A Message from Mark Holdaway
The Joy That Turns the Musician's World

I've been pretty busy working on writing new music and working on structural things within the Kalimba Magic business, so I have intentionally kept performances to a minimum since Christmas. But today I performed at the Villa Maria Care Center, a nursing home for the elderly and/or disabled in Tucson, AZ. As a matter of coincidence, my first performance at this kind of care facility was at Villa Maria almost three years ago, and it had been about two years since I had played there (I am not an aggressive salesperson when it comes to booking performances for myself). But they called me, they wanted me to come and play kalimba music for them - how could I refuse?

When you do something that you haven't done in a while, pay attention, because you will learn all sorts of things.

The first thing I learned was about preparing for the performance. When you are performing every day or several times a week, everything is in a state of working without thinking. You know exactly what sound equipment and what instruments you need. You probably know the songs cold, even if you change up the set list for each performance. While it is good to have some relaxed time to warm up before the performance (I like to have about 10 minutes with each instrument I am going to play, and 30 or 45 minutes all together), you need to do much more if you haven't been gigging regularly. I took about 90 minutes to play through most every song I wanted to play. Some parts stuck out as unfinished, and I would sand those bits down a bit and try to smooth them out. I tell myself that the most recent way I did something is likely to be the way I do it next, so even in warmup, I don't let an error go by without answering it with the music I want to play.

But the big thing I learned about was the joy and happiness that happens when you play genuine music from your heart and tell the stories that are yours to tell to an audience filled with people who have been humbled by the challenges of disabilities and/or time.

When you walk into a facility that provides care for the elderly, you are walking among people who could have been your teachers, your bankers, your insurance agents, your neighbors. When I am performing several times a week, it is all old hat, and perhaps I am not so aware of the joy. But in this performance today, I was just so incredibly happy to be right there playing for the 20 people who came to the performance.

villa maria

They were so enthusiastic. Most people clapped along, and one woman in particular really held the rhythm down for me with her solid clapping. One gentleman was a superb singer, and I changed my set list around to cover more songs that I thought he would sing (The Happy Wanderer, Don't Fence Me In, Jamaica Farewell), and he didn't let me down. Someone asked "How does that thing make sound?," and I brought the kalimba around for everyone to have a chance to play: "Watch out - metal is stronger than your thumbs, so just flick the end of the tine with your thumb nail. We say a piano player who plays delicately is 'tickling the ivories.' In Africa, a good mbira player is said to be 'scratching the tines' with their nail. Everyone in the Villa Maria audience played a few notes. One young man had essentially no motor control, but he had a bit of control over his index finger, which fortunately had a good nail on it, and he did it! Another man asked for some Irish music, "I know that's supposed to be NEXT month, but let's have a little Irish music to get ready." I started playing a jig, and sure enough, he got up and danced a jig along with the music. For a few moments, the years fell away...

These performances don't pay that well. $50 sounds good for an hour of music, but factor in 30 minutes travel, 30 minutes setup and take down time, and 90 minutes on rehearsal and warmup, and I'm down to $14 an hour. OK, it is substantially better than minimum wage, but significantly less than I used to make as an astronomer. But as is the case for essentially every musician on the planet, we are not in it for the money. We do this because it turns our world to see an old man get up and dance to our music, to hear someone say "Oh, I get it!" when their thumb finds the right way to slip off the metal tines, and to make some of the best memories that these folks will have for the whole week. And did I forget to say that they made some of the best memories I had this week?

—Mark Holdaway, February 17, 2010


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