Playing the Whirly in Kansas City

by Paul Doherty

A random drawing assigned me number 13, like a character from the TV program “The Prisoner.” Number 9, Don Rathjen, was now onstage. We were two out of fifteen science lecturers given 5 minutes each to teach/perform in front of 2000 science teachers in The Music Hall in Kansas City. While Don was onstage I forgot to be nervous.
Don’s props were a lightbulb a 2 Liter bottle and a loaf of bread. He lifted the 2 Liter bottle up and lowered it down continuously as he led the audience through a lesson on energy. He demonstrated that he was doing 20 watts of work, and mentioned that the work he was doing was enough to light a dim lightbulb. At that point the lightbulb he was holding in his other hand began to glow. The audience laughed.
He then switched to talking about density. Holding a loaf of whitebread, he mentioned that there were two ways to increase its density: increase its mass or decrease its volume. At that point he threw the bread down onto a chair and sat on it producing a very flat loaf of bread and a big laugh from the audience.
As Don came off the stage I shook his hand, he had done a great job. Soon it would be my turn. Sooner than I thought actually, since number 12 hadn’t shown up for tonight’s performance.
The other competitors were a mixture of old pros and young demonstrators. They included:the weird science guys, who reenacted their infamous disappearing ink routine from the Letterman TV show, Professor Science who set off explosions while roaming the stage in marigold tights and a cape, Al Gunther who did an onstage version of the Exploratorium’s Magic Wand exhibit. Al waved white wands in the air to reveal a projected image, Jenny Bird, a young local science teacher from KATS (the Kansas area teachers of science who were sponsoring the event) who did demonstrations with glowing fluids, a guy who laid down on a bed of nails while students used sledge hammers to break cinderblocks on his chest, and a woman who did demonstrations using liquid nitrogen.
Steve Jacobs the Master of Ceremonies introduced me: “Paul Doherty from the Exploratorium will play the worlds largest whirly.” I walked onstage following two stagehands who carried my table full of whirlies. I stopped in the center of the large stage a few feet back from the gaping maw of the orchestra pit. Looking out, I was shocked to see nothing but blackness outside the glare of the footlights. The stage hands had forgotten to turn on the house lights after dimming them for Al Gunther. So I performed to the few people I could see in the front row.
“Before I play the giant whirly,” I said, “let me give you a capsule history of whirled music.” I paused hoping the audience would catch my double meaning... I waited for what seemed an eternity before someone laughed, that triggered the rest of the audience into laughter. I was still nervous but the laugh made me feel better.
I twirled the three foot long children’s toy whirly playing a series of notes up and down the scale. “I fell in love with the sounds of the whirly the first time I heard one. Whirlies only play notes which sound good together,”I added, “in addition, in the era of shrinking school budgets the whirly lets me combine physics class and music class &emdash; after all, the whirly is an example of quantum theory &emdash; no matter how I swing it around, it only plays certain notes. It does not slide from note to note it jumps. It thus behaves like the electron in an atom which jumps between energy levels.” I got another, smaller, laugh.
“After I had played the toy whirly for a while I got tired of the same five notes and began looking for other corrugated singing tubes. I conceived of a plan to incorporate the whirly into symphony orchestras. That set me on a search for the full range of instruments from alto to bass. My first experiments were geared toward finding bass instruments.”
I walked to the table and picked up a double length whirly made from two regular whirlies taped together.
“My initial experiments were partially successful.”
I played the double whirly.
“Note the lower pitch of the lowest note of the longer whirly. The whirlies only sing sound waves which fit in them exactly, longer tubes mean longer soundwaves which have lower pitch. Unfortunately, the sound from this double whirly is too weak for this concert hall. I despaired. Until, one day, my wife Ellen and I were at a friend's swimming pool. In the pool I spotted a surface vacuum cleaner trailing a long flexible corrugated hose. Ellen impressed me with her speed as she stopped me from unfolding the blade of my knife. She talked me into waiting a day and buying my own hose from a swimming pool supply store.
"My friend Sarah Hopkins, a professional whirly player and composer, tuned this piece of pool hose for me. She also composed the following piece of music.”
I played Deep Whirly Heartsong. The performance whirly filled the hall with sound. As the last note faded away the audience applauded and cheered.
“Just like the Mr. Toad who was stricken with automobile fever, I was smitten with whirlies. When I went to visit friends they hid their china and lamps. The children loved me though.
“ One day a friend made the comment that my music was not very multicultural. I took his words to heart.”
I picked up a toy whirly attached to a 5 gallon plastic bag. I filled the bag with air from a battery operated leaf blower. The audience giggled at the sight of a turgid bag attached to a whirly, then laughed aloud as I tucked the whirly under my arm and they figured out what I was going to do. I played the bag whirly by squeezing the bag under my arm.
After I played half a bagful of notes, I removed the bag from my underarm and played the whirly in my usual swinging way. The whirly sang and sucked the remaining air from the bag. The singing stopped when the bag was empty. I looked quizzically at the quiet whirly and its deflated bag and said, of course, “pardon me but my instrument seems to be a little flat tonight.” (This time the audience groaned.)
“So I had found the whirly equivalent to the violin, cello, and bagpipe whirlies but there were more whirly worlds to conquer. It got to the point where my wife hated to go into hardware stores with me. I kept blowing into and whirling every piece of corrugated hose I could find; gas pipes, electrical conduit and electrical wire guides... like these.”
I picked up the two black "Fly" whirlies.
“I was thrilled to find something to do with my left hand.”
I began to play ‘Fly’ by arcing the two whirlies from above my shoulders down across the front of my body.
“When I play this I find that even in the roughest neighborhoods no one gets within several feet of me. This motion allowed me to combine music, physics and self-defense!”
I segued into the second part of ‘Fly’ which involves swinging the two whirlies alternately, then into the finish with arcing moves again. The audience applauded.
“Whirly discoveries came fast and furious. I found my highest pitched instrument in a 7-11.”
I pick up a large plastic cup pull out the corrugated straw and blow a few notes making high pitched sounds.
“I still longed for deeper notes. Then one day at a winery my attention was riveted by a piece of hosing. My wife shouted “NO!” But she was too late I had found the Mount Everest of whirlies &emdash; agricultural drain hose. It was three inches in diameter and twelve feet long.”
I picked up my giant whirly and held it, coiled around me on the stage looking at it in a perplexed way.
“The only problem was how could I play it? Then I figured it out. It was a counter clockwise whirly.”
I flipped it over. And gave a fiendish grin at the signer who was standing beside me translating my performance for the deaf.
“Clear!” I shouted and she ran for cover.
Then I started to spin A loud low tone grew to fill the room. I spun faster, a higher bass note rang out, faster and faster&emdash; the whirly sang higher notes. I slowed down slowly, dropping from one note to the next until I ended by holding the lowest note for a few seconds before brining the whirly to a gentle landing on the stage coiled at my feet. I ended facing the audience.
The room erupted with cheers and applause. WOW.
I walked offstage and was greeted by Don who shook my hand and said “that was fantastic.”
We all received certificates designating us as Masters of the art of science demonstration signed by the Director of the Royal Institution of great Britain and by that famous Kansan, Don Herbert. But most of all, I had fun playing the whirly in front of a great crowd.
The only problem was the fame. For the rest of the visit to Kansas City people stopped me in the streets to ask about playing the whirly. I needed to carry a self-defense whirly with me to keep the crowds away.

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Scientific Explorations with Paul Doherty

© 1999

21 Feb 99