People often ask me about my background training in Music. I wouldn’t call myself a musician. I never learned to read music and couldn’t tell you how the circle of fifths works. When I was twelve years old I took seven weeks of guitar lessons. That’s it. I taught myself to play piano, violin, banjo, mandolin, harmonica and hand drums.
Everything changed for me in 1992 because of a construction accident. Three surgeries and long hours of physical therapy couldn’t repair the broken middle finger on my left hand. It is now permanently bent and crooked and I am unable to close it into a fist. I gave up playing stringed instruments. The fingers I use for fretting don’t work properly anymore.
This kind of accident would have been catastrophic for a professional musician. I thought it was pretty bad also, until I discovered how to make and play the seashell flute, twelve years later.
There are five pitch holes in a seashell flute. They follow the straight lengthwise axis line of the shell and are drilled through whorls 2, 3, 4, 6 and 8, counting from the shell’s opening (aperture) to it’s pointy end (apex). The reason I put the pitch holes where they are is simple: that’s where my finger tips naturally touch the shell. I had to leave a space between pitch holes 4 and 6 because of my broken middle finger.
As it turned out, the space between pitch holes 4 and 6 is absolutely necessary for the flute to release a proper diatonic scale of musical notes. A pitch hole through whorl 5 releases a sharp/flat note. Same for whorl 7. Any deviation from the pitch hole placement pattern results in a less than perfect scale of diatonic notes. That’s just the way it works.
I considered calling my business ‘Broken Finger Flutes’, to honor one of the deciding factors leading to the discovery of the diatonic scale of musical notes inside a seashell. Accidents can be catalysts for discoveries. What appears to be a tragedy one day may turn out to be a blessing the next. In my case, it took twelve years to find the blessing.
Michael’s new family of seashell wind instruments continued to amaze and delight visitors at his farmer’s market vending booth in Florida and Massachusetts. That was the year, however, that the housing market collapsed and a world wide recession began. Both he and Dana struggled to grow their businesses in a rapidly shrinking economy. He wondered what he should do next.
An accident provided Michael with an opportunity he wasn’t expecting. His father fell down and broke his hip. Michael moved to Winter Park, Florida to care for him during his long recovery. While there he began to vend at a local farmer’s market in downtown Orlando. That’s where he found out about Rollins College.
A Rollins College music major told him that Rollins College Physics Department studies how acoustic musical instruments work and that he should ask them if they would study his new instruments. He made an appointment with the dean of the department. They met several times and eventually his seashell flute was accepted as a research project.
The dean told Michael that there are only a few college level physics departments in all of North America that have labs equipped to study how acoustic musical instruments work. Michael’s father just happened to live ten minutes away from one of the top physics labs in the country dedicated to doing this type of research.
Over the following years Michael met with the research team many times. They analyzed the sounds produced by the seashell flute and eventually submitted a research paper to the Journal of Sound and Vibration for publication. The research paper was rejected after peer review however because more research needed to be done to fully explain why the seashell flute works.
The conclusion of the research paper states: “we do not have a firm understanding of the air resonances of a pipe in the shape of a logarithmic spiral. Our data indicate that a simple model that works well for straight pipes, and pipes with few toroidal bends, does not accurately predict the impedance of a logarithmic spiral cavity with holes. This anomalous behavior will be the subject of future research.”
Five years later they still don’t know why it works. Perhaps someone reading this article may be able to explain it. The author will respond to any research inquiries.
Thank you for taking the time to read this story. Dana and Michael continue to be friends. She cares for her parents and their properties on Cape Cod.
Michael cares for his aging father in Florida and continues to vend his new family of seashell musical instruments at farmer’s markets and music festivals throughout Florida. He has become a skilled ‘Shellist’. That’s one who plays seashells as musical instruments.
Happiness is being surrounded by good friends that share life’s ups and downs together. Having enough money to enjoy the ride doesn’t hurt either. The summer cottage was closed for the winter. He and Dana moved off Cape, into her sister’s house, where he continued to create his new family of seashell musical instruments.
He desperately wanted to discover the economic value of his new products and decided that a test market would be just the thing. His first venue was the Delray Beach Farmer’s Market, open every Saturday morning, from late November through early May. The execution of his market research plan, however, left much to be desired.
His sister, Kate, had a spare bedroom in her Delray Beach condo, which she offered to let him use for the vending season. Dana felt hurt and confused by his abrupt decision to leave for Florida one cold December morning.
Dana’s father, Howard, understood the passion, drive and risk-taking behavior required to start a new business. Her parents had owned several successful ones. He had made mistakes and poor judgments along the way, but he also had the love of his wife and life long partner, Dana’s mother, to sustain him.
Howard called Michael in Florida a few days later. They spoke in earnest. He told Michael that he considered him family and convinced him to return the following spring. Dana and he eventually came to terms during a trip she made to see him that winter.
Dana and Michael left Provincetown and returned to the cottage, where he immediately began to experiment with his twelve new Screw Shells.
He bought a high speed rotary drill and split tip titanium drill bits used for drilling through ceramic tile. Without these modern tools he never would have continued his experiments. Shells are just too hard to drill holes through, using a conventional carpenter’s drill. (It must have taken indigenous peoples a long time to drill holes through shells, without the benefit of electric drills and metal drill bits.)
Michael drilled five small holes through the shell, under where his finger tips touched the shell (while using the acorn cap whistle technique to resonate the air inside the shell). His finger tip pads naturally touched whorls 2, 3, 4, 6 and 8, counting from the shell opening (aperture). He heard the musical notes Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti and Do when he uncovered the pitch holes, in sequence, beginning from the pointy end (apex). The notes didn’t sound perfect to him, at this point in the experiments, but they were close.
It wasn’t until he straightened out the line of pitch holes, following the lengthwise axis line of the shell, that the musical notes became perfect. Further experiments with pitch hole size released the chromatic musical notes. He then discovered how to play the second half-octave of notes. Incredibly, the shell released an octave and a half of perfect diatonic and chromatic musical notes, all without the use of mathematical measurements or calculations of any sort.
There is a relationship between the logarithmic spiral shape of the Screw Shell, the straight line of five pitch holes (in whorls 2, 3, 4, 6, and 8 that follow the shell’s lengthwise axis line) and the diatonic scale of notes. Approximately sixty five million years before Michael drilled the five pitch holes, the shell contained the latent ability to release, what is known today as, the Western scale of musical notes.
The first song Michael learned to play on his new seashell flute was ‘Amazing Grace’. The second was ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’. And he wondered if other people would be able to play this new musical instrument.
The Shell Shop in Provincetown, MA had just what Michael was looking for: Great Screw Shells at reasonable prices. He bought a dozen. Dana liked this shop much more than the one in Florida. It smelled good, was well lit and breezy.
Provincetown is a thickly settled, historic, maritime community bordering Provincetown Harbor. It hosts a large population of Portuguese fishing families that have lived and worked there for many generations. It was also once home to a bohemian chef, named Howard Mitchum, who wrote the ‘Provincetown Seafood Cookbook’. Dana wanted to find out more about him from the locals, for an article she was writing about him.
They spoke with the owner of a small book store that carried a few of his books. He told Dana that the deaf/mute cook had been quite the character in Provincetown and that the staff at his favorite drinking establishment, ‘Ye Old Colony’, might be able to provide her with more information.
The letter ‘Y’ had fallen off the word ‘Colony’ over the entrance way into the old and decrepit pub. An empty row of hard stools hugged the bar. They ordered two beers from the bartender and asked if she had known Howard Mitchum.
The bartender said she had worked there for over fifteen years and was well acquainted with Howard, before he passed away, ten years ago. She proudly pointed to the window booth he held nightly court at and plied them with colorful stories. The most controversial one concerned his well attended memorial party, which was held at the pub shortly after his death.
She confided, or perhaps confessed, that Howard’s daughter and she had carried out his final wish that day: they surreptitiously mixed his cremated ashes into a large bowl of French Onion dip, set out on the tabletop of his favorite booth for all of his guests to enjoy.
Was Howard Mitchum’s last act on earth artistic licence, sheer devilry or a contrivance? I don’t know. If it was true he must have felt it was a fitting end for a chef to be consumed by his dearest friends. In life he enjoyed creating new and exotic dishes. Why not also after death?