Playing the Whirly in San Francisco

by Paul Doherty

Sarah Hopkins returned to the bay area for the fall of 1990. In her first few weeks of playing and composing for the whirly and the cello, Sarah overdid it and came down with what is probably the world's first case of whirly elbow, aka Tendinitis. All of my climbing friends and I could sympathize with Sarah, we've all had tendinitis from climbing too much. Mike Bolte in particular could sympathize since he was suffering from elbow pain at the same time as Sarah. Little did I know at the time, that Sarah's elbow was going to lead me into a strange adventure.
The cure for tendinitis involves stopping the inflammatory activity while you heal. So Sarah stopped playing the whirly and the cello. She could still sing&emdash; what an understatement, Sarah sings like few other people in the world. True to her form, she overdid that, and by the end of her first elbow-rest day was croaking from harmonic throat-itis.
The pain in her elbow drove her to a sports medicine doctor, and though all of us had said "take no cortisone shots," she took a cortisone shot in her elbow. The shot put her into bed with severe pain, we all felt so bad we even refrained from saying our I-told-you-sos.
Later Sarah sought out an acupuncture specialist. With rest, treatment and song, her pain soon decreased and her elbow began to heal. But, she had a performance scheduled in two weeks. It was unclear whether she would be able to play whirlies and the cello for the length of a complete performance. She placed her bow upon her cello and ran out of elbow in fifteen minutes &emdash; just about long enough to play "Cello Chi" one of several pieces she planned to play at the concert. The next day she played a light whirly for a few minutes. Like a prize fighter working out on the lightweight speed bag.
Later that day I showed up to talk to Sarah about whirlies and music. Much to my surprise she asked me if I would play the whirly at her concert. I was so surprised I said yes before thinking.
Wait a minute. I've never played a musical instrument in my life in front of anyone but a physics class, and even they laugh when I do it. Sarah wanted me to play a drone note while she wove harmonic signing about that note in the piece called "Inner Voices," serious music. In front of a paying audience no less.
The only problem was, I had to play one note on the whirly for the entire 5 minutes of the performance. I didn't think this was going to be a problem until I picked up a whirly to rehearse with Sarah. I found the note just fine. After two minutes my arm hurt from twirling the whirly. After three I was in pain. After five I could barely move my arm. Not to mention the fact that I lost the note many times in the five minutes. I had a long way to go before the performance, and a short time to get there.
As a climber, I knew that I should really work out every other day, but there wasn't enough time for that. So, twice a day, every day I played the whirly for 6 minutes at a time. After a few days of that, my arms ached at night. Luckily, it was the muscles not the tendons that were hurting. After a few more days they didn't hurt any more.
I didn't notice at the time, but each day it was a little easier to play for the full five minutes. The note however sounded bad. To play one note on the whirly you have to keep the speed of the rotating tube constant&emdash; and that takes practice. Go too fast or too slow and the whirly slides into quiet, go even faster and it sings a higher note. For dozens of practices I did not succeed in playing the note for five minutes, and the concert was only days away.
I remembered stories of the lunar module pilot Armstrong, the week before attempting the first manned landing on the moon he had failed at every simulated landing. When it came to the real moon he succeeded. On the night of the performance would I play one note or many?
Two days before the performance, Sarah and I rehearsed in the theater. I spun the whirly, and nothing happened. I frantically searched for the note, it wasn't there. Then I found it. Whew. What if that happened on performance night?
Two people walked in during rehearsal, my adrenalin started and I jumped up to a higher note. Gleep, what was I going to do when 100 people filled the room? I'd probably be so excited I'd play the fourth harmonic til I fell over.
Not only that, I had no idea how to behave on a stage. Alright stop that snickering, yes, I do know how to behave on a stage&emdash;when I'm giving a physics performance. But playing a whirly is different. It greatly restricts your body language, move a little too much and the whirly changes its tune. So I had to stand still, and still have stage presence.
Thank goodness Sarah was there to help. She coached me day after day. She obviously has experience working with beginners on stage, but probably not with people as inexperienced as I am. I learned to keep my head up. I also learned that I didn't have to watch the audience I could watch Sarah instead. When she sang, the five minutes went quicker.
In one rehearsal I forgot which way to whirl the whirly. So I came up with the phrase, "In your face." To remind me to whirl the whirly overhead into my face. It was good to work the bugs out during rehearsals.
Sarah usually accompanies herself on Inner Voices, and wanted to practice singing while someone else played the drone. But my arm usually gave out after two run-throughs. So I tried playing the whirly with my left arm. That got us more practice time. I even found that I could switch hands and keep the same note, although after the hand switch the whirly was going around backwards, "out of my face." I suggested that if I needed to I could switch hands during a performance and Sarah shot me a look that said,"don't even think about it." She didn't even have to accompany her glance with words. There is a strong power inside of Sarah, I should have known that from her music.
In my article about how whirlies work I mention that people always laugh when I play the whirly. Inner Voices is a serious piece of music however, I wasn't sharing humor with the audience but was providing them a background for other emotions, if I made the audience laugh this time I would have failed.
At another practice Sarah hit the whirly note so precisely with her voice that I lost the note. I couldn't tell whether the whirly was singing or not. It wasn't. When Sarah stopped singing the drone note that was supposed to continue was gone too. Oops. I had to learn to feel the vibration of the whirly to tell it was singing.
One day before the performance Sarah appeared on the biggest local live radio program and announced to the world that she was performing the next night at the Headlands Center for the Arts. Oh Oh. I was really worried now. It didn't matter that I had given hundreds of physics lectures before, this was going to be my first musical performance.
On the night of the performance, I arrived a bit early and we had one last rehearsal. I must have looked nervous for Sarah sent me down to the lunchroom to boil water for tea. When I returned, we rehearsed. Agnes was going to play a Sarah Hopkins piano composition at the concert, she was rehearsing too. After I finished playing the whirly she said that she wondered how Sarah could tune into it since the tone varied by a third of a semitone. I couldn't hear it change at all. Oh well Sarah hadn't complained, perhaps that was the way the whirly sang. I wanted to play well so that the audience could feel the emotions in the music, and so that I wouldn't screw up in front of my friends.
The room filled up with people, Jamie and Dar came from the Exploratorium, Bob and Liz Edgerton also came. Sarah began the performance by playing a two-whirly greeting. She is really great on the whirly. She moved in a choreographed dance of flying whirlies that would have done justice to a sword dancer. The music touched me and made me feel great and welcome. But I kept thinking, I was going to have to play the whirly after this!
I thought about the old joke of the musician who was going to start out in the business by playing one note. If that went well he'd play two. I was about to have my performance debut playing one note. If I played two that would be a mistake.
Next Sarah played Cello Chi, then she moved on to Songs of the Wind a song for the long, deep-mother whirly and then Heartsong for the same deep C whirly that I was going to play NEXT. My heart really started to go. Somehow as Sarah invited me to play I managed to stand up. Smiling was easy now that there was no turning back. I wanted to play the whirly well and show the audience just what you could do with one note on a corrugated piece of plastic. Sarah handed me her "stradivarius" whirly. We paused and I started to twirl the whirly slowly. To my relief it started to sing. I zeroed in on my note and held it. Sarah began to sing. I watched her and got lost in the music. Oops I almost lost my note there for a moment. I couldn't get too lost in the music. Luckily, I had slowed down only a little, and my drone had continued a little quieter than before. Before long the five minutes were up. The pain killers of performance had carried me through, I felt like I could go on for another five minutes. What a high. I had survived. I rode a cloud of pleasure for days afterwards.
Later I talked to friends at the concert. One of them confessed that she had cried during the playing of Inner Voices. That stunned me. I knew that music had great power over me, that it could make me cry or feel great. But I had never been on the giving end, I had never made people cry with music before. This time Sarah and I had.
Unfortunately, the tape recorder which was recording the evenings performance had failed before we performed our piece. So Sarah invited me over to play "Inner Voices," again for a recording. Oh deer, a recording session, another first. Except for a few cars the recording session went well. But my arm really grew tired. Only later did Sarah tell me that she had performed a 10 minute version.

Thank you Sarah for a musical experience I won't soon forget.

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© 1999

21 Feb 99