Tristan Clarke and Joe Buono have taken the Internet by storm with their melodica arrangements of classical hits.

The Melodica Men began as two guys playing toy instruments for fun, but the duo has taken the Internet by storm with their sophisticated melodica arrangements of classical hits. Tristan Clarke and Joe Buono became friends while studying music at the Peabody Conservatory and have been playing melodica together since May 2016. They have toured to Seattle and Paris, funding their trips by busking, and in September last year their video of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring went viral. They have since performed with the Jacksonville Symphony and been featured on ABC’s The Gong Show and appeared on NBC’s America’s Got Talent. Tristan and Joe are both brass players by trade – Tristan, a graduate of the Juilliard School, is principal trumpet with the Jacksonville Symphony, while Joe has earned two Masters degrees from Peabody and currently teaches and composes. Limelight caught up with the pair to talk melodicas.

Melodica Men, Rite of SpringThe Melodica Men busking in Paris.

How did the two of you come to play melodica?

Joe found a broken melodica at his grandpa’s house a few years ago, then his mom got him a “real” one for graduating from his Masters. In May 2016, he visited Tristan in Charlotte, NC and showed him the melodica. Tristan immediately fell in love and ordered one online. In Summer 2016, we decided to go busking in Seattle and Paris, and it has just kept growing ever since.

You have become the driving force behind a melodica renaissance. Why has the instrument been so under-appreciated until now?

The melodica has typically been considered only an educational toy instrument. Until recently, nobody (including us) seemed to realise that it offers a lot of musical potential.

What are the biggest challenges with the instrument, and are only two or sometimes three octaves a significant limitation?

The biggest challenge is definitely intonation. Melodicas are not designed to be played as much as we play them, so some reeds tend to detune over time. We have to get creative with chord voicings by either avoiding problematic notes or using them to our advantage (e.g., using a slightly flat note as the third scale degree of a chord).

We’ve found that the three-octaves we have on our melodicas is generally enough, but it’d be nice to have a few notes below low F.

Which composers do you feel suit the instrument’s unique timbre best?

We think the melodica would lend itself well to minimalistic, pointillistic music, such as Glass, Reich, etc. It can also be quite lyrical, so maybe someone like Gershwin too.

Is there anything you think can’t (or shouldn’t) be played on melodica?

We’re discovering that the melodica is a surprisingly unlimited instrument, so it can play pretty much anything. That being said, what it “shouldn’t” play is an entirely different consideration! We suppose it depends on one’s musical taste and integrity, or rather, lack thereof.

Have you thought about commissioning new works for melodica? Who would you like to write for you?

Some composers have reached out to us about perhaps commissioning new works for melodica. It’s not our number one priority at the moment, but it’d be cool to have some hip modern composers write for us.

Which historical composers do you think would have embraced the instrument most heartily?

Anyone with a healthy sense of humor. We believe composers such as Stravinsky, Bernstein and maybe even Mozart would’ve embraced melodica.

How has your training at the Juilliard School and the Peabody Conservatory prepared you for a career in melodica?

Of course, we never expected that we would apply our conservatory training to a toy instrument, but our education has certainly benefitted us. We are both brass players, so we’re adept at articulation and breath control, which allow us to get a lot more expression out of our melodicas. Our knowledge of music theory also allows us to put together our arrangements, and ear training and keyboard skills play to our advantage as well.

Your Rite of Spring attracted a lot of attention – which other ‘greats’ would you love to get your teeth into?

We’ve already sunk our teeth into lots of greats, and we’re always trying to think of what repertoire our audience will love the most. We’re currently considering major works by Holst, Berlioz, Ravel, and Wagner.

What is the most melodicas you’ve had in a room at the one time? Are there any plans to expand the ensemble any further?

We’re fairly certain that we hold the record for most melodicas in one room at one time – 500! It’s because we’ve developed our own model melodica (the MM37), and had the first batch shipped to our house.

What advice do you have for aspiring melodicists out there?

Are there any aspiring “melodicists” out there?! If there are, they should reach out to us. Let’s do something cool together.