Obscure Musical Instruments

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, or know me, you know that music plays an existential part of my life and being. I was raised by a mother who majored in music education in college and actually taught music in elementary school when she first started her teaching career (moving a few short years later to teach 3rd grade for 17 years and remedial reading for the remainder of her career). Mom’s children were all “strongly encouraged” to learn a musical instrument and sing in choruses and choirs. My older brother played trumpet, I learned piano and my younger brother played drums for a year or two and tinkered with a guitar. My older brother and I both sang in church choirs. I sang in school choirs starting in 3rd grade and all the way through my time at college. I also pretended to learn to play the French horn so I could be in band in high school. Lyrics of songs I know stick in my head like toothpaste on a toothbrush. Suffice it to say that much of my life has a musical base, and I am grateful to have it. I’m even more grateful that, in what was often a difficult parent-child relationship, my mother passed down the legacy of music and books to me.

Nonetheless, I recently came upon a musical instrument whose name was new to me. I posted it on social media in order to share it with my friends, many of whom I know from our shared time in band and/or choir during my high school year. One of those long-time friends commented and shared with me the names of two other instruments of which I was not aware. I checked them out on the Internet, and I thought it would be fun to share with any of you who either might have a musical thirst or merely wants to know something obscure for future trivia nights with your friends! So here you go!

Waterphone: A waterphone (also ocean harp) is a type of inharmonic acoustic tuned idiophone consisting of a stainless-steel resonator bowl or pan with a cylindrical neck and bronze rods of different lengths and diameters around the rim of the bowl. The resonator may contain a small amount of water giving the waterphone a vibrant ethereal sound that has appeared in movie soundtracks, record albums, and live performances. The instrument was invented, developed and manufactured by American Richard Waters (1935-2013). It looks something like this:


And is sounds something like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vpix1v2BikQ The next time you’re listening to the music in a scary or horror movie, you may notice this kind of music – and now you’ll know how it’s created!

Glass Armonica (No, that’s not a typo – this is the correct spelling of the name!): The glass armonica is a type of musical instrument that uses a series of glass bowls or goblets graduated in size to produce musical tones by means of friction. It was invented in 1761 by Benjamin Franklin. In its ‘simplest’, if you saw the movie Miss Congeniality, you saw Gracie Lou (aka Sandra Bullock) play a series of glasses filled with different amounts of water by rubbing her finger over the rims to create different notes/tones. The more complicated glass armonica looks like this:

Imagine trying to get off all the water spots after use!

This photo does not show it, but the performer keeps a bowl of water nearby if it’s necessary to remoisten their fingertips while playing. And it sounds something like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LP8QFR9Qvc

Theremin: While this sounds like a really good name for some kind of prescription medication, a theremin is an electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact. When you read those words, you might think it’s something magical and when you hear how the instrument is played, you might well think the performer is, indeed, a musician!

The performer stands in front of the instrument and moves their hands in the proximity of two metal antennas. The distance from one antenna determines frequency (pitch), and the distance from the other controls amplitude (volume). Higher notes are played by moving the hand closer to the pitch antenna. Louder notes are played by moving the hand away from the volume antenna. Most frequently, the right hand controls the pitch and the left controls the volume, although some performers reverse this arrangement. Some low-cost theremins use a conventional, knob operated volume control and have only the pitch antenna. While commonly called antennas, they are not used for receiving or broadcasting radio waves, but act as plates of capacitors.

Don’t worry if you’re creasing your forehead and thinking, “Huh?” I only understand it in the most basic of concepts. Even with just those basic concepts, I honestly can’t believe why anyone would want to learn how to actually play this instrument.

The instrument was created by Russian Leon Theremin and was later pushed into the spotlight by Robert Moog’s creation of the modern synthesizer.

It looks simple in its structure, like this:

Looking at it, it doesn’t seem like much!

As I said, looking at it, it doesn’t seem like much. But when you listen to how it sounds and watch the performer’s movements… Well… this is what it’s like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PjnaciNT-wQ

Clair de Lune is my favorite ‘classical’ piece of music, so I didn’t mind watching this over and over and over, etc. But I’m still as clueless about how it works, and I still think there must be some kind of magic involved. I’m not sure I know anyone with enough patience to learn to play this instrument!

So now you know about three obscure musical instruments! Doing my research, I discovered names of other musical instruments I’ve not heard of, but I don’t want to overwhelm anyone’s brain – including my own (I’m still trying to figure out the theremin!).

My Weekend with St. Jude

I wrote a blog post a while ago about my discovery of family called The Mixer Community. Mixer is a streaming platform which was created for streaming video games, but has since expanded to include streams of radio and music and just about anything you’d want to sit and be part of. I have been blessed to be introduced to live musician performances on the platform, and feel like, although I still visit other types of streams, this is truly the niche that speaks to my heart.

Twenty-four Mixer live musicians of many different genres of music and instruments banded together to put on a 72-hour continuous stream of music – 3 hours each – as a charity event to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. To incentivize donations, streamers offered their song lists with a pledge amount needed in order to request a song. Other incentives, for higher pledges, included ‘live learns’ – where the streamer has to learn a song they don’t know while streaming during this event. Others offered a crazy bunch of incentives for huge donations like handwritten love letters, handwritten lyrics and CDs of original music, playing blindfolded, shaving their heads, dressing in costumes, adding layers of clothing… heck I can’t remember them all!

The original goal was set to raise $15,000. That was hit in about 12 hours. The goal kept being increased throughout the event – $25,000 then $40,000 and then $50,000. Each goal along the way would get smashed. The final 3-hour stream started with $42,000 +, and ended over the $50,000 goal!

I was not in every 3-hour segment, but I was in many of them. I discovered a handful of new musician streamers I didn’t know about and will since follow. I’ll admit that one or two of them weren’t my “cup of tea” but….. The two most important streams for me were Johnny & Heidi, whose slot was on Saturday evening, and Lady Desiree, my most favorite streamer, who finished the event. These are two streamers to which I have been loyal since discovering them.

I wish I could, in words, describe the emotions – the tears, the love, the joy – that was present throughout the event. It was truly that “you had to be there” to understand, but I promise you would have felt it too. Viewers at different times in different streams ranged from 200+ people to over 1000 people… all of them hyped and emotional and caught up in both the music and the experience.

In the crazy state of our world today, these musical streams have become a place for me to go to escape and just surrender to the moment and to just live in the moment. It is, in a way, my therapy – a place where I can go and just be authentically me (whomever I am at the moment) and feel safe and unjudged.

I could go on and on and on and on and yet, you truly “had to be there” to understand the emotional impact such a place can provide. From times of goosebumps to times of laughter (bald Johnny in a purple wig! a singing potato!) to times of tears, my heart overflowed throughout the weekend.

Each of these musicians donated their time, energy and talents. Moderators for the streams provided organization of song requests and donations, also donating their time and energy. We as a group who supported them are getting their accolades, but truly, they deserve our undying gratitude for the love for St. Jude’s and what it does for the children and for making it possible for us to be enriched by their talents!

(Oh, I also got to sneak away for another outside visit with my bestie on Sunday afternoon!)

Through the wonders of technology, I had the most incredible weekend getaway of my life!

A man totally in touch with his feminine side!
The streamer’s eyes and mouth – which did move when he spoke!