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Whacky Music

Craig Ramsell ‘73, SM ‘74, makes music with Boomwhackers, colorful plastic tubes that are tuned by length.

It’s Sunday afternoon at the American International Toy Fair, and Craig Ramsell, founder and president of Whacky Music, attracts a crowd at his booth in Manhattan’s cavernous Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.

Ramsell–an inventor, salesman, and showman–is wearing a hard hat with colored plastic tubes sticking out of it at various angles. A vest festooned with the same kinds of tubes is buckled around his chest. He takes rubber mallets and strikes the tubes with alacrity. The spectators recognize the tune–“Old MacDonald”–and they chuckle when Ramsell sings the words in a Donald Duck falsetto.

“We don’t call our company Whacky Music for nothing,” says Ramsell.

The February afternoon at the Javits Center is just another day at the office for Ramsell ‘73, SM ‘74, a financial analyst whose midlife career change transported him from corporate suites to the toy and music-education marketplace.

It all began 11 years ago when Ramsell was taking out the trash. He had a cardboard gift-wrap tube that was longer than local recycling regulations permitted. So he cut it into two different lengths and, on a lark, whacked the pieces on his thighs.

“I heard their different tones, and the light went off,” says Ramsell, who lives in Sedona, AZ. “I figured if I could tune them, I could play music.” Ramsell’s first tube was middle C. That note, he found after some experimentation, could be produced with a tube that was 24.73 inches long and had a diameter of 1.75 inches. He then determined the lengths of tubing needed to produce other notes, using a mathematical formula that correlates pitch with a tube’s diameter and the total distance that air moves through the tube.

By 1995, Ramsell had made six plastic tubes of varying lengths that played a half-dozen notes of the pentatonic scale. But the instrument was not an overnight success. In 1995, his first run of 10,000 plastic tubes made out of cellulose acetate butyrate, or CAB, was a failure, because repetitive stress caused half of them to break. It took Ramsell two more years of research before he settled on a plastic called high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, which is commonly used for containers of milk or shampoo. Musical tubes made from the material have proved almost indestructible.

A decade later, Ramsell has sold more than 3.5 million of his percussion tubes, called Boomwhackers. Tuned by length, the brightly colored tubes make music when struck with a mallet or on any surface, including parts of the player’s body. Hit two tubes together, and you have harmony.

The tubes have a range of two and a half octaves, with 32 different notes, from the low C, which is 50.49 inches long, to a high G, a mere 7.57 inches. The outside diameter of each tube is 1.75 inches. Putting a specially designed cap on the end of a tube lowers its pitch exactly one octave.

Music has long been a big part of Ramsell’s life. He played French horn in his junior-high-school orchestra in Waterloo, IA, and, later, guitar in a local rock band. After college, he worked at Columbia Records, helping manage a department that put out greatest-hits albums. After that, he moved to California. While pursuing a career in corporate finance, he learned the classical guitar and performed at clubs and weddings.

Then came the Boomwhackers discovery. His company, Whacky Music, now has 13 employees. Boomwhackers have gained a following at specialty toy shops and on the Internet. Music educators in particular have found the instrument to be a low-cost and effective way to teach the principles of rhythm, melody, and harmony.

Last year the Parents’ Choice Foundation, which produces a consumer guide to children’s products, named Boomwhackers one of the 25 top toys of the past 25 years, in the same league as Rubik’s Cube and Pictionary Junior.

“Craig had this crazy idea, and it has grown a little more than he thought,” says Judy Pine, vice president of the catalogue division at West Music in Coralville, IA, one of the first mail-order companies to carry Boomwhackers. “He just wants kids of all ages to have fun.”

Those “kids” have included 1,100 alumni who gathered in Kresge Auditorium during Tech Reunions 1997, when Whacky Music was in its infancy. Ramsell led them in what he called a “spontaneous musical experience.” The response he received that day encouraged him to continue the pursuit of his dream.

“The largest group I’d ever led at the time was 10, but I’d done a couple of workshops, and I had some ideas about working on rhythm and tempo,” he says. “The alumni really got into it.”

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