Harry Partch Gourd Tree and Cone Gongs

Old and Rare Instruments Make a Comeback in Modern Music

Harry Partch Gourd Tree and Cone Gongs

Eager to create fresh sounds and unique compositions, musicians are turning to old or rarely used instruments to add breadth to their live shows and recordings. There is a wide array of instruments being resurrected from primitive tools to even combining different instruments into one to create something completely new. Here are just some of the instruments making a comeback.

A Musical UFO

Personally, I am a huge fan of hang drum because there is no right or wrong way to play it leaving you free to experiment and come up with your own tones. The hang drum, pronounced “hung” which translates to “hand” in Bernese, is played with fingertips, thumbs, and/or the heel of the palm.

Hang DrumAlthough relatively new, having been developed in Switzerland in 2000, the hang drum meshes traditional instruments from around the world like the steel pan, gongs, Gamelan (Indonesian percussive instruments), drums, and even cowbells. Looking like a small UFO, this instrument is comprised of two hollow steel shells bonded together. The top or Ding side contains eight tone fields that form the “tone circle” creating a sound similar to a gong. On the bottom or Gu side there is a hand-sized hole that can be played like an udu (a Nigerian water jug) to make water droplet sounds or can be used to modulate the sound of the Ding.

Cranking It Out

The 1,000 year old hurdy gurdy is probably one of the oldest and most obscure instruments making a comeback. The name hurdy gurdy is thought to be derived from the term “hurly-burly” meaning noise or commotion and the instrument itself looks like something concocted in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab.

Hurdy Gurdy

Sometimes called a “wheel fiddle,” the most unique aspect of this instrument is the fact that it uses a hand-cranked wheel to rub the strings much like the fiddle of a violin. Three different sets of strings, Melody, Drone and Buzzing Bridge, each produce very different sounds. The Melody is a wooden keyboard that alters the pitch of violin sounds, the Drone produces a continuous sound like a bagpipe, and the Buzzing Bridge or dog as it commonly called because it sounds like a barking dog. This complicated instrument originally required two people to play it and could only be used for slow music, but today, you hear this now solo instrument used by musicians in folk, dance, contemporary and world music because of variety of sounds it can produce.

A Partch-work of Instruments

Harry Partch's Gourd Tree

Harry Partch playing the Gourd Tree

Partch: Plectra & Percussion Dances, among this year’s Grammy Nominees for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance and Best Classical Compendium, uses not only the compositions of the revolutionary Harry Partch, but also utilizes some of the 27 instruments Partch designed himself in the 1950s and 60s.

These instruments were specifically made to allow for tuning and scales more suitable to singing versus the standard instrumental-focused, twelve-tone equal temperament that had been used for centuries. Some of his inventions, like the Chromelodeon, have as many as 43 tones in a single “octave.” Many of Partch’s designs, some looking like they belong in a Dr. Seuss tale, were modified versions of existing instruments like viola, cello, organ, marimba, guitar, gongs, and xylophone mixed with common items like wine bottles, bowls, eucalyptus branches, aircraft nosecones, artillery shell casings, hubcaps and even light bulbs.

Looking Back to Move Forward

When looking for a new sound you don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel, but you can repurpose or modify existing historical instruments to create a fresh and unique sound all your own. Or if all else fails you can do what these guys did…

Will orchestras become extinct?

Disney Concert Hall Los Angeles

I often hear that one of the reasons people don’t attend classical concerts is that they feel no connection to the music or to the composers who created it hundreds of years ago. That’s understandable. Another common complaint is that it is just too expensive and a luxury only the wealthy can afford. With so many other forms of entertainment vying for our time, it’s getting harder and harder for orchestras to stay afloat. In order to survive, the definition of an orchestral experience has to evolve and expand beyond the traditional concert hall.

The Simpsons at Hollywood Bowl

Forget classical music??

One tactic used to help make going to see a symphony more accessible is to perform music that a wider audience would recognize like popular movie soundtracks or classical versions of current songs. While successful, these types of shows aren’t usually enough to sustain an entire season. Perhaps bringing in film and television composers to create original pieces for orchestras, incorporating newer instruments and technologies, could keep the sound fresh and more relatable?

Orchestra with Lights

Make it stimulating

At one of my recent performances of the Canyon Concerto, we showed a slideshow of the Utah national parks that each part of the concerto was named after to the whole audience in the hopes to connect the audience and the musicians to the music. Use of video has become a popular tool for orchestras to maintain the engagement of people who are used to watching things on screen. Now companies are taking it even further by commissioning fine artists to create custom imagery to match the mood of the symphony.

Street musicians in Prague

Take it to the people!

If people aren’t coming to watch symphonies then we need to bring the orchestra to the public. Organizations like Groupmuse and Sofar are hosting shows in homes, parks, libraries and other common spaces. Live concert streams via social media platforms like Facebook. And some companies even allow audience members to live tweet about the concert they are watching to give those who aren’t there a sense of the experience. Any way we can expose more people to live classical performances, the more likely we will create new fans, including those who never thought they could enjoy classical music.

Conducting robot

What does the future hold…

In order to keep classical concerts alive we have to keep experimenting with different ways make orchestras relevant. teamLab, a digital art collective in Japan, recently debuted a ROBOT that conducts an electric orchestra and starting this month, the LA Philharmonic will be incorporating video projected on the ENTIRE concert hall that will react in real time to the music being played! Interactive, high tech and non traditional venues seem to be the wave of the future, but what do you think will help bring back people to orchestra experience? I’d love to hear your ideas.

“I will what I want”

As summer seems to be spiraling closer and closer to the beginning of the school year, I usually am particularly alert for inspiration.  This week I found it in the form of an underwear ad campaign (!) –  from the ‘Under Armour’ brand!

This features Misty Copeland, lead soloist for the elite American Ballet theatre.  The video is her dancing, amazingly, with the full display of her athleticism and grace.  The voiceover is a young girl, reciting several negative comments all on why Misty should be rejected completely as a ballerina.  The words are actual words she received in rejection during her formative years.  They are hearbreaking.

This got me thinking a lot about talent, work ethic, and identity.

What is the magic balance between these things?  Is there a magic balance?  And where does “will” fit in?  How do I feel about myself and these things?  Would I have had the same will and determination that Misty had in the face of such rejection?  Do you?

The end of the campaign has the tagline “I will what I want,” which I have decided is my new motto for the next months.  I like to think it comes from the beloved “What you will” quote and sentiment from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, where identity and will are brought together and challenged in this same way.

In any case, I invite you to consider these questions as well:  “what do you will?” and then feel free to also embrace “I will what I want” as you embark on your creative, business and personal endeavors this week.


And of course, just enjoy how much of a badass Misty Copeland is!!!!! :)

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania trip

This week I traveled to Willow Grove just outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and visited one of the greatest percussion companies in the US, Steve Weiss Music!

As part of the Marimba One team, I was there to premiere and play the new and totally amazing “Izzy” marimba. We spent the day with all the Steve Weiss people and had a great time talking about marimbas and music in general! We played the “Izzy”, discussed all the new innovations and attributes of the new marimba and frame, and also talked about all the Marimba One mallets. Over a great, wonderfully catered barbecue with everybody there, we had a great discussion on all things percussion – it was a really fun sharing of information. One of the cool things about ordering your marimba through Steve Weiss Music is that they offer an exclusive resonator color – aged copper. It was actually the first time I have seen the Steve Weiss color, and it is absolutely gorgeous! Check out the Steve Weiss website to find a picture of this exclusively distributed instrument.

During the visit we had a chance to talk about my forthcoming new to be released mallets. I can’t say anything more at this stage about my signature mallets, other than to say we have incorporated some innovations and some things that are completely new to Marimba One mallets. I’m SO excited about this that I can’t even contain myself; so more of that over the coming weeks!!!!

Famous Philly Steak Sandwich Pure indulgence! Burger & fries, can't eat it all ! Joy & TimI had some great meals away from home, staying an extra day to catch up with friends and doing some sightseeing. It was a great week in Pennsylvania!

Southern California International Marimba Competition

I’m currently at Chapman University Hall-Musco Conservatory of Music as one of four competition judges at the Southern California International Marimba Competition.

This competition is so great!

Friday afternoon we had the duo semi final round and last night I was privileged to play in the opening night concert with my fellow judges and internationally acclaimed percussionists Naoko Takada, Gordon Stout and Nick Terry. It was such a great evening of music and I was so honored to bea part of it! This event is so well put together and has such a nice vibe to it!

Naoko Takada


Gordon Stout 
Nick Terry scmc logo

This event has the potential to launch new careers for the very best Marimba percussionists. Good luck to the competition entrants, already we have heard and seen some amazing new talents. 


Wuhan China

WOW, thus far we have had a blast!      


Here is a snapshot of what we have been up to.

Hard at Work, music performances …..


Playing music with students and making new friends …..



Indulging in delicious Chinese cuisine – great colors …..


Fried Breakfast Snack
Famous Wuhan Hot Dry Noodles
Spicy Fish

Immersing ourselves in Chinese culture …..


I know I parked my bike over there!
I know I parked my bike over there
Did you receive my letter?
Did you receive my letter?

Prof. Keith — our negotiator

Photo May 18, 5 50 24 PM

And being tourists…..

Wuhan Buddhist Temple
Wuhan Buddhist Temple

Temple Grounds Decorations


Famous Yellow Crane Tower

It has all been great fun, we’ve learnt so much!

“Ni hao”

SUU Percussion Festival

We really had a blast this last week for the annual SUU Percussion Festival! Everything about the time we had together was great, especially the final concert with my guest artists Cory Hills and Ken McGrath performing with me and the SUU Percussion Ensemble to a FULL recital hall for the concert on Saturday night!Image

We led up to that with percussion clinics, workshops and lessons at the college, and both Cory and Ken were a hit with my students; showcasing their outstanding talents, playing with students, sharing their knowledge and expertise. Their generosity with their time was amazing and I know my student got so much out of it! We talked about grad school, studio work, developing your career and all things percussion!


Showing off Southern Utah’s spectacular scenery we were able to squeeze in to the busy schedule time to hike in Zion Canyon. Thanks so much to Cory and Ken for coming to SUU, sharing your talent and working with my students, it was such a fun weekend!


We’re going to China for a month!



This project came about 2 years ago when I traveled to Wuhan, China, where I worked with the Hubei National Opera and Dance Company, playing timpani for our ‘Dream of Helen’ production. It was a combined project with SUU and Chinese dancers and musicians. The Hubei Opera President, Mr. Chang Sheng Mei liked working with me and he dreamed up this idea to build this concert around a percussion concerto written for me!


Mr. Mei talked with Keith Bradshaw ( who is my department chair and great composer) about writing this piece and he wrote the “Canyons Concerto,” a 30 minute tour de force that I love playing. We premiered the concerto in Southern Utah last November with the Orchestra of Southern Utah. During the performance we projected a fantastic running slideshow with each movement representing Utah’s beautiful canyon landscapes. Our follow up plan to the premiere was to take the performance to China this May.


Dr. Xun Sun - Associate Professor of Music Orchestra,  Me, & Dr. Keith Bradshaw - SUU Professor of Music, Department Chair

Dr. Xun Sun – Associate Professor of Music
Orchestra,Me, & Dr. Keith Bradshaw – SUU Professor of Music, Department Chair


The titles are really cool, the first movement is the Incarnation of the Hoodoos, about the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon. The second movement is called Hanging with Goblins which is about Goblin Valley, also in Bryce Canyon. The third movement Gabbing with Gossips which is for Gossips in the beautiful Arches National Park, and the forth and final movement is In the Court of the Patriarchs, representing Zion Canyon.

Our Dean, Shauna Mendini felt it really important to get some of the students to go on our trip to China. So together with Keith, Shauna, Xun Sun our conductor, and I, four of my percussion students are going! They are Darin Hunsinger, Marshall Miller, Tyler Williams, Austin Julian.

Me and Darin Hunsinger, Marshall Miller, Tyler Williams, Austin Julian

Me and Darin Hunsinger, Marshall Miller, Tyler Williams, Austin Julian




We are spending almost a whole month in China, touring and playing concerts including The Canyons Concerto. We will be in Wuhan for about a week, we are performing at the Qintai Concert Hall, May 11th and 12th, and then we visiting China Normal University, then we are going to Changsha, where we will be playing at the Hunan Normal University. Then we are off to Beijing we are playing with the Chinese Music Institute. We are doing some percussion ensembles pieces, playing some duos, trios, quartets, I’m also going to be playing a bunch of solos. The trip is from the 3rd of May through to the 27th.

It’s huge trip we’re really excited. Thanks to Marimba One for all their help getting a marimba there for us for the whole trip!!! We can’t wait for this amazing adventure!