Kazoos were at the heart of the initial idea for smallness exercises. One of the first items that came to mind. So I was surprised to find myself struggling to write about them. After a couple weeks of non-starts, I realized the problem: my feelings about kazoos are so simple and clear, so palpable, they seem beyond the need to explain. I feel that kazoo enthusiasm should be so thoroughly shared, and mutually understood, as to mimic telepathy. I should just be able to say, “Kazoos!” and receive an ecstatic reply of “Yes! I know!!” or “Kazoos? Fuck yeah!”
However, I am (mostly) reconciled to the fact that this is not a realistic expectation. And even if it were, it wouldn’t make for much of a blog post. So let us push on.
Kazoos. Kazoos! Even when I think the word ‘kazoo’, I find that I’m grinning. The name itself is joyous. It sounds like it belongs amongst the exclamations of “Callooh! Callay!” that one of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky characters “chortled in his joy.” Kazoo! Kazay!
But perhaps you don’t have such happy associations with kazoos. I’m not sure if they’ve maintained their popularity in the States, or ever been particularly popular in other countries. But I remember them as being ubiquitous at Alaskan kids’ parties in the 80s and 90s. Not the ‘fancy’ metal ones, but the garishly-colored plastic kind, bought in packs by moms and teachers at toy and party supply shops, to assure cheap, fast, and deafening entertainment. I never sought out a kazoo, they were just around.
Until they weren’t.
I didn’t notice or mind their absence until last year. At first, I noticed a lack of music, generally. I’d taken piano lessons when I was a kid, but hadn’t owned a keyboard in a long time. A full-sized keyboard doesn’t fit into a suitcase, and I’d been moving around and living out of suitcases for a looong time. Which was fine – it’s not like I had heaps of musical talent that was going to waste. I’d tried smaller, stringed instruments over the years – guitar, mandolin, violin – and even just tuning any of those up properly was beyond me. After fifteen minutes of struggling, and still being out of tune, any desire to actually play anything was gone. If I was going to make noise, I eventually realized, it needed to be with something not just cheap and portable, but idiot-proof.
I started joking that my skill level was more appropriate for a kazoo. If you can breath unassisted, you can probably get the hang of it. Kazoos are less instruments than a means of making the act of humming louder and unbearable; a way for children to give parents headaches. The idea of an adult ‘playing’ one is inherently absurd, and my jokes about taking up the kazoo were always met with laughs. But suddenly, I found I wasn’t just joking – I genuinely wanted one.
Luckily, the puke-inducing bus ride on which I had the idea for smallness exercises took me to Galway. On Shop Street there is a great store that sells an odd mixture of musical instruments, art supplies, and accessories for the elderly – pipes, canes, pillboxes, etc. At the back of the store, I found a nearly empty, clear plastic tub, with a couple of kazoos laying at the bottom. I picked out the white and yellow one, which seemed like a suitably cheerful color scheme – like daffodils. I paid €1.50, and was tremendously happy as I walked back out into the sunny, cobbled street. I found my friend, and started following her around kazoo-ing the Star Wars “Imperial March”. Why that song? I have no idea. I put the kazoo to my lips and that was just what came out. Some subconscious, comedic instinct just knew that playing Darth Vader’s theme music on kazoo would be the silliest thing to do, and took over.
So now I take it everywhere. I have a pouch with essential items (pencils, Swiss army knife, band-aids, lip balm, passport, paracetemol) that I always throw in my bag, and I keep my kazoo in it, too. It's so small and light, it's no bother. I’m not relentlessly going around annoying people with kazoo noise. But it’s comforting to know the option is there, should I need it.
Kazoos are, I now believe, the closest thing we have to time travel. About three seconds of humming into one, and you are five again. Or as five again as is humanly possible, given that you can’t fully abandon the knowledge and self-consciousness you’ve acquired in the years since that age. It is physically impossible to frown while you’re playing one, and impossible to look cool. Which is appropriate, because the sound of the kazoo is not something you make to impress people. It is noise for the sake of making noise. Silliness for the sake of silliness. Or to weird-out your cat, which is also an act valid for its own sake.
If you think you might find like to feel a little less serious, a little less mature, even just for a few minutes, this is the smallness exercise for you. I would say, "just put your lips together and blow", but Lauren Bacall style innuendo has no place in this kazoo context. It's more like, "hum away like a fool, until your giggles get the better of you." If you don't feel refreshed by it - a bit lighter in your body - I'd be surprised, and would recommend repeating the exercise until you feel it kick in.