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Fantastic people and their kazoos say cheese

The UMS Kazoo Orchestra got together last Friday for a pop up performance before Chris Thile’s concert at Rackham Auditorium. Interested in trying out a kazoo yourself? Meet us at Ann Arbor Nerd Nite on Thursday, October 24 for a spooky kazoo cover of “Thriller.”

UMS Student Committee Learns to Kazoo

UMS Kazoo Orchestra director Garrett Schumann teachers our student committee how to kazoo. Learn more about our kazoo orchestra, or join the fun.

Why Do I Kazoo?


Truly Render – the UMS’s fabulous Press and Marketing Manager, who is responsible for conceiving the UMS Kazoo Orchestra (which I call “UMSKO”) – told me, at our first event this August, she was surprised I agreed to lead this unusual initiative. This comment struck me as both perfectly apt and a little shocking because I feel my new role as director of the UMSKO was simultaneously unforeseeable and inevitable. In other words, while Truly was dead on that I did not expect to receive her email over Memorial Day inviting me to lead a kazoo ensemble, this new endeavor rather closely aligns with many of my values as a musician and artist.

Unforeseeable and inevitable

For quite some time, I’ve been looking for ways to use my musical skills, abstruse as they are commonly manifested, to interact more closely with my local world. Community involvement, in some form, has been an almost constant presence in my life from my childhood through college, but this impulse has struggled to materialize in my life in Ann Arbor. The UMSKO offers me an avenue for me to return to this kind of activity, but unusually so. Compared to the community concerts I organized and children’s music I composed in college, or the service I participated on my way to becoming an Eagle Scout and witnessed in my mother’s work with Habitat for Humanity, this new venture is clearly different.

The word ‘outreach’ is commonly thrown around in the institutional dialect of musicians, music schools, and concert presenters. But, in my experience, is rarely acted upon with much ingenuity. As I see it, in this period of upheaval for the institutions and individuals who create, perform and present Art music in this country, much more attention and innovation has been directed to the quality of the content displayed on the stage than the way the actors behind the content interact with the people sitting in the seats.

UMS has been different, at least as long as I’ve been aware of it., to which I’ve contributed for three years, is a special forum unto itself, and is constantly featuring new pathways for the patrons of UMS to interact with the material UMS presents each season. Last year, UMS, like many similar organizations (though, none so large), experimented with Tweet Seats, which allowed audience members to participate in a unique, extemporaneous conversation alongside a given live performance. Embracing new media like this is obviously important, but these arenas are sometimes limited insofar as they include some barriers to entry and may discourage or disrupt some patrons as much as they galvanize others.

The kazoo, on the other hand, is democratic

The kazoo, on the other hand, is as democratic, populist and universal a device for audience and community engagement as anyone, even the most ardent idealist, could hope for in the sophisticated cultural space UMS occupies. At least, this is my interpretation of the response we have received at our public appearances, and in the conversations I’ve had about this project with friends, family and strangers. Almost to a person, learning about the UMSKO has sparked instantaneously enthusiasm, and why shouldn’t it? Kazoos represent a vehicle for musical performance with virtually infinite accessibility – we have handed out kazoos to over 800 people and none has failed to produce its iconic buzzing tone.

I realized this as I manned the UMSKO’s station at Artscapade this August, where I led a string of demonstrations instructing electrically enthusiastic undergrads how to play part of the theme I’ve composed for the group. In their excited and attentive faces, it occurred to me that we weren’t just giving them something fun to do, or another way to be loud – these kazoos were empowering these students. While the technological initiatives UMS has embarked on fill a quintessential and otherwise inaccessible role in a contemporary audience’s experience of live events, they create a different kind of participatory environment then the UMSKO. Ventures like UMS Lobby and Tweet Seats open new avenues of conversation for concertgoers, and create a more immediate and active responsive zone wherein UMS patrons can connect with one another more seamlessly before, during, and after a performance.

What amazes me about the Kazoo Orchestra is how it enables participants to have a role in the creation of one of UMS’s musical products. In other words, the UMSKO doesn’t just change the way concertgoers interact, it redefines what it means to be a member of UMS’s audience. Of course, I’m basing this all on the Kazoo Orchestra’s potential – certainly, there are other UMS programs that challenge and reset the traditional parameters of concert patronage. Yet, what excites me is the possibility that these kazoos could be transformative, that they might fuse the roles of performer and listener into something more fluid and powerful, and that, in the near future, those who attend UMS events will feel invested in this organization and its offerings because UMS not only provides them with a chance to experience music from their seats but also create music with their kazoos.

There are so many superficial reasons why the UMS Kazoo Orchestra is a brilliant idea, but I believe this potential for empowerment is the most transcendent. Truly Render and the other leaders at UMS have found a constructive way to convert the ivory tower of jazz, world music, classical music, dance and theater performances into a dramatically more open space for presenters and audience members to interact essentially as peers. I feel imparting this kind of musical meaningfulness is imperative for the UMS to sustain and grow its audience, and the same is true for me and the, admittedly smaller, group of people who listen to my compositions.

That this enterprise does not feature my music in a conventional way is, to me, irrelevant because I believe my self is as much a part of my music as my music is an expression of my self. These days, there are few, if any, opportunities for living composers to meaningfully connect with about 800 people over the course of three hours. With my role as director of the UMSKO, I have been afforded the chance to build relationships with enormous numbers of excited, musically empowered, individuals – I intend to make the most of it, and so should you.

Questions about the UMS Kazoo Orchestra? Comment below. Interested in joining? Learn more.

UMS Kazoo Orchestra in Action

The UMS Kazoo Orchestra was in full swing last week at Artscapade. Conductor Garrett Schumann is pictured here on the right. Learn more or join the UMS Kazoo Orchestra here.