diary of a mad

03 november 2000


 ocarina therapy: make music, not smoke

When I took my five and a half year old son Leo to the park the other day, I also took a harmonica, so that while the Heir played, I could play an air. I came up with a promising little melody. And, with the harp occupying my mouth and hands, I managed not to smoke a single cigarette during our time in the fresh air.

I've found it very difficult to smoke with a musical instrument in my mouth. It's not that I haven't tried: When I was working as a one-person band, a sax player we called Lang would occasionally sit in. Lang was not only a genius on his instrument; he could also smoke a cigarette as he played.

There's nothing like a little peer pressure to nudge us toward genuine stupidity, so, on nights when Lang sat in, I started singing with a cigarette dangling from my face, dragging on it between phrases (something I'd been doing at home for years anyway). But I never could figure out how to do Hohner Special 20 and Benson & Hedges 100 at the same time. Oh, I have no doubt that some rocket scientist could find a way. But I like the idea of musical instrument as smoking substitute:

"We made beautiful music together."

"Did you have cigarettes after?"

"No, we played a duet for harmonica and recorder."

One of the coolest things about a harmonica is that you can put it in a neck rack, as Bob Dylan and Neil Young and I do, and play it while you're driving. This hands-free playing is much safer than using a cellphone-- and when you're not driving, you can play guitar along with the harmonica.

Harmonicas are expensive, though-- a decent one costs about as much as a carton of cigarettes-- and they do wear out. What usually happens is that, in a given harp, only one of the 20 or more reeds will go bad, due to metal fatigue-- but that single bad reed renders the whole instrument useless, unless one learns how to do repairs, and finds a source for parts. I have spent as much as US$600 a year on harmonicas, when I was playing in public. Of course, I was spending more than that on cigarettes.

A recorder, though, would be another matter entirely. Good quality plastic recorders are available for the price of two or three packs of cigarettes, and they'll probably last forever.

One could easily, and even less expensively, make one's own flute, recorder, or pennywhistle, out of bamboo, or metal, or plastic. But I've personally found it very difficult to get pleasant sounds from the hand-made bamboo and plastic whistle flutes that have come my way.

For ease of playing, compactness, and toot for the loot, nothing beats an ocarina. Plastic "potato whistles": Six bucks American a dozen-- less than the price of two packs of cigarettes. Hand-crafted ocarinas, in all sorts of materials and plain to fanciful shapes: At most, the price of a few weeks' supply of cigarettes. Clay tenor ocarina, made just for me by my older son Joel: Priceless.

Since playing music is not yet regulated quite as tightly as smoking in most jurisdictions, one could probably take a music break indoors, instead of joining the rest of the pariahs outside in the cold and snow, the wind and rain, or the heat and humidity-- not to mention the gasoline and diesel exhausts and industrial waste gases: Hey, those can kill you! Rest rooms and stairwells are particularly choice places to play, because the hard surfaces offer rewarding reverberation and echoes.

If one receives strange looks from co-workers, one is, of course, under no obligation to explain. However, if one's boss demands to know, "Just what do you think you're doing?", one can always smile brightly and reply, "Instead of smoking, thereby endangering my health while supporting both the soulless corporations and the equally soulless governments who are profiteering from my weakness, I'm trying to bring a little beauty into the world."

One may have to cut way back on smoking, though, to be able to get that sentence out in one breath.

You'll probably have better luck finding ocarinas at a toy store than a music store. Here are links to makers of more distinctive instruments. I haven't personally seen, heard or played any of them, nor have I any connection with their makers. Many of these pages offer sound samples, instructional materials, and historical information. Pages will open in new windows.

Circle Flute Ocarina
Anita's Ocarinas
Songbird Ocarinas
K. Dunster Ocarinas
Hind Musical Instruments

Bear Paw Flutes
Clayzeness Whistleworks
Howler Monkey Imports
Whimsical Whistles
Ocarina Workshop