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1. Who are you?

My name is Michael Ryan, founder of

2. What do you do?

I discovered, developed, make and market a variety of musical wind
instruments using small to medium size seashells.

3. What kind of shells do you use?

The shells I make musical wind instruments with are all very common. They are non-endangered and are collected by hand. The animals are consumed by the people who harvest them. Most of the shells are from the Philippines. One is from Florida and is found in abundance on both

4. How do they work?

Unlike large conch shell horns and trumpeting shells requiring a lip reed to produce sounds, small shells having round or oblong apertures (openings) are played using an edge tone technique to generate sounds. Credit is due to the inventor of this technique, although no one knows who that may be. The technique is ancient and is still, to this day, known as the ‘Acorn Cap Whistle Technique’.

5. What is the ‘Acorn Cap Whistle Technique’?

A player makes two fists with thumbs on top. Press thumbs together. Spread thumbnails apart by pushing thumbnails down onto index fingers.  The V shaped space above the thumb joints is called the ‘wind way’. Press both lips firmly onto thumb joints and blow breath over thumb joints and through the wind way. Puff cheeks out to create back pressure and a faster air stream. This faster air stream strikes the rim of a small concave object, such as an acorn cap, and creates a whistle sound.

Next, hold a concave object, such as an acorn cap or twist off bottle top, between thumbs and index fingers, cup side up and facing you. Cover most of the object with your thumbs below the thumb joints. Direct the breath at the exposed rim of the object, visible near the bottom of the V. A whistle sound should be heard. If not, adjust the angle of the rim by moving the hands up or down. Usually the mouth hole is too big. Make the mouth hole (a small wedge-shaped hole into the interior of the concave object) a bit smaller.

6. How did you learn the ‘Acorn Cap Whistle Technique’?

My nephew, Jonathan Delvecchio, taught it to me while on a walk in the woods of western PA. He learned the skill from his friend. His friend learned it from his father. Apparently the skill is transferred from person to person, orally; similar to how people learn to make sounds using a blade of grass, held between the thumbs. The ‘Acorn Cap Whistle Technique’ appears to be more obscure, however. It could be an old Native American skill that is vanishing with the tribes. Or it could be an old ‘Druid’ skill, vanishing with the Druids.. They worshipped oak trees. No one knows who invented the skill. Perhaps someone will illuminate us.

7. Why did you apply the ‘Acorn Cap Whistle Technique’ to seashells?

A series of significant coincidences occurred during the following year, and brought me to the shores of Perdido Key, Fl., at sunrise, the day
after Saint Patrick’s Day, 2003. On that day, my companion, Dana, began to meditate on the beach at sunrise. After about ten minutes in to her meditation,  two wild dolphins appeared, in the surf, in front of her. I had walked a few hundred yards away, leisurely beach combing.. I looked back at her and saw the dolphins through the green wall of the large waves. I yelled for her to look but she didn’t respond. The dolphins did
however, and swam towards me, leaping and making dolphin sounds.

I wanted to communicate with them by imitating their high-pitched whistle sounds. Lacking an acorn cap I picked up a small clam shell and used the ‘Acorn Cap Whistle Technique’. It worked!. The dolphins responded with more sounds and swam in closer.

After a while the two dolphins lost interest and continued on their way, but I learned that the ‘Acorn Cap Whistle Technique’ worked with
seashells. I wondered what other shells it would work with.

On our drive back to Cape Cod, MA we stopped at a shell shop located in St. Augustine, Fl. where I tested many different shell species for sound making capabilities. These included: Terebra Turritella or the Common Screw Shell; Muffin Shell; Golden Mouth Turban Shell; Moon Snail Shell; Japanese Land Snail Shell: Wentletrap; Murex; Sundial; Lacunas; Topshell; Periwinkle; Tegulas and other species.  I bought dozens. The two criteria I used in selecting shells was: could my thumbs cover and seal the shell opening easily? And was the sound interesting and clear?

8. What sounds did the shells make?

Many shells produce sounds similar to bird calls. The smaller the shell, the higher the pitch produced. Conversely, larger shells produce deeper and more sonorous sounds. The Muffin Shell sounds like a large owl hoot. Owls often answer back. The small clam shell whistle produces sounds similar to bird of prey cries and dolphin whistles.

The Terebra Turritella Shell produced sounds similar to the cooing song of a Mourning Dove. In fact, one flew into the tree nearby while I was making sounds with it and another landed on the roof ridge. Apparently, the sound produced by this shell attracts these birds.

The song of the Mourning Dove typically begins in the key of C and rises two whole tones to E before returning to C again: C, E, C, C. I wondered
if the shell would be capable of more closely imitating this song if a finger pitch hole were drilled into a whorl. Would it behave like a flute?

I had a carpenters drill beside me at the time. Once outfitted with a one sixteenth drill bit I began to drill my first pitch hole into the shell. It took a long time. Shells are made out of crystals of calcium carbonate and are very hard…harder than our teeth. But it worked and the pitch did indeed
go up. I then began a long series of experiments over the following three years.

9. Could you explain these experiments?

Once I discovered that the pitch could change I reasoned that the shell may contain more notes. I bought a 35,000 rpm variable speed Dremel Drill and a variety of split tip titanium drill bits at a local hardware store. Without these tools I seriously doubt I would have continued experiments. Shells are too hard and take too long to drill with conventional slower drills and softer metal drill bits.

10. What music can be played on this instrument?

Any tune within an octave and a half range of notes. Also, when the finger tips are rolled over the pitch holes, partially opening and closing holes, many semitones are produced, similar to a chromatic scale of notes.

11. Is the instrument difficult or easy to play?

It’s not as easy as a recorder. The operator must combine two skills at once to produce the notes comprising a tune: making the mouth hole while using both thumbs to guide the breath to strike the tone edge or aperture rim and operating the finger pitch holes to play the tune.

12. Has this instrument been evaluated by professionals?

Yes. Dr. Thomas Moore, Dean of the Physics Department, Rollins College, Winter Park, Fl and his students have studied how the instrument works for over a year. A research paper reporting their findings to date has been submitted to the Journal of Sound and Vibration. Dr. Moore reports that more research is necessary to fully understand how this instrument works.

13. Is it possible to hear the sounds of this instrument?

Yes. They are included in my website

14. Who typically uses your instruments?

People from six years of age to ninety six. I suggest age ranges for shells based on the complexity of the skills required to play them. For example, the whistle flute is a complex instrument and I recommend a person be ten years of age or older before purchasing it. Also the whistle flutes are
available in many keys, ranging from a small flute in the key of E to a large one in the key of B. Hand size is important when choosing a flute. I recommend a whistle flute in the key of D for the average adult female hand size and C/B for the average adult male hand size. Flutes in the key of E are appropriate for a small hand of a ten year old.

15. What is a Shellist?

One who plays a seashell as a musical instrument. I believe Steve Turre, famous jazz trombonist, coined the term.

16. How do you see your business growing in the next five years?

I will be offering on-line classes and workshops designed to help developing shellists acquire the skills to become polished on their instruments.
I will offer various styles of music for sale through various outlets. This will include tracks of ‘all shell music’, using larger shells for base, whistle
flutes for melodies and other shells for rhythms. I will continue to offer the highest quality seashell musical instruments for sale at reasonable costs. What more?

I donate a percentage of my profit to non-profit organizations that help keep the oceans clean and healthy. The Academy of Natural Science, located in Philadelphia, PA, has a wonderful non-profit program titled ‘Friends of the Mollusks’ that will accept donations to this end. Dr. Gary Rosenberg, curator of the shell collection at the Academy, world renowned malacologist, author and coordinator of this program will be pleased to accept contributions.

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