Playing the Spoons: A Fun Folk Music and Percussion Instrument
The Joy of Playing the Spoons
Using spoons to produce rhythmic percussion music has been popular since ancient times. The sounds are made by striking the bowl of one spoon against the bowl of another, by striking spoons against other objects, or by doing both of these things at the same time. Creating a variety of sounds and rhythms is a fun process even in its simplest form, with one utensil in each hand. It becomes even more enjoyable as new playing techniques are learned.
Modern players often hold two spoons between different fingers in the same hand. Controlling the spoons in this position requires a bit of practice but is worthwhile because it enables new rhythms to be produced. Other players hold two spoons in one hand and a third in the other. Some hold even more than this as they create music. There is plenty of scope for the imagination when playing the spoons.
How to Play the Spoons: Basic Steps
Vash is a folk percussionist who performs and teaches. He plays the bodhran (a type of frame drum) and bones as well as the spoons. The bones that people play are described later in this article.
The Sound of Spoons
Spoons are played by professional folk musicians as well as jazz, rock, and classical musicians. They are also played by enthusiastic amateurs. The sound produced by the spoons depends on their composition, size, and shape, the way in which they are held, the parts of the spoons that collide with each other, and the objects that they strike. It also depends on the number of spoons in an instrument.
Musicians sometimes hit their spoons against different parts of their bodies, inanimate objects, or other percussive instruments, such as tuning forks. I've heard about people holding and playing up to five spoons at once. Maybe someone has managed even more. The many options available allow a variety of sounds to be produced.
In some countries and musical styles, wooden spoons are played instead of metal ones. The convex surfaces of spoon bowls or the concave ones are used to produce a sound.
Producing a Sound
In the most common method of playing the spoons in North America, two spoons are held in one hand with the outer surfaces of the bowls (or the bottom of the spoons) facing each other. Each spoon is held between a different pair of fingers so that there is a small space between them. The upper spoon is then struck against the lower one at the same time as the lower spoon is struck against the thigh, creating a percussive sound. This motion is repeated to create a rhythm.
Paired spoons are struck against other body surfaces, including the knee, palm, fingers, head, and jaw. Using them to hit other objects can produce interesting variations in sound. In addition, two spoons held in one hand can be struck together in the air, like castanets.
Another interesting possibility is the combination of spoon playing with foot percussion. Foot percussion often means the use of foot drums, but foot tambourines, ankle rattles, and ankle bells are available as well. Some foot percussion may be suitable for playing at the same time as spoons, but louder forms may need to alternate with the utensils to prevent drowning out their sound.
A More Detailed Lesson
David Holt plays traditional American music and works to preserve it. He's a storyteller as well as a musician. He plays the guitar and banjo as well as spoons, bones, the washboard, and other folk instruments.
Spoons are a type of idiophone—an instrument that produces sound from the vibrations of the instrument itself instead of from the vibrations of a string or a membrane attached to the instrument or of air passing through it.
Idiophones may be struck (such as spoons and castanets), rubbed (singing bowls and the musical or singing saw), or plucked (jaw harp). An interesting idiophone that doesn't fit into any of these categories is the wobble board. Rolf Harris is credited with the invention of this instrument.
The History of Spoon Playing
The tradition of playing spoons is thought to have begun with "playing the bones". This was a technique in which music was created when two rib bones from a sheep or another animal were struck together. Playing the bones is still a popular activity, although now artificial bones are generally used. Spoons have been used as eating utensils since Paleolithic times, so it’s possible that playing the spoons developed very early in our history.
Using spoons to produce music is popular in many countries, including Ireland, Russia, Turkey, Greece, Australia, the United States, and parts of Canada. New sounds and rhythms are continually being produced by creative players. Some people have even played electrically amplified spoons.
Tips for Creating Spoon Music With Children
Dave Ruch is a performer, teacher, and music researcher who plays plucked string instruments and the spoons. He works with K-12 students as well as adults.
Creating Your Own Music
Spoons have been widely played because they are an inexpensive and easily obtained instrument, aren’t hard to master (as long as one isn't discouraged by an awkward start), are portable, and can provide an exciting, percussive rhythm that is appealing to our senses, just like the beat of a drum. The sound of musical spoons is generally weaker than the sound of a drum beat, though. Even if you’ve never played spoons or another instrument before, you can get the utensils from your kitchen right now and start creating music with them. Learning new playing techniques will increase your enjoyment, however.
At first, manipulating two spoons in one hand will probably be hard, as it was for me. The utensils will probably flop around in your hand and it will be hard to coordinate their movements and slap them together. Very quickly though, you will develop some control over your new instrument. I attained a little control before the end of my first practice session. If you practice for a short time each day your control will improve, enabling you to create the enticing rhythms played in the videos in this article.
Abby the Spoon Lady and Banjo Ben Perform
Abby the spoon lady is a street musician and an activist for busking. She hosts a radio show called Busker Broadcast. Banjo Ben plays the banjo, guitar, mandolin, and other instruments.
Choosing Spoons for Creating Music
Experts say that the best spoons for playing have wide and flat handle tips as well as a flat shank. Those made of pure silver dent too easily when played. Some people like to collect different types of spoons to see what sorts of sounds they make and what they feel like when they’re played. Collecting unusual spoons becomes an extension of their music hobby.
Musical spoons are sold in music stores and online. These are wooden or metal objects that are joined together at one end. While many have a traditional spoon shape, some look like long and narrow wooden blocks. I think that part of the charm of playing the spoons is that cutlery can become a musical instrument. Some people are willing to pay money for an instrument, though.
It’s good to practice playing with different types of spoons, including the usual kinds that most people have in their kitchen. If you do this, even when you’re visiting friends or relatives without your preferred utensils you can still create music.
In Britain and Eastern Canada, the spoons are often played as an accompaniment to fiddle music. In the United States, they may accompany folk instruments such as the jug and the washboard.
Spoons are all you need to have fun with rhythm, whether you are playing on your own or with other people. Accompanying the spoons with another instrument will give an added dimension to the music. This may be enjoyable, but it isn’t essential. Cutlery on its own offers many possibilities.
As a Doctor Who fan, I have to end this article with a short video of Sylvester McCoy— the seventh doctor—playing the spoons while in character. It's a shame that this ability wasn't passed along to the doctor's regenerated forms. I would love to hear the latest doctor playing the spoons. As strange as it may sound, Sylvester McCoy also played the spoons in his role in King Lear.
I play the spoons in everything I can, and I’ve got them into King Lear! It’s in my contract, à la W. C. Fields. He used to insist on juggling in every film he made - even Great Expectations, but with me it’s the spoons."— Sylvester McCoy
Sylvester McCoy as Doctor Who
A Reference and a Resource
© 2012 Linda Crampton