This is Mark Holdaway

Kalimba Man My life is about music. Well, I've got two great kids and a wonderful girlfriend, and two cats in the yard (actually, they rarely venture outdoors). And I'm a Quaker, seeking to embody the Peace Testimony in my everyday interactions with everyone I meet (even Ernie). And I'm an astronomer by day (yes, radio astronomers do it all day long -- we don't have to wait till the night). But I have a different calling by night.

Music literally fills my life. I understand things through music. I process emotions through music. I listen to a little known radio station called KMRK, broadcasting only between my ears, which sometimes blares out known tunes, but more often than not is an endless stream of newly created melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. I am limited by a very low bandwidth out of my head, through my hands and my mouth. But I do what I need to do to get this music outside of my head and into the universe of people and air and sound.

Music is God's gift to me, it keeps me together, giving me something that I can give to other folks. God shines on us, and we glow with that love and light and music. I offer this spiritual gift to everyone who would hear my music.

Early Experiences of Music

One of my earliest memories was of my mother asking me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I said I wanted to play music. She told me that she didn't think I would be a very good musician, and that if anyone was going to be a musician, it would be my brother, Ian, because he sang all the time. Well! I just thought to myself: "I'll show HER!". And I've never told my sons what they couldn't be when they grew up.

I can point to another seminal moment in my early childhood that helps explain why I am the way I am. My parents did buy a guitar for my brother Ian. Yes, I was jealous, but I dealt with it. He never did play the guitar. After about a year of neglect, I realized the guitar was "fair game", and I picked it up and started playing it. It sounded HORRIBLE! Then I realized: I've got to tune it! (I had seen my father tuning the autoharp, which I loved to strum chords on, even though I had no song or formal understanding: remember, the mind will take things in and make its own understanding.) I didn't know how to tune a guitar! But I invented a tuning, and then invented scales and chords. They were all wrong, but they all worked anyway. And on that day, I discovered some truth: there may be rules about music, but I am free to ignore them. The most important rules about music are: use your own ear to tell what sounds good, and make a joyful noise! Now, I do know the rules, but my ear and the joy that comes through music govern all the rules.

Rediscovering the Recorder

OK, fast forward to age 24. I was a decent guitarist. I loved to jam. I loved to figure things out by ear. I was at SUNY Buffalo for a year as a first year physics graduate student, but Buffalo didn't work out. My wife Judy had taken an early leave of the place, and got a job in Boston, leaving me to finish out the spring semester, followed by two weeks to pack up our apartment, and then she would fly up to Buffalo and we would drive back in a Ryder truck. Those two weeks were among the hardest in my life -- after classes ended, everyone I knew left town, I had no money, my wife was gone, and I had nothing really to do to keep myself busy. I crashed, hard. What saved me was a $10 recorder I had bought a few years before. I had played recorder in elementary school, but didn't consider it a real musical instrument. But in my hour of darkness, the recorder was a shining light. I could play it for 12 hours a day without hurting -- try doing that as a beginning guitarist or trumpeter! I would play while walking, would go out to the golf course and play at midnight. I played Irish jigs and reels. I played John Coltraine's "A Love Supreme". Ah, the JOY, the PURE JOY of making these new sounds, of discovering that I could pick up a new instrument and feel myself improve, hour by hour! I was lifted up and filled with music and confidence, and the days passed until I was in my new apartment in Boston.

Ah, to pick up an instrument and to play like it was the first time.

Rediscovering the Kalimba

I was visiting some friends in Cambridge MA, and one of them had a thumb piano. "Kalimba!", one of them corrected me. (I was no stranger to the thumb piano, as my brother Scott's god parents had had one on their coffee table. I had loved making sounds on it as a child, but again, I thought of it as more of a toy -- I actually preferred playing their REAL piano. The first time, Aunt Opel asked me if I knew how to to play piano, and I said "No, but I love it anyway.") So, we all took turns passing around the kalimba and seeing what we could make it do. It was a Hugh Tracey kalimba, made in South African by a company started by an important African ethnomusicologist from the 50's and 60's. The Hugh Tracey is the Cadillac of the kalimba world, and I recommend their kalimbas over almost all others. After we all had a chance, in walked a neighbor, who said "Ah, a KALIMBA!", and he proceeded to amaze the hell out of us by playing what sounded like Bach, though it was all improvised.

In that moment, my eyes were opened. I understood just how amazing the kalimba could be, just what it could do. It could shine and glow and hum, right down to the center of your soul, right to the depths of your heart. It could hold your imagination in awe. I played with that guy for hours that day, but never saw him again. But the seed had been planted. I've now spent about 18 years catching up with the image I had of this guy whose name I don't even remember, standing there playing kalimba.


The Path of the Multi-Instrumentalist

So, in a short period of time, I became a recorder player and a kalimba player. I had a gift for understanding musical instruments. I knew my path: I would later pick up the bass guitar, the mandolin, the viola, the hammered dulcimer, the charango, the harmonica, the keyboards, and the marimba. Each time I would pick up a new instrument, I would seek to understand how it was laid out, what tunes were natural for it to play, what voice it had to say them with. Each time, I would enter into a partnership with the instrument, joining together what I was with what the instrument was to create something wonderful, beautiful, powerful, sweet, and soulful.

The Path of the Multi-Stylist

My exploration of different instruments parallelled my exploration of different musical styles. There are some people who only play jazz, or blues, or bluegrass, or classical, or Irish music. But not me! I began to see a unity among these different musics. I began to understand that jazz can be ever-so-close to classical, that there was a multi-dimensional phase space which these different musics occupied, and you could traverse the phase space by changing one or more musical or emotional parameters, just like turning a knob. Why limit myself to just one type of music? Why limit myself AT ALL?

The Path of the Accompanist

And the partnerships that I was forming with each new musical instrument also echoed the partnerships I was forming with each new musician I encountered. Rather than seek to play a specific song, or impose my musical ideas or ideals on any given musician, I sought to really connect with every musician I have played with -- to really get in deep and understand them right down at heart level, to be with them when they sat, to be with them when they flew, to follow them so closely they couldn't tell that I was their shadow. I seek to understand their music at an essential level, to understand the music holographically, all at once, and then all the logic of the song and all the twists and turns are laid out in front of you so you can see it all in one glance. I seek to understand the heart of the musician, and to amplify their message and their emotions through my own notes, pumping their music full of life and light and energy and emotion until it shines. Oh, maybe one in ten musicians I meet, I'll feel like I can't follow them at all. But most people I feel that I am able to really groove with. I have ALWAYS enjoyed playing music, seeking connection, with a great many different people.

The Path of the Composer

My ability to read the music off of the fingers and hearts of other musicians is one of my core musical abilities, but just strengthening the voice of other people is a bit hollow. I have a voice too, and I yearn for others to hear that voice. I sought to find someone who could read the music off of me in the manner in which I could read it off of others. I had had some limited successes, but those were rare.

In 1996, I met a songwriter named Richard at the Stellar Cellar, an underground musicians' and poets' hangout in Tucson. I could tell right away that this guy had written a lot of songs. "How many?" I asked, and I was shocked when he said "over 1000". It turns out that when he got home from work each day, he would sit down and write a song, not worrying about how good it was, and toss it into a box. If the words came back to haunt him, he would dig it out of the box and actually learn it! (Many writers agree that it takes longer to learn your own songs than to write them.) So, in November 1996, I tried that: writing a song each day, not worrying about whether it was good or bad. I had music in my head ALL THE TIME anyway, so the act of writing mainly consisted of capturing one, or two, or three musical ideas before they drifted into other things, and a bit of tinkering to help make them more sturdy, more song-worthy. Words came in a similar way. The best songs would come in about 10 minutes, start to finish. It is like a seed is just gifted to me, and then I use time-lapse photography to fill out the middle and the end, but the logic of the whole song is just sitting there, intact, in the gift seed.

I found that with repeatable songs, I was actually able to teach them to people. So, I didn't need to find someone who could see the music unfolding off of my brain, I just needed to find someone who would take the time and effort to learn a song of mine.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? Well, it isn't. Every single musician I know has an image of who they are and what they are doing. You've been reading an explanation of my image. If you can find a few musicians whose images of what they are about musically can interact positively with your own image, you are doing very well! So many people try to force their strong image upon you. They are taking rather than giving. My music is about giving. They are chaining you or even themselves down to the ground, rather than giving you a set of angel's wings and showing you how to fly.

A Band of One's Own

I love to support other people's musics. It is a friendly activity, familiar, like a dolphin playing in a warm sea. But my voice has grown strong, and I must use it, I must sing the song that's mine to sing.

In September 2001, I met bass player Phil Anderson, and without even hearing him play, I knew that he and I would be a good fit. We spoke briefly on the morning of September 11 after being awakened to the new world of fear and sorrow -- we were dropping our children off at school. Phil and I finally did get together for music, in 2002, and he quit two bands to play with me and Steven Baird. After flexing our musical muscles, I see Phil isn't a perfect fit (because we are too much alike? because we are both reaching to stand in the same spotlight, at times? because we both move funny when we are possessed by music?) -- but it works better than anything else I've found in this world. When things are working, he can read the song right off of my fingers, right out of my heart. Phil not only is willing to learn my songs, he LOVES my songs. I have a great love for Phil, in part because he loves my songs. He pushes me forward like a friend, like an older brother. He is the voice of reason which I still rebel against. But he, as much as me myself, works to take the music I compose out into the world, for you to hear it. He has faith in me and my music, and I do everything I can to match that faith.

In December 2002, I met Jonathan Crowe. Kathy Budway had a Christmas gig at the Tucson Botanical Gardens, and three days before the gig she told me that Liz had met this great percussionist at a party, and that he was IN for the gig. "Whoa! What if he doesn't work out? You need an escape plan!", I insisted. Jonathan showed up for rehearsal the day before the gig, and after about 2 minutes, I realized that all would be fine. Of course, we survived the gig, and afterwards, I invited Jonathan to join me at the TKMA Holiday Party. He accepted. We spoke about swing and the details of dividing the beat as I waited in the wings for my performance slot. Then I walked up to the stage, and addressed the audience as never before, and let them know that each person in the room would remember this music for the rest of their lives. I pulled out my kalimba, and hushed the crowd with the strands of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring", which led seamlessly into "Oh Night Divine", then a haunting "God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen" and a dozen other Christmas Carols. When I stopped playing 15 minutes later, Jonathan had just witnessed my best performance ever. Elise Grecco would later say "He levitated the audience". The standing ovation lasted a full three minutes. OK, I think I had hooked Jonathan. But had he hooked me?

In early 2003, I had gotten a gig at Montgomery's Irish Pub, with Phil's great encouragement and help. A few weeks before the gig, we were finally able to get together with Jonathan in my garage (Phil is allergic to both of my cats). That night was magic. In addition to running through the songs we were aiming to play at Montgomery's, we also spun out spontaneous improvisations and sang. It was clear that Jonathan could read the magic thread as it unspun itself. And he had a great voice too. I have never felt so supported by a drummer. He picks up the smallest subtleties of changes in the rhythm, and he pushes them right back at you, saying "Yes, I see exactly what you are doing, here it is back at you!". And Jonathan has a very wide vocabulary of rhythms and riffs, continuously variable between close to zero and close to infinity (well, he does have some trouble when I am too close to zero). He plays with an abreviated drum kit: a snare, a floor tom that he uses as a bass drum, and 2 or 3 cymbals, yet he can get more diversity of sound out of that small kit than most drummers can out of the kit of their dreams.

Over the next year, we spent a lot of time learning how to work with each other. We had a lot of fun -- even on nights when one of us was tired or thinking of cancelling rehearsal, we always came away from playing with more energy and more joy than when we went into rehearsal. We subconsciously developed signals to guide the music -- most of them intuitive and non-obvious, non-stated, but understood non-the-less. We learned how to read each other, how to push and pull at the flow of energy that connects us at each moment through a song or jam. We learned that we can go most anywhere in musical phase space without falling over. We experimented with THIS instrument and THAT instrument -- Phil can work with kalimba, but Jon usually can't grok what it is the drums are supposed to do with kalimba. Mandolin and guitar work, because they telegraph their harmonic content visually in time with the music. Dulcimer sort of works, because I can bang on it like a drum. And singing -- our final frontier: I love Jonathan's voice, better than my own, and I love to hear it supporting me in harmony with my own uncertain vocals.

And I am further blessed by having a son who is not only interested in music, but who is also very talented on a number of instruments, including guitar, bass, mandolin, and keyboard. I look forward to many years of music with Tim.

So, this is not the end of my musical journey, but I have come a long way: I've learned to trust my ear above any rule about music. I've learned to make partnerships with a multitude of instruments, and they have all blessed me. I've learned to open my heart and mind to other musicians and to follow them like a shadow. I've learned to give to the audience. I've learned to write down my musical magic into digestible and repeatable nuggets. I've learned how to work with other people so they can play my songs. And I have found two people who I absolutely love to play with. Our musical relationship is full of trust and openness and integrity. I am full of thanks for the good grace which has come into my life.

Having Someone to Help Me Believe in Myself

You know, I had dreamed of having a music web site for years. Dreamed of having a place on the internet where I could share my music, share my insights into music, share my schedule and my recollections of great performances, share my musical friends. How did it finally happen? By having someone who helped me believe in myself.

In 2004, I hooked up via the internet with a college acquaintance of mine named Wendy Keilin. It turns out that she does artists' coaching through her business Artist's Edge. As important to my musical and artistic progress as were learning multiple styles, multiple instruments, learning how to follow other musicians as an accompanist, learning how to write songs and be a band-co-leader, working with Wendy as my coach has been the next step in my musical development.

You can go to Wendy's website to find out how Wendy views her work as a Life Coach for artists. I view Wendy as someone who is on my team, someone who not only believes in my creative abilities, but helps me take the magic of my art seriously myself. I experience her as an anchor in the storm of all of life's competing pressures, someone who reminds me that my passion for Music is at the center of my life, and the way to make everything else in my life work as it should is to be true to myself and the music which has called to me to be created. Ok, so thats what happens at the top level, and the inspiration which I get from the process I have undertaken with Wendy is absolutely essential.

But as they say, "after enlightenment, the laundry". Though it may be more appropriate to say "before enlightenment, the laundry". Wendy has helped me with these high-level views, but in part, she accomplishes that through helping me with the mundane details: organization of my space, management of my time, and helping me keep after bite-sized concrete actions that I can, and often do, undertake. As often as not, some other inspiring action concerning music will creep into my time and lead me further down the path, usurping some of the things we had planned. But just by admitting to myself and to the world that I am a musician and that I am working on a CD of unbelievably beautiful music that fills the listener's heart with joy, I am opening myself up to all the magic the universe has to offer to help make that a reality.

Questions? Comments? Email me!

Web Design by Tim Holdaway
copyright 2004, 2005 Mark Holdaway