Music teachers take note:  this reed instrument would very likely transform your classroom into a fun place to be, if it is not already.   This is probably one of the world's smallest melodic instruments, smaller than a harmonica.   With a sliding scale of infinite notes available, and a range of about 3 octaves, the tootophone is very versatile.  It's size makes it perfect for carrying in a pocket, ready to practice with whenever inspiration strikes.  

There is no fingering to learn.  Given a few basic principles, one plays by ear, the way one might whistle melodically, or sing.    Just about any melody you can imagine, you can play -- with feeling!  

The basic tootophone mouthpiece is a modified hypodermic syringe.  It is shaped like a saxophone mouthpiece and uses reeds of different materials, such as x-ray film plastic or silicone rubber.  My favorite uses x-ray film with silicone on both sides.  A tootophone mouthpiece costs about 15 cents to make; 10 cents for the syringe, plus a little electrical tape, thread, and reed material.  One could equip a whole tootophone band for next to nothing.  Schools often complain about budget restraints, and regular band instruments are usually expensive.  A saxophone can cost thousands of dollars.  

This Pocket Tootophone design can be easily reconfigured to play the mouthpiece alone, the mouthpiece and the unit it plugs into, or the mouthpiece, plug-in unit and pipe section that protects the mouthpiece in your pocket.  It is three instruments in one!   Plus, you can plug the mouthpiece into other separate body variations to further expand the range of voices it can have.   

Making a tootophone is not difficult.  The student learns shop skills, craftsmanship, and elements of physics related to sound.  If something ever happens to the tootophone, the student can always make another at negligible cost.    That sort of self-sufficiency is empowering and is good for self-esteem.   

Playing the tootophone involves breath control, and a lot of subtle mouth movement.  The breath control is useful for playing any wind instrument.  

I would like to see international tootophone bands everywhere and people playing together more often.  Getting people to play and have fun together is a good way to protest war.  Tootophone playing tends to make people smile.  Let it be the people's instrument of the 21st century!

Hear sample recordings in the last step.  


Step 1: Tools and Materials

I use 1 cc insulin syringes, available at any pharmacy for about 10 cents.  Included with the syringe is a plastic cap that covers the plunger.  Save the cap.  It becomes part of the plug-in unit that holds the mouthpiece to the body.  Use pliers to pull out the metal needle.  Dispose of the needle tips carefully, as they are very sharp.  

You can use mineral spirits, or another solvent to rub the printed marks off the syringe, in an attempt to remove some of the non-music related stigma syringes carry these days.   Basically, it's just sterile plastic tubing, but the ink will eventually wear off onto your lips if you don't remove it first.  .  

You need to sand down the end of the syringe to make the curve the reed presses against.  For that, I use coarse, medium, and fine sandpaper.  After using the fine sandpaper, I also use some normal paper without abrasive to polish the plastic even more.  

I use a finely honed X-acto knife to clean the inside edges of the curve after sanding, and some fine sandpaper to get the burrs off of the outside edges.  Flat spots and tiny burrs can interfere with reed movement at a micro-level across the sanded curve, creating jumps in what should be a smooth sliding scale.  

To help hold the syringe during sanding, and to protect one's knuckles from the sandpaper, I use a little round stick that jams into the back end of the syringe.  I put some rubber tubing on the stick to make it easier to grab onto with my hand.  

You can make reeds from plastic trash, like vacuum formed packaging material.  I get discarded x-rays from our hospital, wash the images off, and use the beautiful blue plastic material to make my reeds.  Sometimes, I put a layer of silicone rubber on one, or both sides of the reed material to mellow out the sound some.  For that, you need a soft printmaking roller and some typing paper, along with some clear 100% RTV silicone rubber, which comes in grease gun cartridges at the hardware store.  You also need a grease gun for the cartridge.  I use a paper cutter for precise cutting of the reed material strips, after making sheets of the bulk material.  

To make the plug in units, you need the plunger cap from the syringe, with a hole drilled and carved with the X-acto knife to its maximum diameter.  You also need a #9 rubber O-ring, and a 1/2" CPVC connector.   CPVC is like PVC plastic, only for hot water, and 1/2" CPVC has a slightly smaller diameter than 1/2" PVC does.  

Precise diameters are critical in getting all the parts to fit together perfectly.  Sometimes products from different manufacturers are slightly different, and the differences cause problems.  For example, the press fit of the syringe's plunger cap into the CPVC connector depends on the cap not being able to pass through the center of the connector.  It should be stopped half-way by a little ridge inside the connector.  If the ridge doesn't protrude enough to the inside, or the cap rim diameter is too small, the cap will not stop where it needs to stop and will pass right through the connector.  I am usually lucky, and things work, but if they don't, then look for parts by other manufacturers.  

A 3 3/4" piece of 1/2" CPVC pipe serves as the protective sheath, or body extender.  I use a file to dress up the outer edges of the cut ends, and the X-acto knife to dress up the inner edges.  

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Bio: I'm a refugee from Los Angeles, living in backwoods Puerto Rico for about 35 years now and loving it. I built my own home ... More »
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