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The Cactus Player

The Cactus Player

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Unique Skill Sets

Associate professor of music Scott Farkas demonstrates how to play a cactus Oct. 6 at College of Southern Idaho.

How many people can say they play the cactus? Scott Farkas can.

Farkas, 30, plays percussion instruments such as marimba and snare drum, but nothing captures attention like playing the spines of a cactus in a pot.

Farkas — who has taught percussion, jazz band and pep band at College of Southern Idaho for three years — earned his master’s degree in percussion performance at the University of Akron in Ohio and bachelor’s degrees in music composition and percussion performance from State University of New York at Fredonia.

As strange as it may sound to others, Farkas said, cactus playing is a thing in the percussion world — mostly thanks to avant-garde composer and music theorist John Cage. Cage's "Child of Tree," composed in 1975, uses instruments made of plant materials, including the cactus.

"He is one of my musical heroes," Farkas said. 

A cactus is played by amplifying it with a contact microphone. 

"The things you think of as jokes are true," Farkas said. "You have to be careful not to hurt yourself. You have to develop a touch on it."

When picking a cactus to play, Farkas recommends finding one with long, sturdy spines — not too close together, or the sound won't resonate as well. If the spines are too short or furry, you are more likely to stab yourself.

Farkas uses his fingers and a wooden stick to pluck and rub the spines; Cage often used a feather. The longer the spine, the lower its sound.

How do you know you are playing the cactus correctly? 

"If I'm happy with the sounds that come out of it and others like the sound," Farkas said. "I don't know if you can be the master of the cactus."

How to Play the Cactus

1. Get a cactus with long, evenly spread spines.

2. Make a contact microphone using a piezoelectric transducer, plug it into an amplifier and attach it to one of the cactus spines.

3. Use your fingers or other objects to pluck or rub the spines to create sound. Bonus points for rhythm without injury.

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