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This guy really plays the turkey baster. It is just one of the weird instruments people have developed. Photo courtesy Ray Sanders.

To hear the turkey baster in action, visit www.turkeybaster.net. Read my full column on Ray Sanders.


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Turnips, turkey basters, and other music makers

by Phil Houseal
May 11, 2011


Riddle: What is found in the forest and plays music?

Nope, it’s not basswood.

It is a long wooden track built of recycled pine. Each step holds a wood block tuned to a pitch and placed in careful order. When you start a ball rolling down the ramp, it plays Bach's Cantata 147. Someone actually built it and filmed it for a television commercial.

Unusual, yes. Impressive, yes. But not the weirdest instrument.

Ever since a bored ancestor discovered you could make noise by pounding a rock on a hollow log, man has been obsessed with creating instruments to make music. People have made music using wine goblets, willow branches, saws, and farm implements (including a tractor as rhythm section).

I started my musical journey improvising upon common household objects. I was sitting in a third grade classroom, when I discovered I could make music by stringing a rubber band between my desk and the hinged desktop. By manipulating the desktop, I could change the pitch of the rubber band. I was fascinated by this experiment, until I looked up and noticed the whole class staring at me, including an upset teacher. It was my first experience as the “bad boy” musician. At that moment I knew I was destined to become a rock star.

Locally, I’ve come across various strange instruments - the Type-A-Tune (a cross between a piano and a typewriter); the Banjitar (a cross between a banjo and guitar); and the Guitarolin (the apparent love child of a ukulele, mandolin, violin, guitar and a cigar box.)

Indeed, the stringed instruments seem to have interbred with many surprising entities. In Peru I bought a charango - a cross between a mandolin and an armadillo.

But the most unexpected musical encounter was with the man who played the turkey baster. I actually saw this guy in person at the Choo Choo Patio Shoppe - that outdoor furniture emporium/slash/performing arts center on Main Street. One night, there he was - the Turkey Baster Impresario.

I wish I had asked him how he ever imagined using the kitchen utensil as a musical instrument. I imagine it happened at a Thanksgiving gathering, where the creative individual got stuck at the boring end of the table.

Here’s how that worked. He held the baster bulb down, shaft up. It was half filled with a mysterious liquid. He blew across the tiny opening on the business end, as one would play a flute or the jug. He could alter the pitch by squeezing the plastic bulb, changing the height of the column of liquid inside the tube.

It produced a clear, eerie tone. This guy was no slouch of a musician. He didn’t play Mary Had a Little Lamb. He played Flight of the Bumblebee in perfect pitch with accompaniment. He professed to have appeared on the David Letterman Show’s Stupid Human Tricks. (While writing this article, I found that his name is Ray Sanders and he lives in Bryan, Texas. Whew! For years I thought I imagined it.)

I was sure that was the pinnacle of strangeness, until someone sent me a link to The First Vienna Vegetable Orchestra.

Unless this is a hoax, the group performs on carved-out carrots, turnips, eggplants, rhubarb, and zucchini. They handcraft their instruments just prior to performing, then cook them into a soup and serve to the audience. Now that’s music that sustains you.

The pantheon of unusual instruments goes on forever. Another colleague sent me a link to a video of a guy letting another guy drum on his head to play When the Saints Go Marching In.

Strangely, the girls in the video seemed to be impressed with this talent. Who knew? To think of all those years I wasted playing rubber band.