These notes are addressed to the non-Shona person who is considering learning to play mbira. There are many questions and opinions about how to learn and how to teach mbira. We hope these observations are useful.
We will also, in the near future, offer some beginning lessons for those starting to play mbira.
The major challenge to learning mbira is knowing the music deeply to begin. Shona people hear mbira from birth. Actually from before birth, as they are likely to have been hearing it in their mother's womb. After a lifetime of hearing the music and perhaps already participating through singing, clapping, and dancing, learning to play a song is primarily a technical challenge–how to hold the instrument, locate the appropriate notes and produce proper sound.
But most non-Shona people come to mbira with no or almost no experience of the music. When taught to play a first song—often but not necessarily Kariga Mombe—they don't hear and feel inside the song they are attempting to play. The music and the rhythms are unfamiliar.
Erica Azim, an American mbira player and teacher, encourages her students to listen long and deeply to a song before beginning to play it. Her organization, mbira.org, sells mbira piece intensive CDs which contain many different performances of one mbira piece, played both solo and by groups, which give the neophyte an opportunity to really hear and understand an mbira piece. We concur and think this may be the most important component of learning mbira for a non-Shona person.
Erica Azim points out two aspects of Shona music which make hearing a new mbira song challenging for a non-Shona person.
One significant difference in both structure and listening is that Western music progresses in a linear fashion, while Shona mbira music is completely circular — no note in the cycle is any more the "beginning" or the "end" than any other note. Moreover, performance of the piece may consist of repeating the cycle for two minutes or two hours. The Western mbira student has a tendency, from his linear musical background, to hear the "beginning" of an mbira piece as the point in the cycle where his teacher started when introducing the piece.... If his teacher starts at a different point in the cycle at the next lesson, the student may not even recognize the piece as the one he learned! This linear approach must be counteracted in order to learn to listen to mbira in a Shona way.
Another major difference in the Western and Shona approaches to listening is that there is a vertical approach in Western music, with attention to chords and their progression. Shona mbira listening, however, appears to be horizontal, with attention placed on dozens of simultaneous intertwining single note melodies. These are the melodies which are sung and improvised upon on the mbira; without hearing them, the Western student cannot improvise in a Shona way.Erica Azim — www.mbira.org/onteaching.html
Although mbira's popularity continues to grow in the West and in Japan, most of us still do not live near other mbira players or teachers. How are we to learn? And if we do live near someone who plays some mbira, how do we know if we are learning properly?
The need for some way to learn mbira has led people to experiment with methods of transmitting mbira playing. The two most common are notation and, more recently (and with the advent of YouTube), video.
Trying to transmit mbira songs through notation goes back at least as far as Paul Berliner's The Soul of Mbira and Andrew Tracey's "How to Play the Mbira." Those transcribing mbira songs have used Western staff notation as well as tablature which maps the mbira keys to some visual and numeric code. Here are examples from B. Michael Williams' Getting Started with Mbira dzaVadzimu:
When presented without audio with which to hear what the notated music is to sound like, such a method works only for those who are accustomed to reading music. Even if adept at reading music, if you don't know what the song or variation is supposed to sound like, how can you learn it properly?
There is a strong visual component to learning mbira. In The Soul of Mbira Paul Berliner relates how mbira students are encouraged to watch others play and pick up what they can by watching.
Reflecting on this practice, Pasipamire’s uncle Selestino laughed and recalled how his young nephew used to hang over his shoulder, wide-eyed, every time he played the mbira. Then he would ask to borrow the instrument and would try to work out the parts by himself.Paul Berliner — The Soul of Mbira
But not all mbira players want to be watched!
Musicians report that if the performer from whom they wish to learn is not interested in sharing his knowledge, they must be quick in “pinching” the mbira part before the performer notices them and, by shifting the position of the instrument on his lap, hides his fingers in his gourd resonator.Paul Berliner — The Soul of Mbir
There is broad consensus that with mbira visual learning is as important as aural, because it can be quite difficult (especially for those not familiar with them music) to identify which keys are actually being played when one is hearing the resultant parts that arise from the music.
If you can't sit next to an mbira player and take a lesson, sitting next to them by watching a video would seem to be the next best thing. Not surprisingly, some both in and outside of Zimbabwe have frowned on this method, but it strikes us as a most effective way of simulating a formal teaching experience. It certainly seems to be "closer to the real thing" than trying to read notation.
The player will show in this paragraph
The general pattern of learning in Zimbabwe seems to be to begin learning a piece's kushauras, moving to its kutsinhiras only after mastering the kushauras. Because a beginner is much more likely to be able to join in group playing by playing kushaura while those more experienced play kutsinhira, learning kushauras first makes sense.
We would suggest, however, that in the non-Shona world, where most people learning mbira do not have a lifetime of experience hearing the two parts played together, there may be much merit to learning basic kushaura and kutsihira parts first before moving on to more advanced kushauras. Learning both kushaura and kutsinhira can help the process of learning "mbira music."
It is the American way (and perhaps the modern world's way) to judge oneself and others quantitatively. So there is a tenancy when learning mbira to try to learn as many songs as possible. Shona mbira teachers emphasize playing slowly and really learning basic variations before trying to progress to more advanced variations or other songs.They emphasize playing a few variations over and over until one begins to have control of the mbira and can move fluidly over the keys and make clear, strong sounds from each key. They encourage building a solid foundation on a small number of pieces or variations.
All teachers emphasize the importance of students learning a proper approach to the instruments and to the music. This includes a concern for precision and force in striking the mbira keys so as to bring out their true full sound, as well as a concern for rhythmic accuracy. These skills first are developed by learning one or a few mbira pieces rather than a large repertory.Paul Berliner — The Soul of Mbir
There is no WMTA (World Mbira Teachers Association) certifying who is qualified to teach. There are many wonderful Shona mbira players with a lifetime of playing experience who may be perfect as a teacher for a Shona person yet be challenging for a non-Shona person. Someone with more limited playing experience could be a perfect medium for a new student. In the end credentials don't mean as much as trusting your gut.
How do you know if what you are being taught (or are seeing on YouTube) is the "right" way to play an mbira piece? This is a much harder question to address. There is also no AMP (Authentic Mbira Players) certification. There is not even agreement on the "right" "first" kushaura to Nhemamusasa. And inevitably people are presenting mbira parts on YouTube that they have barely learned themselves. Look to others playing mbira, even online and in communities such as Dandemutande, for guidance. And trust your gut.
Tinotenda has begun offering videos with which to learn mbira songs, with several variations by ZImbabwean mbira musicians. Each video shows the musician playing several variations. Most of these are not step-by-step "lessons" but rather videos for those who can (and enjoy) learning by sitting next to an mbira player and looking over his or her shoulder.
In the near future we will present introductory mbira lessons.