It’s innately counterintuitive to leave musical instruments outside in all types of weather and then let everyone and their brother come and play with them.
Still, the idea of unfettered, recreational access to instruments has crossed over from Europe and is picking up steam in the U.S.
Bill Beckner, research manager for the National Recreation and Park Association, said that the number of companies exhibiting outdoor musical instruments at its annual national congress grew from just one in 2003 to seven or eight in 2011. Although the recession has forced many park and recreation departments to slow spending, he thinks when spending does resume the instruments will be on the radar of many directors of public spaces.
“There’s a movement to build natural play spaces, with certain kinds of landscapes, berms, even boardwalks out over water, that allow kids to play in a natural element. The instruments fit right into that,” he said.
Grammy award-winning jazz musician Richard Cooke first started tinkering with unconventional means of producing musical sound 25 years ago. Sixteen years ago, he and his wife, Christy, formed a niche business selling the instruments – many of which could be used outdoors. In 2010, demand prodded his Colorado-based company, Freenotes Harmony Park, into mass production. The outdoor, public-access instruments are going into parks, on playgrounds, in the open spaces at cultural venues, community centers and even at retirement homes.
Cooke uses basic hardware, plumbing and irrigation products, to construct artful arrangements of marimbas, kalimbas, xylophones, bells, drums and more. His experience offering adult music camps with renown saxophonist and composer Paul Winter sparked the idea.
“In a two-week period they would try to get people playing these instruments. But they just weren’t able to pull it off to the degree they wanted. Playing an instrument requires knowledge of scales, pitches and tones, and how to read music.
“That’s what set Richard thinking, ‘What’s the easiest way to make tunes?’” Christy remembered. In search of an answer, he began to build instruments.
Freenotes are tuned to Western scale pitches just like pianos, one of the ways in which the sound they produce is not just noise, Richard said. Bond Anderson of Soundplay Inc., a Georgia company that also crafts outdoor instruments, agrees and adds there are steps that can be taken to minimize the sound for nearby residents.
Anderson has registered his company’s instruments at 80 decibels right next to the instrument – about the same as a food blender or garbage disposal.
“I wouldn’t recommend, say, putting pipes next to the principal’s office or on the edge of a playground near housing. Put them in the middle, and see if you can’t plant a sound barrier or two or use other buildings to block the sound.”
After Freenotes’ first major installation in Moab, Utah, in 1995, some local leaders were so taken by the idea value they voted in 2006 and again in 2011 to support the municipal park where the instruments are located to the tune of $20,000.
Interest in replicating the musical park hasn’t waned during 16 years, Moab Community Director David Olsen said in December. About every other week he receives a call from somewhere in the country, asking for information about how to set up a similar experience in their local area.
“The comments have been overwhelmingly positive… and there really haven’t been many noise complaints.”
Once is a while, Olsen continued, an intoxicated visitor will sound the instruments at an uncommon hour, which tends to have the publicly-desirable effect of summoning local law enforcement directly to the location.
According to Richard, the instruments fare better in communities that feel a sense of ownership. But, their sturdy construction, however, makes them difficult to vandalize
“They’re highly UV and impact resistant. You really have to work at it… if you took a rebar or a rock to them, you could potentially scratch them. A bat would dent the aluminum, but it wouldn’t affect the sound,” he said. Mallets for the xylophone style instruments are tethered with cable that requires wire cutters for removal, although
they do fray eventually.
Similarly, Anderson’s equipment suffered only minor damage in recent Gulf Coast hurricanes, he said. A handful of communities do opt to cover their musical equipment during winter, although it’s not usually necessary.
Sometimes material substitutions can also be made to resist the climate. A shipment that left Soundplay in December for the salt-laden atmosphere of the Virgin Islands included aluminum tone bars instead of stainless steel.
Anderson attributes the crescendo in demand for its outdoor musical instruments to the development of universal access playgrounds, especially in Canada.
“When many entities consider designing an accessible playground, they think mainly of children with challenges,” said Patty Hobson, a sales representative with PlayWorld Midstates. “… (but) with a Freenotes music garden, parents and grandparents with limited mobility can interact with their children and grandchildren, not just sit on a bench and watch them play.”
Botanical gardens, public parks, children’s hospitals, zoos, schools and cultural centers have all embraced the concept too.
Although the idea of public, outdoor musical instruments strikes a favorable note with adults, children are usually the most anxious for installation to be completed and express the most concern anytime technicians come to adjust them, Christy said.
“They’ll say, ‘Oh, no, you’re not taking them away!’ When we do an install, before they’re even in the ground they’re all over them.”
By Jodi Magallanes