Four Great Instruments for the Musical Beginner (Part 1)

Learning to play an instrument can be an expensive, challenging and time-consuming proposition. However, it doesn’t need to be. There are four instruments which I recommend over and over to people who are musical beginners: the kalimba, the lap harp, the mountain dulcimer and the ocarina. These four instruments stand apart because of the ease in which one can produce a beautiful tone and pick out a simple melody. The first three are diatonic instruments, which means they produce the notes of a familiar scale without including all those confusing chromatic in between notes. While the ocarina is capable of playing chromatic notes, it is optimized for playing a major scale. Playing a song can be as simple as one, two, three or C, D, E if you label the notes.

Kids can have a lot of fun on these instruments without breaking their parents’ piggy banks. Usually all that is needed is an instructional songbook children are good to go. If a child isn’t ready to commit to the practice that goes with taking music lessons, playing these instruments can be a good way to develop music skills.

These instruments aren’t just for the musical beginner, however. On the contrary, you will find musicians around the world who have selected one of them as their primary instrument and have worked to master it. Because they are so easy to learn, experienced musicians will probably be able to express themselves on the instrument in a short amount of time, enjoying the inspiration that comes from discovering a new voice.

The kalimba is a board or box with metal tines which produce notes when plucked. Kalimbas have been played in Africa for well over a thousand years as an essential part of a rich musical tradition. The best kalimbas I have played are Hugh Tracey and Catania models. You can purchase them from Kalimba Magic’s online store, which also includes vast resources for kalimba musicians. Ebay is also full of vintage Hugh Tracey kalimbas, though be aware that older is not necessarily better when it comes to kalimbas. My Ebay kalimba needed repair, which I learned to do at Kalimba Magic. It is a simple matter to label the notes on a kalimba with a sharpie and then play with a numerical song book. Younger children might enjoy improvising on a six note kalimba in pentatonic tuning.

The lap harp has a very old history and is known by many other names. Call it a medieval plucked psaltery if you wish, just don’t call it a toy just because First Note used to make them. “Song sheets” are what make this an easy instrument to play. Simply slide a sheet under the strings and follow the dots to play a tune. It’s so easy a kindergartener could do it! Actually, a kindergartener might need a little help, but they’ll catch on quickly. A small inexpensive lap harp called a “Music Maker” or “Melody Harp” is available for purchase. Make sure you order plenty of song sheets to go with it. Of course you don’t absolutely need the song sheets to be able to play it. I put stickers on mine so that I could quickly identify the notes.

(As this post is turning out to be lengthier than I expected, I will continue the discussion of the next two instruments in another post.)



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