The glass armonica is, essentially, a series of spinning bowls. They are different sizes, and make different sounds when you rub your finger along the side of them while they spin like some musicians do with wine glasses. Don’t let the simplicity of explaining it take away from the patience and skill it takes to master it, though. It's a complex instrument that will pay back your dedication by emitting some of the most beautiful sounds you've ever heard.
While some people hear angels singing when this instrument is played, others say they get more of a creepy vibe from it. It's a Rorschach test for the ears, perhaps. In any case, there's no denying that this very unique instrument would be a blast to get your hands on. Just be careful, because it is made out of glass.
Jake Schlaerth is one of only a few dozen glass armonica players in the United States. It's such a rare instrument, in fact, that there's only one University offering any kind of program involving the glass armonica, and that's at Rutgers' Mason Gross School of the Arts. Jake graduated from there, and in the following video you can see him demonstrating how to play the glass armonica.
We recently took a look at some of very weird instruments, and the glass armonica did make that list, but we're talking about it at length here because it definitely deserves its own spotlight.
That’s great and all but… what exactly is this thing? How does it work?
Roughly 50 bowls are aligned from smallest to largest, and this instrument is played kind of like a piano, in a sense. It's really in a class of its own, so it's hard to compare it to anything else. It uses friction from your fingers pressing against the glass to create these hauntingly beautiful tones. You dip your fingers in water so they can slide while still providing the vibrations needed to make the bowls sing.
Ben Franklin invented the glass armonica, and it's based on the idea of wetting your finger and rubbing it along the rim of a wine glass, Jake explains. The word 'armonica' comes from the Italian word for harmony, and you can play 10 bowls at once, one with each finger.
Rather than adding or removing water from a wine glass to adjust the pitch of the sound, glass armonicas are carefully crafted by incredibly talented glass blowers to ensure everything is perfectly in tune.
It might look simple enough to play at first glance, but this instrument takes a long time before you can even play the basics. You won’t be able to pick it up and start busting out Smoke on the Water, that's for sure.
Jake says it took him about a month of practice before he could make any real type of sound with it, and that there's really no secret that he's been able to discover, just a lot of practice to understand the nuances of how to touch it.
Anyone who has mastered an instrument knows what a long path it is, and how many people give up along the way. With a high barrier to entry and an even higher skill ceiling, it's really amazing to see this instrument in action, especially knowing how much perseverance it takes. Not just skill-wise, but even to pursue something so unique and uncommon in the first place.
It's not like there are tab sites for the glass armonica with thousands of songs at your fingertips, so to speak. So you better get ready to learn how to read sheet music too if you plan on mastering this beauty.