Chazlen’s Unknown Instruments

weird instrument

Chazlen Rook finds it extremely satisfying to play a musical instrument from her personal collection that audiences have never before seen or heard.  “Everyone takes it for granted that we know all the instruments–so when I bring out my nyckelharpa, with its little wooden pegs and 16 strings, they react with such curiosity!” 

The nyckelharpa is a Swedish folk instrument dating back to medieval times. For Chazlen, it is one of her most prized purchases. “It has opened new worlds for me, as a historical interest and a way to perform, because instruments are storytelling devices.” 

Chazlen’s growing collection of historical instruments also includes a mechanical organette from the mid-1880s, which is like a miniature player piano in a box. “Imagine a street performer wearing suspenders with a monkey on his shoulder, cranking out a melody,” Chazlen said.

Chazlen did not come from an extremely musical family, but when she took middle-school orchestra, her love for violin took off. “My grandparents bought me my first violin, and although they’ve passed away, I’m continually discovering their musical culture through the antiques they left behind. My dad occasionally brings me a box of their things, and I learn about the kind of music they enjoyed, such as Vivaldi, Celtic music, or big band music. When I got into jazz, Dad brought me another box and said, ‘See, they loved jazz too.’”

When Chazlen decided to study music at the University of Central Oklahoma, she was thrilled when the school loaned her a student violin from 1867. “I started researching the traditions of instruments. When I came across the non-standardized instruments–the ones most people don’t know about–I was intrigued by their sound and how they were originally used.”

As Chazlen explored music, however, she found herself in the uncomfortable position of being too reliant on reading sheet music. “I couldn’t walk into a jam session and play along. People would say, ‘Oh, you’re paper trained. You’ve got to feel the rhythm and internalize the music.’” So, Chazlen began her quest to make music, not just play music. She studied abroad in a mountain village in Norway, learning their folk music traditions, and now she carries a mouth harp in her pocket, often known as a Jew’s harp. “It’s simple, but you can take it anywhere for a short burst of entertainment,” Chazlen said. 

A tenor banjo from 1924 is one of her recent acquisitions. She taught herself to play it during a family road trip, by listening to the banjo recordings of an early coal miner. “The banjo is considered very American. It’s used in folk entertainment and vaudeville, but it actually has African origins and was played by slave workers.” 

Although Chazlen is still in school, she gives violin lessons and performs. Last year, Chazlen bonded with other local musicians to form the group Rauland, named after the Norwegian village where she studied. Rauland means ‘red earth,’ so it has an obvious parallel to Oklahoma. For Chazlen, it’s an opportunity to share original compositions and play the historic instruments from her personal collection. 

“I love playing to small audiences because there’s nothing like seeing the wonder in the eyes of people who experience a historic instrument for the first time. I often see tears,” Chazlen said. “It’s a completely genuine emotional response to hearing a new form of music for the first time.” 

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