I swear what I’m hearing must be a harmonica. The instrument has that perfect bluesy funk with a twist of southern twang. But then I glance up, and see it’s not a harmonica at all.
Jia Wu is playing a ripe, red bell pepper.
Her project is called Player’s Pflute, and it’s a kit of mouthpieces, corers, and measuring tape that can transform fruits and veggies into delightful, improvised instruments. With her inventions, a bell pepper makes an amusing harmonica. A zucchini becomes the aural doppelgänger of a recorder–though with hints of the deeper, wet resonance you might hear in a full-out clarinet. And something as large as a pumpkin can be not just the world’s largest kazoo, but several instruments, played by many kids at once. It’s like a quartet crossed with a hookah.
“One of my friends is a music teacher, and she told me that her students aren’t that engaged in her music classes. They avoided playing the recorders,” Wu says. “I wanted to help her create more interesting activities, and help children enjoy music.”
So Wu began to study how different instruments made the sound that they do. By reverse engineering the physics inside different mouthpieces, she was able to copy them into four different, 3D-printable shapes (including a clarinet, kazoo/bagpipe, whistle, harmonica). Along with that, she created little manual drills and corers, to hollow out the insides of various produce, and create finger holes. Finally, to make sure these finger holes represented something approaching real notes, she created a sort of ruler with spots for each hole. However, given that produce can come in so many different lengths, she made the ruler stretchable, so its intervals can scale in proportion with the veggie’s geometry.
Originally, Wu built her mouthpieces to work with paper and water bottles. But her breakthrough came when she considered the natural appeal of vegetables. Aside from very squishy, soft fruits, like ripe peaches and mangos, their flesh was actually easier to cut than plastic. And their whimsical industrial design–if you will–had the natural, colorful appeal of a toy.
Wu was a finalized for a Lexus Design Award for her work, and now, she hopes to find investors to help her mass-produce her kits. Aside from the entrepreneurial prospects, Wu is also bringing personal closure to her own unfulfilled childhood wish.
“When I was a child, I hoped that I could be a musician in the future. But there were so many other things to learn, like math and English–[yet] that was my dream,” she says. “So I hope more children can be triggered to play music, or even just to relax.”