What’s a Melodica?

We’re playing Missy Mazzoli’s These Worlds in Us with conductor-finalist Timothy Myers on this week’s Classics Series concerts. On a recent commute into Winston-Salem, I remembered that I had another Mazzoli piece at hand, one played by the incredible chamber group eighth blackbird.

Hey Siri, play “Still Life with Avalanche.”

Immediately I hear the drone of harmonicas. In a group that is comprised of flute, bass clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion. That’s one of the great, unexpected things about Mazzoli’s music—and it reminds me of another similar, hidden treat that our audience will see and hear this week. Take a peek at the percussion section during These Worlds and you may see two of them blowing into tiny pianos. What?

Have you ever noticed what Jon Batiste is playing every night at the beginning of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert? Here he is playing with Senator Tim Kaine:

What is that? It’s called a melodica. A melodica is a free-reed aerophone, which is to say that it’s a wind instrument like a clarinet, oboe, or bassoon, except that it has a piano keyboard instead of the usual, woodwind-like keys, holes, or buttons. Press down any key or combination of keys, and the wind is directed through a reed, vibrating it, and making a sound.

The melodica as we know it was developed in the 1950s, but similar instruments have been around for quite a while. Many historians trace the “keyboard” concept back to a 19th Century Italian instrument, but the Japanese gagaku (Imperial court) instrument called the shō has been in use for over 1300 years, and was itself developed from another, Chinese instrument called the sheng that has been around for 3000 years!

Lastly, on a concert that includes melodicas and a Tchaikovsky symphony, I’ll leave you with this:

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This project was supported by the N.C. Arts Council, a division of the Department of Natural & Cultural Resources. www.NCArts.org

The Winston-Salem Symphony receives operational funding from The Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County

Educational initiatives made possible with funding by Wells Fargo, The Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County and The Winston-Salem and Forsyth County Schools.