Dean Shostak and his glass armonica

aheymann@vagazette.com

Playing his violin at inns and taverns, Dean Shostak is a common sight in Colonial Williamsburg. However, Shostak specializes in an instrument that separates him from other musicians: the glass armonica.

This past Saturday, Shostak performed on the glass armonica, along with glass bells and a glass violin, in a concert at the Williamsburg Regional Library.

Shostak said he wanted to play the glass armonica because he read about it being played in Williamsburg during the 18th century.

The glass armonica was originally invented by Ben Franklin. It is composed of many glass bowls stacked horizontally together on a rod. The bowls are then spun by a pedal the musician steps on, while their fingers move over the glass bowls.

“I grew up (In Williamsburg) and I’ve known the stories about the glass armonica and I go ‘hmm someone should be doing this,’ and that one of us should do this turned into ‘I’ll do it,’ ” Shostak said.

Luckily in the 1980s, Shostak got to know a German glassblower named Gerhard Finkbeiner, who was trying to make a glass armonica. He eventually made one for Shostak.

“The timing was perfect for me because I was just out of grad school and I was trying to look to expand what I was doing in Colonial Williamsburg,” Shostak said. “I had never seen one before.”

Shostak said it took him about five years to get used to the instrument and 10 to really be able to play songs on it and 20 to finally master it. One of the reasons he said he liked playing the armonica was the difficulty.

“It's not like you can take a piano lesson and go home and practice. You have to read 18th-century accounts of people who are doing this and try to piece it together — and sometimes not even in English, like in German,” Shostak said.

Since taking it up, Shostak has been a guest on programs including BBC World Service and “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.”

“Someone actually gave Mr. Rogers my Christmas CD and said ‘You might like this,’” Shostak said.

However, Shostak said his family didn’t realize what a big deal his music had become until they heard it on the weather channel as the background for the weekly forecast.

“That was like winning the Grammys to them,” Shostak said.

Shostak said all the glass blowers and scientists he has met over the years have made him optimistic about the future of glass instruments and music.

“People’s interest in glass goes up and down over generations,” Shostak said. “If you go back to the 18th century, they were crazy about glass objects.”

Today he said he’s able to see a view of glass similar to that of 18th-century England and America in other cultures. For example, Shostak said in Japan they give each other glass art as gifts.

“I keep hoping it's going to come back (to the U.S.) to a higher degree,” Shostak said. “And there are many people playing glass music in this style. We have the wine glass players, and they’re wonderful — but I wanted to show what Ben Franklin was doing.”

Shostak thinks the glass armonica is still relevant today because the sound it makes can fit with old and new music.

“(The glass armonica) is an instrument that doesn’t have preconceived notions. If I came out and played the harpsichord there would be an immediate response like this is an old instrument,” Shostak said. “I like that you can play (the armonica) in all keys — at other shows, I’ll play some jazz numbers on it; the Beatles is really wonderful on it, too. So Franklin really gave us an instrument in the 1760s that works for playing the Beatles on.”

Want to learn more?

To learn more about Shostak’s music or to find information on where he’s playing next, visit glassmusic.com.

Heymann can be reached by phone at 757-298-5828 or on Twitter at @HeymannAmelia.

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