Child’s Play

When I dove into piano lessons at the tender age of six, I learned the piano is “foundational”; a good place to start if your future destination is another musical instrument. The piano teaches concepts like keys, chords, and “Do Re Mi” in a straightforward way. My son learned about foundational instruments when he started the sax – it’s best to spend time on the clarinet first (the fingering is easier). But today I want to talk about real foundational instruments; the ones I dabbled in even before the piano. I can think of at least six (and one honorable mention).

My granddaughters – ages 2 and 4 – already attend weekly music classes (which brings me no small amount of joy).  They’re learning to sing and play simple rhythm instruments like drums and tambourines.  So I shouldn’t have been surprised this past weekend when the older one pulled out a kazoo and began “playing” for me.  Not a formal song or even a melody; just a handful of notes from what is technically a wind instrument.

Let’s call the kazoo Child’s Play (CP) #1.  The kazoo starts my list of six because it’s undoubtedly the easiest to play.  You simply hum into the mouthpiece and the kazoo takes care of the rest.  The kazoo’s buzzing sound is utterly annoying and after a few seconds you wish it would just stop (unless your granddaughter’s playing, of course).  The kazoo rides a fine line of the definition of a musical instrument.  To be honest, I’d rather just hear a person hum.

CP #2 – Triangle.  The triangle has often been described as “having no musical function and requiring no skill to play”.  A brutal (and fair) description to be sure, but consider this: the triangle is the only instrument on this list to earn a spot in a formal orchestra.  You’ll find the little guy in the orchestra’s percussion section (alongside the drums and other rhythm instruments).  The triangle also outclasses the kazoo since it’s cast from fancy metals (ex. beryllium copper, brass, bronze).

CP #3 – Xylophone.  The xylophone tops the triangle because it’s a percussion instrument that can also carry a tune.  There’s nothing more inviting to a small child than a set of colorful bars you can whack with mallets, and they make music!  Sure, you can hum “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” on the kazoo but it’s much more fun banging it out on the xylophone.  The xylophone gave birth to the vibraphone (an electronic version) and the marimba (a wooden version), both of which generate rich, warm, beautiful-sounding notes.

CP #4 – Recorder.  The recorder ranks a close second to the kazoo on the annoyance meter.  A child can pick up this woodwind instrument (the cheap plastic kind, not the fancy wooden one), blow into it, and instantly produce a note.  The same child then realizes he can change the note by covering/uncovering the recorder’s holes.  Now he can produce many notes.  And what’s wrong with many notes?  It just sounds like so much wailing.  Watch the video (if you can stand it) and tell me if you don’t agree.

CP #5 – Harmonica. The harmonica, another wind instrument, is also known as the “French Harp” or “mouth organ” (I prefer the former) and it comes in all shapes and sizes.  A child will find his first harmonica in the same section of the toy store as the kazoos and recorders – where you find anything made of cheap, colored plastic for less than a dollar.  Here’s what a child learns about the harmonica very quickly: he can fake it.  If you hum into the harmonica instead of just blowing, you’ll create a pretty good imitation of what it’s supposed to sound like.  You won’t fool anyone who really knows the harmonica but as a kid (that would be me), you thought it was pretty cool to whip out your harmonica and pretend you could play it.

CP #6 – Autoharp.  The autoharp made its first appearance at my elementary school choir classes.  It was the coolest instrument I’d ever seen.  It’s like playing the guitar (pick and all), only you press down bars to create the chords instead of using your fingers.  One kid would be chosen from the choir to strum the autoharp while the rest sang.  Playing the autoharp wasn’t cool, but being chosen to play it?  That was pretty special.

CP Honorable Mention – Hand Flute.  The hand flute is a fancy name for whistling through two fingers or through the hands.  I can’t remember when I learned to whistle (with just the lips) but I was certainly inspired by my dad, who gave the family a distinctive two-note greeting every time he walked through the door after work.  But I never learned to whistle through my hands.  The hand flute not only sounds cool (a lower note than a mouth whistle, like the cry of a nightingale) but it looks like you have a built-in musical instrument when you “play”.

Wrapping up this topic suggests I pick a favorite instrument from the list above, but the choice is impossible.  Each one is bonded to special memories from a long time ago.  If I had more space here I’d add others to the list (like the tricky piano horn).  Instead, let’s just agree the foundation of my piano play is a team of smaller, less-appreciated musical instruments.  Child’s play?  Hardly.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

26 thoughts on “Child’s Play

  1. I took both violin and piano lessons. I also sang in school and church choirs until I and everyone I know realized I had no musical talent. Rhythm and being on key all escaped me. But it did give me a life long appreciation of music and to understand how hard it is to do well. I’m now a proud member of the audience …

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    1. Anyone who takes on the violin has my respect (though very few make it to any level of competence). I think the stringed instruments are a whole different world of “difficult” than the piano.

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    1. I call the autoharp “child’s play”, but I had a high school girlfriend who played the (real) harp and it was captivating (or maybe SHE was captivating playing the harp – ha). One of my favorite instruments.

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    1. My brother played the accordion for a year or two, pressing buttons and keys, and pushing the bellows in and out all at the same time. No thank you. The piano was plenty complicated enough for me.

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  2. Dave – I learned what a recorder was thanks to you. I’ve heard of them, but never Googled to find out what they were. I never could do the whistle, try as I might. I have a B&W photo of myself playing the xylophone under the Christmas tree one year – in fact I think I used it in a blog post once. I can picture it now as it was a favorite toy. I probably drove my parents crazy pinging it with those sticks. I did have a harmonica as well and it was red wood and silver metal, but whether I could really play it was dubious.

    Did your teacher have a pitch pipe back in the day? One of my elementary teachers had a pitch pipe and she would blow into it to give us a note to start a song when we sang in class. I took accordion lessons from age seven to ten, but had to stop when we moved here as there were no teachers. When I got a folk guitar years later, I took guitar lessons, but was never very good and I can’t read music, but always played by ear, even with the accordion. The teacher, a guy not much older than me said “you have to have a pitch pipe to tune your guitar.” He said “you can buy it here as you’ve probably never heard of one.” I said “I know what that is – Mrs. Jamieson used it when we sang songs in grade school” but I don’t think he believed me.

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    1. Linda I remember one of my grade school teachers using a pitch pipe. – before the music festival – vocal choir category. My class only entered once as we had limited music in school, just reading notes etc, which I never mastered. I think we sang “Gypsy Rover” – those poor parents…..

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      1. Joni – it must have been a “thing” back then for school? I didn’t think of it for years until the guitar lessons. As I was writing the comment to Dave I was trying to figure out what songs we sang that she used it for? Many ears suffered from our off-key notes over the years. 🙂

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    2. I remember the pitch pipe, Linda. The one I picture fits in the palm of the hand and has several little metal “pipes” you blow into depending on what key you wanted. You must have a musical inclination to give so many instruments a try! Two of my brothers played the guitar, another beautiful instrument when played correctly.

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      1. Yes the teacher’s pitchpipe, as well as mine, looked like a harmonica, only round and you moved it around in your hand to find the key you wanted. My parents wanted me to play an instrument. My father was German and said “you’ll learn the accordion.” I think he wanted me in an Oom Pah Pah band. I got a folk guitar because when I worked at the Creative Department of an ad agency after college graduation, the writers and artists would go into one guy’s office and each bring their guitars and play together – they did a mean “Classical Gas” and it inspired me to try it. It is in the basement … another item to “re-try” when I eventually retire.

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      2. Yes, they would blow off steam by playing their guitars. It’s interesting because I would hear them bouncing ideas off one another and sometimes they’d be very critical and arguing, then they’d run to their respective offices and get their guitars and all was forgotten in the intensity of the music. That is some great banjo picking in “Dueling Banjos”. My parents had some bluegrass music they would listen to when I was growing up.


  3. But there are some positive versions of some of your annoyances… I was in a classical and baroque recorder group some years ago, including bass and soprano recorder voices, led and conducted by a former president of the National Recorder Society who lived in my town. My brother has taken blues harmonica lessons for several years and when he plays at a local bar with other musicians in Toronto, it’s awesome. Some of those instruments can indeed be stepping stones to making real, and good, music.

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    1. The irony of my take on the recorder, Ruth, is that one of my favorite classical pieces is Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze”, which is sung and accompanied by… two recorders. Beautiful!

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  4. You brought back lots of memories, Dave. We had all those “instruments” at one time or another at our house too. (Did you ever have a slide flute? Another instrument that can get on the nerves when “played” by a child!) Music was an important part of our family culture. Mom had a lovely mezzo soprano voice and did a lot of singing in the area. Dad could play several instruments quite well: piano, organ, flute, and bass fiddle. My brother plays a bit of piano, but became quite proficient on the flute. Also played the tuba in the H.S. marching band. Later he picked up the guitar. I always enjoyed singing, especially a harmony part, and played the piano. Sadly, my keyboard skills are terribly rusty, after years of no practice. Teaching school got in the way!

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    1. I wish we had more singing in our house, Nancy. My brothers and I played several instruments but my only memories of our singing were in church or on family road trips. I dabbled in the flute but went right back to the piano when I realized it’s not as easy as it looks. Ah, the slide whistle, another colorful plastic “noisemaker”. I can hear it!

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  5. I always found the name “recorder” much more annoying than the instrument itself. My 4th grade class had to play recorders, and I thought it was a made-up instrument and not a real one.

    Somehow I did not start the band in 5th grade like several friends did (but did takeacoupleyearsofpiano), but gravitated towards the choirs. To this day I find it annoying that our church hymnals don’t include the notes for the four normal vocal parts. My voice likes the bass range, and the melody line is often uncomfortably high. In the church pews, I sometimes ad lib a bass line

    One evening when I was a kid, some friends and I decided that banging on a trash can and clanging on a heavy steel shovel made a band. The neighbors disagreed.


    1. Church choir taught me my proper vocal range as well, J.P. I land somewhere between tenor and bass. Hymns seemed to be consistently in the wrong key for me, but my dad pressed me to stick to my range instead of pretending to be an alto. When the hymns WERE in my range, I could really belt them out.

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