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Zookeeper seeks lonely musical instruments

Posted Tuesday, July 5, 2011, at 4:46 PM

I'm looking for lonely musical instruments -- specfically, an abandoned banjo or a dusty fiddle or a guitar that's been in exile in the back of the closet under a pile of old clothes for years.


When I lived in Champaign, Ill., a group of musicians the public library hosted an instrument petting zoo. It was just like a regular petting zoo, but instead of kitties and puppies, chickens and goats, they had banjos and bongos, fiddles and drums.

Members of an area string band were on hand to help. The group played a couple of tunes and then laid out instruments on a table and kids (and adults) could pick up and try anything they wanted. Just plunk the strings to get a sound, bang on the drum to get a beat.

The musicians provided a little basic -- very basic -- instruction. Hold your finger here and then draw the bow. See? There were squeaks and squawks from fiddles, enthusiastic whacks on drums, a little chaos, a little cacophony. A lot of fun.

What I noticed through the noise was the delight in young eyes.

So I picked up a mandolin -- I'd never seen one face to face before -- and started plinking and plunking around, adding to the noise, I'm afraid. One of the band members said, "Oh, do you play?"

No, I said. Just goofing around here.

"Well, you should," she said. "It suits you."

I tend to think omens are signs that point you the way you already want to go, so I counted her comment as an omen, bought a cheap mandolin (later upgraded a bit) and have been playing every day ever since.

I wonder how many of the kids that day went home to their parents and said, "I want to play drums" or "Buy me a guitar. Pleeeeease?" or maybe years later, when they got the chance to sign up for band at school, were first in line.

There's no way to know. But considering my own experience, I have to think quite a few seeds were planted that day. Not all of them grew into a genuine interest in playing music, but I bet some did.

Since that day at the Champaign library I've toyed with the idea of creating a similar opportunity for kids, a modest little instrument petting zoo. From what I can tell, kids like that sort of thing.

For the past 10 years, whenever I took my kids to a park, I took my mandolin, and whenever some neighborhood kid came up to me and said, "Is that a little banjo?" I'd tell them what it was. Most of them said, "Can I try it?" I let them. Showed them how to hold a pick, how to fret a note, how to strum. More delight.

Well, now I've found an opportunity. Marshall Parks and Recreation Department, in partnership with Marshall Cultural Council, is going to hold a "Cookin' in the Park" family event Friday, July 15.

Part of the event will be a grilling contest. There will be live music. And the day camp kids are planning to show some of the things they've learned, including a project where they create musical instruments from found objects. I can't wait to see what they come up with!

Seems like the perfect time to unveil the beginnings of a local instrument petting zoo. I've got enough instruments hanging around the house to get started (I used to think I could be a multi-instrumentalist until I wised up and realized that learning the mandolin was going to be about all I could manage and would keep me plenty busy for the rest of my life). But I would sure like to add a couple of things: a fiddle, a guitar and a banjo.

Does anyone out there have one of those you'd be willing to loan to the project? It should be an instrument that is playable but has little value otherwise -- financial or sentimental -- because turning instruments over to youngsters has its risks, and we don't want to put valuable instruments in harms way.

No, I'm thinking more about inexpensive instruments that are just collecting dust and could be put to use planting seeds. Learning takes root and grows best when it is founded in delight, and maybe a couple of kids who pick up one of our instruments will like the feel of it and will be amazed by the sound they make and will go back home and tell their parents they want to learn to play.

Anyone who's interested in helping with the instrument petting zoo project can contact me at ewcrump@sbcglobal.net.

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Thank you!

We've been having a great time, too. The community has provided wonderful support.

-- Posted by Eric Crump on Mon, Jul 18, 2011, at 3:20 PM

YAY! Wow! That's the first time I've seen the MCC site since it's inception....you guys are doing INCREDIBLE things down there!

-- Posted by koeller77 on Mon, Jul 18, 2011, at 1:49 PM

Very terrifical! I had a lot of fun, anyway. The kids seemed to. They strummed and banged and grinned the whole time.



-- Posted by Eric Crump on Mon, Jul 18, 2011, at 12:29 PM

Sooo....how'd it go, Mr. Zookeeper? Did you find instruments for your zoo and how did the kids like it?

-- Posted by koeller77 on Mon, Jul 18, 2011, at 11:43 AM

What a great idea Eric! I'm going to bring my grandson so maybe he can beat, plunk or blow into a musical instrument! This is so cool! This is what summer time should be about for kids. Exploration of really wonderful things in life... music, gardening, cooking, fishing and hiking. There are plenty of opportunities to introduce kids to sports and hunting but not music.

-- Posted by salinemg on Wed, Jul 6, 2011, at 11:26 PM

Eric -

Did you check with the local schools/university to see if there are any school instruments they might be replacing this year? You might be able to get some other instruments (flute, trumpet, etc), that would otherwise be trashed, because they're only JUST playable!

-- Posted by koeller77 on Wed, Jul 6, 2011, at 8:10 AM
Good idea. Thanks!

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Eric Crump is a former editor of The Marshall Democrat-News. He lives elsewhere now but still loves Marshall and Saline County. He's trying to catch up on all the stories he should have written while he was on staff.
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