All Your Kazoo Questions Answered

On January 28, 2019 American kazoo enthusiasts celebrated the 167th anniversary of their favorite instrument on what has come to be known as National Kazoo Day. I missed it this year, because I had no idea it existed. In fact, I’d given little thought to this funny instrument that anyone who can hum can easily master. But as I recently learned on a family spring break trip, there’s more to the humble kazoo than I had ever not even bothered to imagine.

electric kazoo
I can honestly say I never imagined this.

Looking to make some quirky vacation memories, my crew headed to the Kazoobie Kazoo Factory in Beaufort, South Carolina, the only producer of plastic kazoos in the United States.

As you might expect, it’s not a large operation, but the little factory does produce about one million high quality (they’re even dishwasher safe!) kazoos per year. More importantly, they give tours. And they answer all your kazoo questions—Yes. All of them.

It was there in the factory that I learned of African American Alabama Vest who conceived of the idea for the kazoo sometime in the 1840s and approached German-American clockmaker Thaddeus Von Clegg in Macon, Georgia to mock up a prototype. The two men then exhibited the new instrument, which they called the “Down-South Submarine,” at the 1852 Georgia State Fair. Though it wouldn’t be mass produced for another fifty years, the kazoo was born.

Or so the story goes. I tend to want to believe any story in which historical figures are represented on video as brightly colored kazoos with googly eyes, but it turns out the story might not really be all that reliable.kazoo patent

The first actual documentation of the kazoo comes from an 1883 patent issued to a W. H. Frost. Frost didn’t call his invention the “Down-South Submarine,” and it didn’t look a whole lot like the modern-day, boat-shaped kazoo found abandoned at the bottom of every kid’s toy box.

Something more similar to the classic design as we know it today was patented by George D. Smith in 1902. Within a few years, several factories had gone into production. The only remaining metal kazoo factory in the US can be found in Eden, New York, which claims to be the “Kazoo Capital of the World.”

If you ever spend spring break in New York (though I’m not sure why you would), you can tour The Kazoo Factory and Museum, too. I suspect you’ll have a good time. But for some great, silly family fun in Beaufort, South Carolina, I doubt you can beat Kazoobie Kazoos.

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Kazoo + Wazoo Horn + Bugle Bell = Wazoogle

At the end of the tour, each of the guests (and there were quite a few of us) got to make his or her own kazoo. Then we tested them with a moving rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” There were tears. Well, maybe not tears, but there were definitely giggles.

Next, we made our way to the store to trick out our new instruments with more kazoo accessories than I can honestly say I ever dreamed of. Yes, there are kazoo accessories. There are even electric kazoos, in case your death metal band is looking for that unique buzzing tone.

A few bands through the years have incorporated kazoos into their music, though the instrument hasn’t proven to have a lot of staying power on the professional music scene. It’s mostly been relegated to the bottom of the toy box. But on January 28, or thereabout, or really any day you want since the origin story is so sketchy anyway, consider digging out the kazoo you surely have lying around somewhere, and hum a little tune. It may not be fine music you produce, but it will probably make you giggle.

I’m No Mozart

We’re in full on summer mode here. My kids have been out of school for almost two weeks and in that time we’ve gone swimming several times, spent a day at Six Flags, hosted visiting relatives, gotten too much sun, caught fireflies, climbed boulders, picnicked alongside a babbling creek, played with friends, and stayed up too late. It’s been a busy, fun couple of weeks, but it hasn’t left a lot of time for blogging.

I’m going to be honest here. In between loading the cooler, packing and unpacking the car, and keeping up with the mounds of laundry produced by so much summer fun, I have given very few moments of thought to this week’s blog topic. Frankly, I haven’t come up with much because I’ve been preoccupied. And why do today what can be put off until tomorrow, right?

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Why yes, I did find my blog topic in a random meme on Facebook. What? I looked into it.

I figure if Mozart could manage to write the overture to Don Giovanni the night before its scheduled premiere in Prague, surely I can rattle off a post at the last minute.

According to somewhat well documented legend, Mozart went out for a drink the evening of October 28, 1787, where he encountered someone who reminded him that his opera collaboration with Italian poet Lorenzo da Ponte still lacked an overture. Mozart, who surely knew this already, allegedly pointed to his head and responded, “It’s all in here.”

Apparently it was, because the composer returned to his boarding house where he enlisted the help of his wife to regale him with stories and keep him awake while he worked. By 7 o’clock the next morning, the copyist set to work and the evening of October 29, 1787, the orchestra sight read the overture in front of the audience. The talented musicians knocked it out of the park and the audience went wild, because Mozart. He tweaked the piece a little for later performances, but there’s no question Mozart demonstrated that procrastination and greatness can coexist.

Of course I’m pretty sure this post won’t go down in history as a great example of the best that history/humor blogs have to offer. If I had allowed myself more time, I could have written something much better, more humorous, more thoughtful, or more profound. It might even be already composed more or less entirely in my head, but I’m no Mozart. And I’d rather get back to the pool.

When the Band Begins to Play

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a grand tradition that has thankfully faded since its heyday prior to World War I. For one day only, I conducted a school band. There are a few things you might need to know about me before you realize the absurdity of that statement. First, I haven’t played in a band, school or otherwise, for more than twenty years. Second, to the best of my recollection, I have never conducted one. Until last week.

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By far the coolest hats in school. photo credit: Prayitno / Thank you for (12 millions +) view Red Raider Marching Band Pulaski H.S. ~ Wisconsin via photopin (license)

After World War I, the American school band movement, with roots in the mid-19th century, found its footing as a large number of military trained musicians returned to civilian life and brought with them a set of skills they could put to good use in public schools. Before that, school band was kind of an afterthought. If it existed at all, it was generally led by whatever teacher maybe had a little musical knowledge and wanted the extra cash.

But with an influx of actual talent and a hefty push from the instrument manufacturing industry, 1923 saw the first Schools Band Contest of America in Chicago. Small and poorly organized at first, the contest continued to improve and grow, encouraging the spread of school band programs and spawning the mostly state level contests of today.

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What I thought I looked like.

More than 90% of American schools now have some form of band education, and it’s a great thing that they do because students who participate in music have improved logic and reasoning skills, increased coordination, higher levels of engagement in their education, better stress management ability, greater self-confidence, and better standardized test scores on average than their nonmusical peers.

I’m grateful that the schools my kiddos attend have strong band programs with talented teachers. Of course that does mean that sometimes those teachers travel with parts of the program for performances and competitions, and have to leave the rest of their students in the hands of whatever substitute teacher may have a little musical knowledge and wants the extra cash.

This brings me to my conducting gig last week. I’ve been trying to do some occasional substitute teaching in our district lately, which has turned out to be a great way to get to know the teachers and administrators in the schools my kids attend. It does also occasionally stretch me a little outside of my comfort zone.

Last week, two of our directors accompanied the high school band to a competition, and I stepped in to help back at home. I started my day in study hall with about twenty high schoolers that didn’t go on the trip. No problem there. I also got to enjoy listening to the rehearsal of some impressive middle schoolers who stayed on task while one of their own teacher-designated peers guest conducted.

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What I actually looked like.

But then there was the grade school, where I found myself in charge of a class of sixth graders just getting their musical bearings. Fortunately, the lesson plan was specific and thorough. I had access to the students’ musical exercises through an app so I could have them play along. That helped smooth over my shortcomings somewhat. Then we got to an exercise that could be played as a round and the students, who had been remarkably cooperative, really wanted to do it.

The app couldn’t help me with that. With trepidation, I assigned parts, counted off the time, and waved my hand in a 4/4 cross pattern like I almost knew what I was doing. I kind of even sort of gave cues when it was time for each new section to start. Then I provided them with a nice big cutoff at the end, which they played right through because they’re sixth graders and they weren’t watching me anyway. But much like my early American school band movement predecessors, I somehow muddled through.

Fortunately this week, the real band directors are back.

A Little Big Night Out

In 1529, painter Gaudenzio Ferrari produced his Madonna of the Orange Trees, which includes the oldest known depiction of a violin. One of several stringed instruments to emerge from Northern Italy in the 16th century, this violone, played by an infant at the feet of the Madonna, was the first of many to appear in Ferrari’s works.

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I know string players tend to start young, but this just seems ridiculous to me. By Gaudenzio Ferrari – Church of St. Cristoforo, Vercelli, Italy, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The instrument itself was representative of a family of stringed instruments termed the viola da braccio, all similar in appearance, but available in a variety of sizes, including the viola, the violin (or the cutie little viola), and the violoncello, which according to the most strenuously evaluated internet sources literally translates as the “little big viola.”

So it probably makes sense that the name of that last one would eventually be shortened to the cello. It must have been a very confused instrument.

Actually, I think it still might be, because earlier this week my husband and I enjoyed a night out at the Fabulous Fox Theater here in St. Louis attending a cello concert, and I’m still kind of reeling from one of the most wonderfully confusing performances I’ve ever witnessed.

The show featured 2Cellos, a pair of young classically trained cellists who have decided it might be fun to be rock stars instead of always just being the soft spoken nerdy guys that play in the symphony.

Stjepan Hauser and Luka Sulic met as teenagers while training at a master class in Croatia. Both are phenomenal musicians with all kinds of impressive credits to their names, and at one time could have been considered rival musicians. But then they made a YouTube video together in which they played a cello arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” and the world went crazy for it. It was amazing. And fascinating. Also maybe a little bit confusing.

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The plural of cello can also be celli, but I think we can all agree that “2Celli” would be a stupid name. photo credit: misterlevel IMG_0928 via photopin (license)

Of course you might know more about these things than I do, but as a person who is not a classically (or otherwise) trained cellist, I had no idea the instrument could be so versatile.

The concert began with a series of really beautiful arrangements of movie scores followed by the polite applause one might expect from a well mannered classical concert-going crowd out for a fine evening in a fancy venue. Then it shifted directions and became instead a rowdy rock n roll show featuring songs originally performed (but not as well) by the likes of ACDC. This part of the show saw one of the musicians sliding on his back across the stage while he riffed ON HIS CELLO! I think I even saw a pair of panties fly toward the stage.

It was surreal, but also incredibly impressive. Actually I’m finding it hard to figure out just the right words to describe it. In a way it might make sense to say that the concert was both little and big. So maybe those silly Italians knew what they were doing after all.

If you’re not familiar with 2Cellos, it’s worth checking them out on YouTube. Just be warned, you may need to set aside some time because it’s hard to stop. Here’s a good one to get you started:

A Bazillion Years Old Without a Single Tattoo

I haven’t been trying to notice, because I realize it probably says something unflattering about me that I do, but it seems to me like there are suddenly a lot of old people with tattoos.

I’m not against tattoos or anything. I don’t have any, nor do I have a desire to get one, but if you are a fan and have one or two or ten of your own, I promise I’m not judging you. It’s just that it’s recently occurred to me that quite a few people who are old enough to be my grandmother now have them. And it strikes me as odd because that used to be a pretty rare thing.

Of course, the people I’m referring to are not, in fact, old enough to be my grandmother. They are the age my grandmother was when I remember her most vividly, back when most of these tattooed folks were probably under forty.

oldtatts
Again, not judging, just observing a noticeable shift. This person looks nothing like my grandmother. photo credit: Neil. Moralee If you value your life; don’t touch the bike! via photopin (license)

But time moves on, doesn’t it? A few weeks ago, my husband and I got an opportunity to attend Pointfest, a concert festival put on by a local “alternative” radio station (105.7 the Point). The festival has been a staple in St. Louis since 1993 (when fewer old people had tattoos).

This was a special event for several reasons. First, even though our nephew had tickets for us, we weren’t sure we were going to get to go because we couldn’t find childcare (ouch) and because the show was on a school/work night (double ouch). Second, this wasn’t even really Pointfest. The radio station had dubbed this event Way Back Pointfest.

Fortunately, I have an awesome sister-in-law who stepped up at the last minute so we could display poor judgment and stay out late on a school night. The lineup looked pretty much like it did when I was in college, with bands from the way back that were alternative then (meaning I was pretty sure that the fact I listened to them meant I was just a little bit cooler than you), and have now become the older alternative to the alternative. And because I still listen to them, that means I’m probably older than you.

Goldfinger
I’m young enough to take most of my pictures with my smart phone, but old enough that I do it poorly.

Given that the world wide average life expectancy is around 71 years (for women, sorry fellas, yours is a couple years shorter), there’s a decent chance that I am. Because this week I will turn 40.

In some ways this isn’t a big deal. It’s not like I’m going to wake up on the 40th anniversary of my birth and suddenly find that my hair has gone gray, my back hurts, and I have to hold books at arm’s length to be able to make out all those tiny letters.

To some extent, all of that has already happened. Or at least it’s been happening, little by little. I don’t mind so much. I know a few more gray hairs make me look wiser than I probably am. Strong backs and sharp eyes grow weaker over time, but I feel like I’ve made good use of my strength and I will continue to do so as long as I’m able. Barring the unexpected, that’s still quite a while yet.

But there are little parts of turning 40 that do kind of bug me, like when the average age of tattoo-bearing people increases noticeably, or my favorite bands are relegated to the way back, or I make a reference to something that happened twenty years ago and my college freshmen students look at me like I’ve just made a reference to an event that happed a bazillion years ago as if it happened yesterday. Of course I get it. Even though it feels like yesterday to me, for them it happened when they were babes, if they were even born at all.

To them (though they probably wouldn’t say it to my face because they’re nice people) their teacher might as well be a bazillion years old, too. And they’re not really wrong. The number 40 has all kinds of symbolic meaning across cultures and through several major world religions, the most common one being simply figurative. Forty is often used to represent a vaguely large number.

Like a bazillion.

forty cupcake
But once you get to bazillion, you can stop counting, right?

So, you might soon notice a slight change on this blog. For five and a half years, my Gravatar bio has identified me as a “thirty-something wife, mother, and writer…” Since my husband tells me there’s no such number as thirty-ten, I suppose I will have to change it.

But not for a few more days.

By the time I return to this space next Thursday to write about a topic that feels a little less personally insulting, I may have a few more gray hairs and my back will probably hurt and I might even be sitting a little farther from the computer screen so I can see all those tiny letters. I will be a bazillion-year-old wife, mother, and writer. But I still won’t have a tattoo.

To help me celebrate this momentous occasion, please enjoy this way, way back song from a ridiculously famous singer I’d never heard of because that was a bazillion years ago:

 

 

 

A Highfalutin Riot: Fighting for the Right to Party at the Ballet

On the evening of May 29, 1913, many upstanding ladies and gentlemen of Paris, those with an appreciation for high culture and fine art, headed to the recently opened Théatre des Champs-Elysées for a night on the town. What they’d come to witness was  Rite of Spring, a highly anticipated performance by Les Ballet Russes, choreographed by the often controversial Vaslav Nijinsky with music composed by the unconventional Igor Stravinsky.

It’s unlikely any of those in attendance could have anticipated engaging in a shouting match with fellow ballet goers, being beaten with their neighbors’ canes, or having the peculiar rhythm of the music tapped out on top of their heads by the normally well mannered folks sitting behind them. But those are just the types of things that happened during what became perhaps the most notorious performance in ballet history.

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Riot-worthy ballet costumes. I guess. Rite of Spring Dancers. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
From almost the moment the first note sounded, the audience appeared uncomfortable and soon discussions broke out about the discordant music and the aggressive movements of the dancers in wild costumes, portraying disturbing pagan scenes. It seems some in the audience appreciated such a fresh performance while others found it to be an assault on the tasteful traditions of ballet and music composition.

Soon the disagreements turned to shouting and cane whacking, allegedly requiring police interference by Intermission and settling into a full on riot before the end of the performance.

At a ballet.

As I’m sure you know if you’ve visited this blog before,  I’m super  kind of occasionally thorough in my research, so I did listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as I composed this post, and I have to say, I’m not sure I really get it. Bear with me here, because I am not qualified at all to be a music critic, but I do know what I like and don’t like. The Rite of Spring, while discordant and strange in places, strikes me as really beautiful at other times. And probably not riot-worthy.

But much more qualified music critics, some of whom consider this Stravinsky’s greatest work as well as one of the most influential compositions of the 20th century, often point out that it was a huge departure from the musical expectations of its time.

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Does this look like a man who would inadvertently cause a riot? Igor Stravinsky. Photographer: Robert Regassi. Publisher: J. & W. Chester, publisher, no author listed (Miniature essays: Igor Stravinsky) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
So maybe I do get it, at least a little bit. Music does after all have the potential to elicit strong emotional response. That’s the reason I tend to skip around on my iPod a lot looking for the song I’m in the right mood for, even if I don’t know what that is until I hear it. And it’s also the reason that in the family iTunes account, we have set up a bunch of different lists for cleaning, family dance-offs (not an infrequent occurrence at our house), and settling down before bed.

Each of us has our own individual list, too, and sometimes we do get into arguments about which one we should listen to while prepping dinner. There’s a lot of overlap in our musical tastes, so it isn’t always a big problem, but each of us (except for me, obviously) has our little quirks. My oldest son favors classical movie scores and great guitar riffs (tolerable), but also has an unfortunate taste for electronica. My youngest is often happy with Metallica, but still enjoys a “good” bagpipe tune. And my husband, a man I admire for so many reasons, has a regrettable and inexcusable love for the Beastie Boys.

But despite any disagreements, we still turn on the tunes. And I imagine the highfalutin folks at that first performance of Rite of Spring eventually returned for more of the ballet. And actually, there’s a little mystery surrounding this high society riot anyway.

For such an unusual event, there’re not a lot of good reliable details. What we do know rests on the eyewitness accounts of some of the performers and a few of those in attendance; and given that eyewitnesses are generally not all that reliable, it’s possible that some exaggeration may have occurred over the years.

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This man, however, might tempt me to embrace my crazy. Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz By bakameh (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
And while both Stravinsky and Nijinsky were upset by the event, Sergei Diaghilev, wealthy entrepreneur and founder of Les Ballet Russes, reportedly said of the scandal that it was “just what [he] wanted.” Because controversy sells, and a ballet rumored to have started a riot, will likely sell out. There were no reports of further violence erupting at any of the remaining performances.

So it’s possible Rite of Spring didn’t really make people embrace their crazy as much as we’ve been led to believe. Still, I gotta say, when my husband occasionally decides to fight for his right to party and cranks up the Beasties, I think I could probably find myself willing to whack someone over the head with a cane.

And speaking of things totally worth getting overly worked up about, tomorrow I will be sharing some exciting news with the folks who are signed up on my e-mail list. If that isn’t you, and you’d like it to be, you can sign up here: http://eepurl.com/b3olY1

The Rich Bird-Like Timbre of the Fourth Grade

This has been a big week in the life of my fourth grade son. Something he’s been looking forward to for a long time finally happened. Because in our school district, about half way through the school year, our fourth graders embark on a brand new adventure in musical education. They receive recorders.

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This man could have rocked Harry Champion’s “I’m Henery the Eight, I am” on the recorder. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498–1543) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I’ve been blessed with children who love music. My oldest began piano lessons in Kindergarten and the last few years has shifted to playing the guitar in hopes of one day becoming his own one-man band. Meanwhile my youngest has a brilliant sense of pitch and rhythm, and when he’s in the mood, the voice of an angel. But a little more on the shy side than his brother, Son #2 hasn’t really taken a shine to musical performance. Other than a few months of piano lessons and a blessedly short-lived obsession with the bagpipe, he has more or less avoided playing an instrument.

So I was a little surprised he was super excited to receive his recorder. And even more surprised (and admittedly a little less delighted) that he was also super excited to practice playing it. In the living room. Pretty much all the time.

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Still the most unpleasant instrument in the world. photo credit: PeterThoeny Care for a scotch whiskey? via photopin (license)

I suppose it’s not the most unpleasant instrument in the world. It does have a long and glorious history, dating to at least as early as fourteenth century. Characterized as a flute with a whistle mouthpiece and seven holes in the front with one thumb hole in the back, the recorder emerged as a major musical force throughout the Renaissance. 

Valued for its narrow range and rich, bird-like timbre, it made an ideal instrument for ensembles, according to a lot of Renaissance composers who have never been in my living room when Son #1 decides to relive the glories of his fourth grade year and join in.

Even England’s King Henry VIII was a big fan, having in his possession at the time of his death a total of 78 recorders. Many of these were likely played by rotating musicians charged with providing a soundtrack for the monarch as he Supremely Headed the Church of England, warred with France, and divorced or beheaded his various wives. Rumor has it, Henry played a mean recorder, too, and just as Handel, Vivaldi, Bach, and others would later do, the king also composed for the funny little instrument.

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I think my biggest fear is that this new obsession with the recorder may rekindle his interest in the bagpipe.

Of course I have to assume that being so constantly surrounded by a chorus of recorders may have (along with the constant aches and pains of a long series of accidents and illnesses) contributed to Henry’s famous crankiness.

I know I haven’t particularly enjoyed the soundtrack at my house this past week. But at least on Saturday, when we had an almost 70 degree spring-like day (today it’s snowing, because it’s the Midwestern US), my brilliant husband suggested that my son take his practicing outside. I’m sure my neighbors enjoyed the rich, bird-like timbre.