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Play On: Where the music starts

Little Tabitha Waita, 4, of Homewood drew the bow across the fiddle strings and got a nice steady note.

“I did it!” she said.

Tabitha was following her big sister, Hadassah, 7, in giving the fiddle a try at the second annual “Play On” musical instrument petting zoo at Homewood Public Library on Sunday, April 30.

  Tabitha Waita, 4, of Homewood, gets a little help 
  with the fiddle from Melody Mart teacher Ahren 
  Hawken during Play On, an instrument petting 
  zoo at the Homewood Public Library on April 30.

  (Photos by Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)


The commentary below represents the ideas, observations and opinions of the author.

Little Tabitha Waita, 4, of Homewood drew the bow across the fiddle strings and got a nice steady note.

“I did it!” she said.

  Eric Crump

Tabitha was following her big sister, Hadassah, 7, in giving the fiddle a try at the second annual “Play On” musical instrument petting zoo at Homewood Public Library on Sunday, April 30. The girls were there with their mother, Eunice Waita.


Arrayed around the room were instructors from Melody Mart music store of Homewood, ready to give a quick introduction and a little help as kids ― and a few adults ― tried playing a piano, guitar, violin, ukelele, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, whistle, clarinet, xylophone or drums.

  Saxophone teacher 
  Michael Auz, right, 
  gives a youngster a few 
  tips on how to make 
  the instrument work. 

Tabitha had a bit of help from Ahren Hawken, a member of the Melody Mart staff who often has to demonstrate instruments in the store, and it was a good thing Hawken was at hand because the fiddle was half as big as Tabitha. 

Next to Hawken at the same table, Casey Knoop was helping kids try out a tenor ukelele, an instrument she says is popular with beginners because they cost less than most other instruments and are easy to learn.

After his son, Kenji, 6, gave a good blow on a saxophone, Stephan Sims said the family planned to start music lessons for the kids soon and the event Sunday was a chance to see which instrument they gravitated to.

As another young family walked into the library meeting room, staff member Kelly Campos, who organized the event with Melody Mart, gave them their marching orders.

“Grab an instrument and get to playing,” she said. 

With those seven words, Campos captured what instrument petting zoos are about.

  Joseph Brooks takes a turn 
  on the trombone. 


Campos, who is a songwriter and musician herself, said the response was so good last year that the library and the music store decided to keep it going. The event was scheduled to occur near the start of National Music Week and this year, by happy chance, it also landed at the beginning of Screen Free Week, a nationwide effort to encourage families to temporarily unplug from their electronic devices and use the resulting free time for “playing, daydreaming, creating, exploring and connecting with family and friends,” according to the organization’s website.

That’s exactly what was happening at Play On.

Campos said the petting zoo approach is a good way to introduce kids to music.

  Samuel Alexander gives a 
  xylophone a workout under 
  the watchful eye of 
  percussionist Tremaine 


“Nobody’s going to tell them to be quiet,” she said. “You are allowed to be goofy and just have fun with it.”

She said the name of the event comes from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” Orsino says, “If music be the food of love, play on.” He’s hoping music will help cure his lovesickness, but what the library’s Play On mainly cured was silence.

Imagine for a minute what the library meeting room sounded like ― all those instruments being played at approximately the same by little people with no experience and no plan ― a dozen conflicting rhythms and a wide variety of what might possibly have been nascent melodies.

It was beautiful.

I like instrument petting zoos because without them, I would never have learned to play the mandolin.

I don’t play particularly well. In fact, excessive proficiency is not my goal. I play for fun, and I have fun playing, so I routinely meet and exceed my own exacting expectations. 

  Homewood library staffer 
  Kelly Campos greets new  
  arrivals at Play On, the 
  second annual musical 
  instrument petting zoo 
  hosted at the library. 

It took me almost 30 years to get there. My first forays into music included several years of lackadaisical piano lessons, blowing through a sizeable investment by my generous parents with little to show for it. 

I also took about three guitar lessons soon after discovering rock and roll. When I didn’t sound like Jimi Hendrix after those three lessons, I quit in something of a huff. 

I always regretted that decision but apparently not enough to do anything about it.

Three decades later, I took my children to an instrument petting zoo at the Champaign Public Library. We were doodling around with guitars, banjos, fiddles and drums. The kids were having a blast. 

I picked up a mandolin and commenced to make a little noise. The woman who was helping run the zoo kindly asked if I played. I thought the answer was pretty obviously (“No, not even a little.”) and realized she was being polite. 

“No, no. Just doodling around,” I said.

“Maybe you should. It suits you.”

I realize there was nothing mystical about that. People who run instrument petting zoos generally love making music and want to share that love. They tend to be encouraging by default. 

But on the way home, I thought, “I think I’ll get a mandolin and give it a try.”

I’ve been playing for 16 years. That’s the magic of encouragement. Thirty years of vague, simmering regret banished with six words. I was suddenly authorized by a polite stranger to do something I wanted to do most of my life. 

I’d simply forgotten to encourage myself. Oops.

That’s why I love going to instrument petting zoos, where the whole point is encouragement. When I see kids joyfully beating on a xylophone, strumming the wrong end of a banjo or wrestling with a trombone, I see a spark that might ignite a desire to make music. 

And the world always needs more music.

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