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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

A Few of the Best Travel Instruments

Below I have chronicled some experiences of what I have deemed to be some of the world’s best travel instruments.
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Here are Niousha Rezai ’25 (at left) and me (second from left) with our 3-D printed ocarinas. Sam Muller ’24, who printed them for us, stands to our right. (Photo by Ava Lehmann; used by permission)

I am not what one would call a musical person. I possess no sense of rhythm, and a D-major scale I was tasked with reproducing on a middle school music theory test contained the note ‘W.’

With that said, I am nonetheless obsessed with musical instruments. I have toyed with (and without talent) everything ranging from the steel drums to the tuba. An elementary school, I was enrolled in offered me a year’s worth of flute lessons, and by the end, I still had not managed to make a sound.

The subset of instruments I am most fascinated with, however, are travel instruments. There is something I find incredibly charming, and not to mention hilarious, about whipping a small item out of my pocket and playing a tune — like a portable gag.

Below are some of my favorite travel instruments, alongside the colorful characters who play them.

The Ocarina

Here is Niousha Rezai ’24 with her 3-D printed ocarina. (Yasmine Salha)

I first came across  this instrument while ascending a ski lift, accompanied by my fellow snowboard-instructor coworkers. Alex, who sat furthest from me, removed a bright orange object from his back pocket. Its shape resembled a hairdryer, on its side, with twelve holes and a mouthpiece. Alex placed  the instrument to his lips and proceeded to play a moving folk song in whistle-tones that wrung divinely in our ears.

“This is an ocarina,” he said. “It’s 3-D printed.” Instantly, I resolved to get my own.

Naturally, Bronx Science’s resident electronics expert, Sam Muller ’24, had a 3-D printer readily available to pump out ocarinas for me, as well as for an accomplice, Niousha Rezai ’25.

The ocarina typically comes in three types: the four hole, the six hole, and the twelve hole. The less holes an ocarina has, the higher the pitch and the less versatility the instrument has.

Learning to play the ocarina is extremely easy, and thankfully to some, does not require being able to read sheet music. Instead, the music is denoted through ocarina “tabs,” which are rows of ocarina diagrams whose respective holes are blocked out depending on which note is meant to be played.

Here are sample tabs of a 12-hole ocarina. (Yasmine Salha)

Ocarina tabs for nearly every song a person can think of are available online, free of charge.

The twelve-hole ocarina is my favorite travel instrument, because it has a rugged build, fits easily in my pocket, and is very versatile in the amount of notes it can play. That said, my friends find it extremely annoying.

Jordan Krietner ’24, for example, said “I physically recoil when I see her pull the ‘instrument’ out.”

One fateful day, Niousha and I were practicing the melody to Frère Jacques on our 3-D printed, twelve-hole ocarinas in the math stairwell of Bronx Science. We were under the illusion that no one could hear us, but in fact, we were actively disturbing a Calculus BC test for the  entirety of our 30-minute practice session. Upon being confronted by one of the test-takers, we were so appalled with ourselves that we dropped our plastic ocarinas in unison and they rattled on the floor, making us all the more embarrassed.

Alas, we persevered. Here is Niousha and me playing Frère Jacques a few days later:

(Yasmine Salha)

The McNally Strumstick

Pictured is yours truly with a McNally Strumstick. (Rhiannon Chaston)

My best friend and neighbor, Rhiannon Chaston ’24, introduced me to the McNally Strumstick earlier this year. We were in the midst of preparing for a two-month bike trip bisecting the United States, and naturally, we were set on bringing instruments along. I told Rhiannon, “I wish we could bring a really small guitar — but not a Ukelele, because those are weird.” The next day she dug the strumstick out of storage, and I immediately fell in love.

The strumstick was invented by Bob McNally, a renowned instrument designer, who began developing it in 1981. His intention was to create a variation of a travel guitar that  was easily accessible to non-musicians. The strumstick has three strings, each a half-octave apart, which is a principal McNally borrowed from another stringed instrument, the appalachian dulcimer.

The strumstick comes in two sizes: the G Strumstick, and its larger companion, the D strumstick. Strumstick.com provides chord diagrams for both of these instruments, so they can be played along to any desired song.

The strumstick has a few downsides. For one, it is pricey. I managed to buy a used one for $80 on Ebay, but a new strumstick goes for at least $200 today, which is a purchase I would find hard to justify.

A second downside is that the instrument is very difficult to re-string. The strumstick requires banjo strings which not only have to be wound into a slightly finicky headstock, but must also have yarn wound around a portion of the bottom strings below the bridge to avoid the strings corroding the instrument’s wood.

Rhiannon and I love traipsing around New York City with our strumsticks. A few times we have even tried to busk in Central Park, but sadly we received no money. Here is Rhiannon attempting to play You Are My Sunshine:

(Yasmine Salha)

The Harmonica

Jonah Wojciechowicz ’24 is a New Jersey native who is obsessed with the harmonica. She received one as a gift from her AP Art teacher almost a year ago, and has played it religiously for an hour each day since.

Jonah’s passion lies in composing her own tunes on the harmonica. However, she can never quite anticipate when the inspiration to compose will strike, which is why she always totes her harmonica around in her pocket.

On a trip to the UK, inspiration overtook Jonah in the Imperial War Museum. “I was in the Churchill Rooms, and I suddenly had a tune in my head that I needed to bust out. I thought it was pretty good, but I get the feeling the museum security did not because they kicked me out of the building,” Jonah said.

Similar to the ocarina, harmonica music is most often shared through tabs. These can look different depending on where one finds these tabs (typically online), however all follow a guiding theme. The harmonica is divided into ten spaces, therefore notes are numbered one through ten. The main two breaths are blow-breaths (exhaled) and draw-breaths (inhaled). Harmonica tabs generally appear thus as numbers accompanied by a ‘B’ or ‘D,’ or up/down arrow, to distinguish both the note, and how it should be played.

Here is a video of Jonah sharing one of her favorite compositions:

(Yasmine Salha)

Wrap Up

Clearly travel instruments come in many different shapes, sizes, and prices. And while there is no doubt there are even more outrageous instruments out there, travel instruments certainly give people an opportunity to tap into niche communities, learn new, unique skills, and connect more with music. Around the right people, they can be a delight.

While there is no doubt there are even more outrageous instruments out there, travel instruments certainly give people an opportunity to tap into niche communities, learn new, unique skills, and connect more with music. Around the right people, they can be a delight.

 

About the Contributor
Yasmine Salha, Staff Reporter
Yasmine Salha is an Editor-in-Chief for ‘The Science Survey.’ She is a proponent of accessible journalism, and loves to simplify complex and controversial topics in her articles – especially within the realm of Middle Eastern politics – which fascinates her. Outside the classroom, Yasmine’s biggest passions are sports and the outdoors, which are also topics on which she frequently publishes stories. Yasmine would love to pursue some form of creative journalism in college, and is currently leaning towards documentary filmmaking, since she is intrigued by the medium’s added dimensions of picture and sound when pursuing a creative interpretation of the truth.