Using the Kalimba in Music Therapy

Music Therapy Rose

In January, we asked the Music Therapy (MT) community to help us out with stories about how they are using the kalimba in their work, and you guys didn't disappoint. Thank you so much for your contributions to the Kalimba Revolution.

Using the Kalimba and Sansula in Music Therapy

Rebecca Vaudreuil NMT, MT-BC, MusicWorx Inc.

The kalimba and sansula can be used in many different types of music therapy settings. They are beneficial instruments to use in therapeutic music interventions such as: active music making, relaxation, and individual and group musical performance. The kalimba can be used as form of communication, to increase group cohesion, to encourage creativity through spontaneous music making, and as an alternate form of self-expression.

Rebecca and friends

I use the kalimba and sansula in music making with a traumatic brain injury group. Although brain injuries present with different levels of functioning, the kalimba and sansula accommodate all levels of ability within this group and the clients are able to effectively communicate with one another. The kalimba and sansula can also be played with ease, while promoting both gross and fine motor skills. In the group we use the kalimbas to form chords and accompany different client preferred songs. The clients wait for their cues to play and when the chords change and it is their turn, they play along with the guitar and other instruments to add beautiful accompaniment!

sansula relaxation

When facilitating relaxation, I use the sansula specifically. This is due to the resonant nature of the sansula's REMO drumhead, which captures the sound waves and releases them according to the player's discretion. For progressive muscle relaxation, I place the sansula over the part of the body that the client is focusing on. Another method of relaxation is to use the vibrations of the sansula as a massage on the back. I do this by (with client permission) placing the sansula on the client's back and playing slowly as the vibrations massage the spine and surrounding muscles. The sansula can also be used, together with the voice, for accompaniment of guided relaxation scripts.

I use the kalimba and sansula in individual sessions as well. The music created by the instruments is used to express thoughts in the absence of words. This is an effective method for alternative expression that I call kalimba conversation. It also successfully targets turn-taking goals, as one person plays and the other listens, then through non-verbal cuing, participants can switch. Kalmiba mirror is another exercise that I use with clients in which you take two of the same kalimbas or sansulas, one person plays a certain musical phrase and the other copies and then they switch. You can use two kalimbas or also use a kalimba and accompanying instrument!

Rebecca and friends

The kalimbas are fun and easy to play which make them great music therapy instruments. Here are some client testimonials:

Michael having fun
Michael Plunkett

Using the Kalimba with Children

Michael Plunkett NMT, MT-BC

I am a music therapist in Phoenix, AZ and I have recently begun using the Boehme Kal-9 pentatonic kalimba in my personal life and in my practice. I work mostly with children who have various developmental disabilities such as autism and TBI. The kalimba has been a big motivator for getting the children to work on a variety of skills. I have used the kalimba to help build fine-motor coordination skills and sequencing abilities by teaching children to play tunes like "Old McDonald" and "This Old Man." It has been great for helping children to gain a greater sense of bilateral coordination when using both hands and to develop finger strength and coordination through playing. Most find it easiest to use their index fingers to play the tines.

It has also been a great tool to help children work on social skills such as turn-taking, visual cues and body language. We do this by taking turns playing the kalimba and another instrument to make musical sentences. Some children who do not have the verbal capacity to carry on a conversation find this a very motivating way to communicate, emulate, and to modulate the phrases provided by the therapist.

I have yet to use it to help calm children down, but I feel that there is great potential through utilizing kalimba playing to help relax and ease children who are distressed. Overall I find it to be a flexible, portable, popular, and appropriate instrument to use in music therapy sessions.

Lynda Lyle
Lynda Lyle ponders whether she should use
tablature, numbers notation, or free playing.

The Kalimba Project for Brain Injury Patients

Lynda Lyle, M.S., SPE-HSP, Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center

[Editor's note: Lynda bought several C-tuned Catania 8-note and 11-note kalimbas, including some set up for one-hand use by people recovering from strokes. Lynda's interest in the kalimba as a theraputic instrument came when she saw Bela Fleck's movie Throw Down Your Heart and remembered her own Hugh Tracey Treble Kalimba, which she bought in the 60s or 70s. She is quick to point out that while they have physical therapists and ocupational therapists in the group, they are not music therapists, just people using the kalimba therapeutically.]

What is the Kalimba Project, you might ask, and how can it be used in a brain injury rehabilitation program? Our vision is that by using kalimbas in both group and individual cognitive therapies, we can bring enjoyment while increasing skills in the challenging areas of cognitive recovery. Things like sustained attention, organization/planning, problem solving, and visual/coordination skills often need ramping up if the client is going to have a good recovery and be able to successfully return to the work force or school. While we have numerous computer programs that work on thinking skills, they can be quite intimidating to someone who has recently had a brain injury. It is usually hard for the client to see his/her progress and it becomes abundantly clear where there are areas of thinking that aren't working as well as they used to. Maintaining motivation while increasing insight (awareness of deficits) is a very tricky road to travel, and it is our belief that using kalimbas can make this journey a little less frustrating and a whole lot more rewarding!

Lynda Lyles coworkers
Anissa Davis, PT, and Ann Gupton, OTA learning kalimba.
It is absolutely essential that the teachers and helpers
know the song they are teaching.

Also, one of the most serious problem areas for someone following a brain trauma, the ability to empathize and follow social cues, rarely is directly addressed in the early, more-traditional one-on-one therapies. Learning to play 8-note kalimbas in small groups can help foster the relearning of those skills in a highly supportive environment. And it doesn't matter whether someone has had years of musical training or not, because not too many people know how to play a kalimba; everyone is starting on the same page! What a great way to measure progress and new learning!

Thanks to the donations of friends and family (with a special thank you to you, Mark), we now have 14 kalimbas that can be played alone or in a group setting. Some are designed for use with just the right or left thumb, while most are standard. In this way, just about everyone who comes through our door will be able to learn some kalimba basics and be part of a group "cognitive" experience. We are hoping to eventually use them throughout the entire rehab continuum, from inpatient to outpatient rehab and beyond, as our "graduates" in our support group have expressed interest in learning to play as well. Since our project is still in its infancy, it will no doubt undergo a lot of transformation and growth, and I will keep you informed of successes and bumps in the road, what works and what doesn't, as we plow into new territory.

Thanks again, Mark!

Says Lynda of her journey from curious collector to kalimba musician: I have had the kalimba for years and years, just collecting dust for the most part. I did have dreams of learning to play it "when I had more time." Since I am now 61, I guess it was now or never! I thank Bela for making me remember that I had it, and you for moving it into the realm of possibility. I was so pleasantly surprised when I discovered your website. And now I have friends to play with!! Who would have ever believed it. That reminds me... maybe my treble should be tuned in the proper key so I can play along with your Kalimba Fundamentals for the treble CD. I am playing along with your 8-note instruction CD on a Catania and loving it!

Baby and kalimba
A Cambodian baby is comforted by the kalimba.

Using the Kalimba to Calm Infants

Barbara Rauer, PhD, NMT-F, MT-BC, Executive Director Resounding Joy

The kalimba traveled all the way to Cambodia for a special international outreach led by Board certified therapists Noelle Pederson and Alex Bashor. The therapists stated that the kalimba magically calmed the children by placing the kalimba on their tummies [and playing].

Noelle also uses the kalimba in the Sound Minds program (0-3 year olds). Several of the babies were crying. When she started using the kalimba and humming, it was magical as to how quickly the children calmed down.

We are excited about your donation of a kalimba. A music therapist can't have too many kalimbas.

[Editor's note: the kalimba also has a calming effect on adults. At a show in the early 70s, Taj Majal was performing his rowdy happy music, but he was followed on stage by an old solo bluesman who was not as loud as Taj. To calm down the audience at the end of his performance, Taj pulled out a Hugh Tracey Alto Kalimba and lowered the noise level and raised the concentration and joy level in the room in preparation for the next performer.]

Kathry Rambo
Kathryn Rambo

Getting Started with a Client with Autism

Kathryn Rambo MT-BC

Regarding MT and Kalimbas, I am continuing to work with an 18 year old young man who has autism. He has missed a lot of sessions due to the flu, the holidays, and yesterday he hit his head in gym class... so I don't have much to tell just yet.

One of our goals is proprioception.

Some of the adaptations I have made for him are:

Down the road will we will address creating songs and melodies. He first has to get the physical stuff down. He wrote a cool Packers [Green Bay] song (one line bashing the Packers for not letting Brett Farve back on the team), and he created all the drum patterns to it.

Kalimba Holder
This holder can handle two kalimbas.

Holders for Kalimbas

Ray Day of A Day's Work makes devices that can be used to hold kalimbas

I don't know anyone who has direct experience using one of these holders with a music therapy client. In fact, learning how to grip the kalimba was part of Kathryn Rambo's therapy. But if it is not possible for your client to learn how to hold the kalimba, or if you'd like to skip that and come back to it after your client has had some dessert, the kalimba holder may be just the thing.

There is a wide variety of modular pieces in the A Day's Work catalog, and I suggest you contact Ray to discover what is best for you. The factors to consider, as I see them:

Kalimba Holder
Another kalimba holder with adjustable angle.

10 MT Populations Who Can Benefit from the Kalimba

I have prepared this little document - 10 Populations that Benefit from Music Therapy with Kalimba. It summarizes some of the ideas I got from Music Therapists at the AMTA Meeting last November, some of the ideas the therapists in this article bring, my own experience as a kalimba instructor, and some of my unproven ideas. It is a companion document to last year's 10 Easy Ways to Use the Kalimba in Music Therapy.


Kalimba Magic at AMTA Regional Conferences This Spring

If you are attending your region's AMTA conference this spring, chances are we'll get a chance to shake hands and talk about the kalimba. I will be attending the GLRAMTA, MARAMTA, WRAMTA, and MWRAMTA Meetings. In addition to being present as a vendor, I will also be doing presentations on using the kalimba in Music Therapy.

I will do my best to get to the SER, SWR, and NER Meetings next year.

When we go to conferences like the AMTA meetings this spring, Kalimba Magic will be offering a 20% discount. But all through the year, Kalimba Magic offers discounts for Music Therapists who are purchasing more than one musical instrument. If you'd like to find out what we can do to help you get the kalimba into your Music Therapy practice, contact me.

Mark Holdaway
Director, Kalimba Magic


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