Inside the Theater
Most audiences expect to hear a standard set of instruments at live performances.
But many shows offer surprising musical inventions and innovations. And countries across the globe offer their own, lesser-known instruments that produce entrancing sounds.
To celebrate Uncommon Instrument Awareness Day, explore below some unusual instruments played by top artists at The Smith Center.
Garbage Bins… And Garbage!
Don’t write off the garbage bin in your garage as a mere receptacle of diapers and tissues.
The distinctive sound of walloping a garbage bin prompts many leading performers — and even orchestra pits — to include these in their roster of percussion instruments.
Israeli percussion troupe Mayumana demonstrated the full versatility of a sturdy garbage bin in the group’s energetic 2019 show at The Smith Center. The artists performed an athletic routine of banging garbage bin lids and drumming the sides with precise synchronicity and elated grins.
“We try to make music from everything around us,” says the troupe’s creator Boaz Berman. “(Audiences) leave feeling energetic, like they want to dance and play.”
Trash cans — alongside repurposed garbage, like old frying pans — were also featured in The SpongeBob Musical to achieve a zany soundscape for the cartoon adaption.
“We were going for making the sound as real and natural as possible,” says Mike Dobson, the show’s sound designer. “Adding things like old trash cans and frying pans into the sound palette seemed like a very natural way to go.”
Most people have likely never seen this word before.
Yet almost any music fan will recognize this instrument’s alien-like warbling featured in The Beach Boys’ classic “Good Vibrations.”
Trombonist/inventor Paul Tanner custom built the electro-theremin for himself, as a modernized take on another obscure instrument: the theremin.
Essentially a big box with two metal antennae, a theremin uses electric current to produce sound. To play it, musicians move their hands in the air between the antenna to adjust the pitch and volume.
The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson became intrigued by the electro-theremin’s eerie tremolo, used in various horror flicks.
The legendary band — which has sold out multiple shows at The Smith Center — added the instrument as an auditory gem in “Good Vibrations.”
This completed the already robust collection of musicians at Wilson’s famously rigorous recording sessions for the song.
"That wasn't your normal rock 'n' roll. I mean, it wasn't 'Help Me, Rhonda' and it wasn't 'Surfin' U.S.A.,' " bassist Carol Kay says of recording the song in an NPR interview. "You were part of a symphony."
Just like any rock concert feels incomplete without a drum set, the tabla hand drum remains a staple of classical Indian music.
A virtuoso of traditional Indian stylings, Ustad Shafaat Khan performed a complex solo piece on the tabla at Myron’s Cabaret Jazz in 2019. He demonstrated the drum’s surprising range of 30 different notes — and in an impressive display, Khan named every note as he played.
This instrument dates back to the 16th century, when poet and musician Amir Khusrow Dehlavi invented many Indian instruments still performed today, including the sitar.
Most musicians in India devote their lives to mastering just one instrument, Khan says.
“In the Western world, you might learn flute and piano and guitar, but in India, it’s different,” he says. “There are only solo sitar players or solo tabla players.”
When most people think of bagpipes, they imagine a Scottish musician with puffed cheeks, adorn in lustrous kilt.
But bagpipes don’t belong to Scotland, alone.
The country of Ireland offers its own national bagpipes, the uilleann pipes.
While projecting a sweet, full sound that easily fills a room, this instrument requires far less lung capacity than the Scottish variation.
Roughly translated from Gaelic into “pipes of the elbow,” uilleann pipes involve pumping bellows that attach to the musician’s arm.
The exact details of the instrument’s invention remain unknown, but it first appeared in the 18th century, as the follow-up to blown pipes previously played on battlefields.
Uilleann pipes have made more than one appearance on The Smith Center’s stage.
Riverdance featured the instrument with a mournful solo piece, and acclaimed Irish band The Chieftains includes the pipes in its performances around the world, including at The Smith Center.
“I think it’s the solidness of the music and that the sound has crossed to so many people,” says Chieftains founder Paddy Moloney on the global popularity of Irish music.
What serves as a centerpiece of Japanese drumming, and weighs up to 600 pounds? The o-daiko drum.
This remains a common instrument with taiko drumming — a traditional Japanese artform — which originated in Japan centuries ago in the military.
Eventually, Buddhist and Shinto religions adopted taiko for sacred purposes, until it permeated all aspects of Japanese culture, spanning theater and the imperial court.
Southern Nevada audiences have witnessed these mammoth instruments performed at The Smith Center by Kodo, the world’s leading taiko drumming group.
Pounding on these enormous drums requires tremendous stamina.
That’s why the Kodo performers, who live together in a remote house with no internet or air conditioning, practice an intense athletic regimen that kicks off with a daily 5k run.
“This is the very fascinating thing about Kodo,” says group spokesperson Yui Kawamoto. “It takes a lot of athleticism.”