MBIRA - the non-profit organization devoted to Shona mbria music


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Erica Azim
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    Pointers for Mbira Students

    (Note that a First Mbira Lessons DVD is now available, as well as additional instructional DVDs)

    1. Get comfortable.  You need to hold the mbira so that the wood is approximately vertical, both to avoid having your lap swallow all the sound coming out the back of the instrument and so that gravity will hold the mbira up for you, saving you from wrist injuries.  Keep your hands as far out in front of the mbira as you can, for greater flexibility.  The fingertips of your left hand should be on the left side of the board, and you left pinkie may or may not go under the bottom of the board. Put either your right pinkie or 4th finger (with the pinkie resting to the left of it) through the hole, from front to back.  Your right middle finger goes around to the back of the mbira.  Move your hands around until you find a comfortable position.  Avoid positions which bend back your right wrist, if you can.  If you buy an mbira, get one which is a comfortable size for your hands 

    2.  Your left thumb plays all of the double row of keys.  Your right thumb plays the first (longest) 3 keys only in the single row.  Your right forefinger plucks up on the rest of the keys in the single row. Develop good habits of playing keys with the correct thumb/finger.

    3.  Mbira music is truly circular - there is no beginning or end of any mbira piece.  An mbira piece is like a cosmic carousel - it is going on forever, around and around, and you can hop on and join it at any time, and hop off at any time. The piece may be played for 3 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, etc.

    4.  There are no phrases in mbira music – though some mbira pieces easily divide into 4 phrases.  Use phrases as a learning tool only, and don’t expect Zimbabweans to teach you in phrases, as they listen to the whole cycle.

    5.  After you learn an mbira piece, you need to unlearn the prejudices of your cultural background and the learning method, so you stop hearing a beginning point of the piece (there are none, or many, depending on how you look at a circle).

    · Play what you know until you can play it with your eyes closed. 

    · Learn to play the piece starting of each note of the entire cycle.  Sing or hum along with a simple melody you hear the mbira playing, which starts at each starting place.  Keep playing and singing each starting place for an hour, a day, or a week - until you really hear the piece from that point.  Then change to a new starting place.  You can use vocables, and sound like a real Shona mbira singer.

      This is much more difficult than learning to play more notes, so be patient with yourself.  Try working on it with a friend, with one playing and one singing.  This exercise is frustrating at first because it’s so difficult, but when you start succeeding at it, it’s very exciting - because one piece can sound like many different pieces even though your fingers are doing the same thing.

    · When you learn variations, repeat these steps for each variation. 

    · Learning to hear in this new way is the key to improvising well on mbira. 

    · Listen to recordings of the piece you are learning, to compensate for not having grown up hearing it, until you find yourself humming it as you walk down the street.  Listen to Mbira Piece Intensive CDs in the car, when going to sleep, etc. 

    6. Memorize the octave relationships on your mbira.  Most mbira improvisation includes octave doubling or octave substitution.

    7. Play the mbira keys as hard as you can.  This will build up your strength, bring out the full tone of the instrument, and break in a new instrument.  Grow out your nails on your mbira finger and thumbs.  Finger picks or acrylic nails can help if your fingers still get too sore.

    8. Traditionally, it is believed that every serious mbira player has a shave spirit which gives them the talent to play.  Take a deep breath and relax, don’t try too hard, let your thumbs move without thinking too much and give your shave space to do it for you.

    MBIRA, Box 7863, Berkeley, CA 94707-0863, USA, tel (510) 548-6053, email info@mbira.org