Meet the Instrument Petting Zoo

Bow a violin or a cello, pucker up to a trumpet, clack a castanet, or see if you can get a note out of the clarinet that doesn’t summon a flock of Canada Geese: The California Symphony’s Instrument Petting Zoo offers the chance to get up close and personal with instruments you can see on stage in the hands of our pros during a concert. Operations & Education Director Sunshine Deffner gives us a brief tour. And pro-tip: It’s not just for kids.

What is the Instrument Petting Zoo?

It’s a traveling collection of musical instruments that we bring to different community events.  We lay the instruments out on two or three long tables and people can come by, pick them up, and try them out. Staff and volunteers running the zoo can even give a few pointers to help visitors get a better sound.

What’s the idea behind having an Instrument Petting Zoo?

An instrument petting zoo is a pretty popular educational tool used by many orchestras across the nation.  The zoo can take many shapes, and serve different objectives.

Here at the California Symphony, we host an Instrument Petting Zoo on the third floor lobby of the Lesher Center before our holiday concerts, and at events in the community throughout the year.  You can find us and the zoo at local fests like the Chevron Family Theatre Festival in Walnut Creek and at Storytime Readings at libraries around Contra Costa County.

In all cases, it’s a chance to pick up an instrument, learn how to hold it, find out what instrument family it belongs to, and maybe even learn the names of its different parts. You might be surprised to know that many of our little visitors (and parents) don’t know that instruments have families i.e. wind, brass, strings and percussion.  

Personally, I LOVE being able to share a tiny glimpse into music basics for adults. Our goal is to help audiences of all ages start to identify with what they will experience in the hall.

How many instruments are in the petting zoo?

In 2015 our Instrument Petting Zoo consisted of 2 violins, a borrowed flute, a borrowed clarinet, and some tambourines.

Thanks to the generosity of in-kind donors, we now have 4 violins, ranging in size from 1/32 to full size, a viola, a cello, flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, saxophone (why not?—they DO show up in a modern orchestra now and again), and a few small hand percussion instruments like a triangle and castanets.

Which are the most popular instruments?

Violins. By far, the violins. Everyone wants to pick up a violin and start playing it. Then they look to you to tell them how to play, and there are a couple of neat tricks we can teach quickly before the next person in line steps up.

The other instrument that gets a lot of play is the flute. Amusing really, because there are 16 tone holes on the flute. I would think it would be pretty intimidating, but everyone loves it.  Instead of getting too concerned about the keys and tone holes, we focus on just trying to get the embouchure [ahm-boo-shoo r] down (positioning of the mouth over the hole you blow into) and use the mouthpiece so you can at least get a tone out of it.  Then, time permitting, we add on the rest of the barrel and start trying some notes.  It’s a lot to take in, but we try and keep it simple—and fun!

In your opinion, what is the hardest instrument to play?

For me, all of them. But remember, everyone is different.  You might find basketball really easy and baseball really hard.  They’re both sports, but you may feel naturally more suited to one over the other.  Just find what works for you.  I am a singer so I have basic musicianship down, but that doesn’t easily translate to my hands and fingers when it comes to playing an instrument. It’s a really great brain workout.

If I want to take music lessons, where’s the best place to start?

Yes!  Do it. Take up an instrument. No matter your age. The benefits of learning an instrument have been proven over and over.

Many of our musicians also teach private students, or if you’re not ready for one-on-one lessons, you can check out local community programs to see if they offer a class.  For example, Walnut Creek Arts & Recreation offers piano, guitar, ukulele classes, and more.

What’s been your favorite moment during an Instrument Petting Zoo?

Instrument Petting Zoos attract children easily and the kids are usually excited to give everything a try. But for me, the really special moments happen when an adult shows up to the petting zoo tables. I remember one summer when a gentleman in his thirties picked up one of the tiniest violins on table and started asking questions. He wanted to learn to play. That’s all it takes. He just liked that he could walk right up and take a closer look and feel inspired to do something for himself!

Music does that. In fact, I think I like that as a tag line: The California Symphony Instrument Petting Zoo. Be Inspired!

Trying a trombone


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