the audience through a similar trance-like state. Religion and culture have a huge influence on the interpretation of what the music and the trance mean.

The relationship between meditation and this trance-like state is is a rich and complex subject. Stay tuned for another post on meditative playing and the trance-inducing qualities of the kalimba.

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