As we look for ways to refresh our teaching, and to move away from a predominantly Western approach, kalimbas are a great option. First of all, kalimbas have a wonderful sound – a cross between a harp and a bell. Their sound is very appealing and easy on the ear. No adjustment is needed for the notes to be in tune (so long as the instrument is tuned in the first place). This is important for young learners who have to think about so much when learning an instrument. They can focus on finding their way around the scale, and the tuning will look after itself. (This is easier for teachers too! Much less time tuning…). It doesn’t take long for students to get a simple tune going and the quick rewards are encouraging for young players. It needn’t take months or years to sound good.
The kalimba scale is laid out with the rising scale arranged in a right/left pattern. This means that both hands work in a balanced way, encouraging dexterity in both hands. Pianists tend to balk at this arrangement, but not all instruments have the linear logic of pianos – take brass for example. If the ‘left-right’ scale seems awkward at first, a little practice is all it takes to find your way. I rather like the fact that a kalimba is non-linear – it reminds me that human creativity does not travel in straight lines.
So many tunes can be played on the diatonic kalimba that there is more than enough material to structure a programme. A melody on its own sounds delicious – but you can also add harmony. The kalimba’s ringing tone is perfect on its own, or it can add a whimsical texture to classroom ensembles. You can use it as part of Orff-style lessons, with simple motifs that get put together to make something more.
All of this means that kalimbas are a really powerful classroom instrument. They are an excellent alternative to recorders, in my opinion. OK, confession time: I have never had the fortitude needed to use recorders in class music. Let’s just leave it at that! Although recorders are a great tool to teach basic literacy, intonation, breath control, and ensemble skills, kalimbas can cover much the same territory (perhaps without the breath control…) without shattering the teacher’s nerves. For instance, the baby steps of exploring the basics of melody and rhythm are all present when learning simple melodies. It’s a lovely instrument on which to fiddle – to explore musical sound and patterns. You can stick to an aural way of learning, or you can introduce notation skills via the kalimba. The diatonic instruments are tuned to G major, so yes – you are limited with keys, but the introductory stages of notation reading are limited by nature. Going beyond playing, kalimbas can also be used to teach concepts. Scales, intervals, triads, harmony – all can be illustrated on the treble and alto kalimba. It is an ideal way for learners to get fluent with theoretical concepts, by experiencing them first hand on the kalimba. The theoretical content doesn’t have to stay abstract and remote from musical experience.
The kalimba is a relatively new instrument in classrooms, it’s popularity on the internet has exploded, and it’s non-conventional identity makes it a good option to use with kids. It is an African instrument with deep roots (and many different names and types) across many parts of Africa. This means that you can also use the instrument to introduce some traditional African styles and incorporate more non-Western music in your classroom. In lessons, student can explore examples of kalimba music from different parts of Africa, and they can learn some simple examples too. The African-tuned Karimba (see pic above) is an exciting way to start teaching some traditional tunes and to shift students’ musical paradigms.
African Musical Instruments has been making kalimbas since 1956. We make a range of instruments suitable for different purposes, and we can provide resource material if you want to get started with kalimbas in your classroom. Check out the website, and get in touch with us.