It's all in the touch to play glass

Talking with Dennis James, Tacoma glass musician, you catch his fascination with the amazing physics that let sound emanate from vibrating glass. As a pianist (and someone who has never, ever been able to get a wine glass to ring) I was determined to have a try on this rare instrument under his tutelage.

The first step was getting my hands completely, utterly clean. The 44 glass bowls in an armonica sit cheek by jowl and cleaning them takes half a day. So I washed multiple times with harsh soap, then cleaned thoroughly with alcohol to get off every last speck of oil.

Next came the soaking. “Your fingers are sponges,” said Dennis, advising me to soak my fingertips in the instrument’s water dish for around five minutes until they were well-wrinkled. Glass vibrates on the stick-slip principle: Too much friction and the turning bowl stops and squeaks, while too much slip makes no sound at all. Water aids both friction and slip.

So, fingers thoroughly cleaned and wet, I started the bowls turning with the pedal and tried one. Nothing. Tried another bowl. Still nothing.

Dennis smiled. “You need just the right pressure to start the vibration,” he said, “slower for the larger, lower-pitched bowls. Then let it ring.”

Suddenly I got it. Under my fingers the bowl thrummed, singing into life, producing the haunting, flutey sound Dennis had just been demonstrating so eloquently. I tried a few more, and eventually a three-note chord. Piano training helped, though the spacing is different and the fingers have to arch backward (“I’m double- jointed,” said Dennis unhelpfully). The feel was bizarre, shimmering and delicate.

Playing the armonica was a lot like ice skating. Once I had it, it worked, though every so often I’d break the flow. Performing an entire Mozart piece on this would be hair-raising, especially with the knowledge that I was pushing down on slippery, fragile glass. But for a moment, I could well understand why 18th-century audiences thought that glass music took them into trances – and I could understand why Dennis James has spent most of his life playing it.

Rosemary Ponnekanti, staff writer

What: “Triple Glass,” including music by Mozart and Philip Glass

Who: Dennis James, glass armonica, and the Odeon Quartet

When: 7:30 p.m. March 8

Where: Town Hall, 1119 8th Ave., Seattle

Tickets: $20/$10, includes post-concert reception

Information: 206-652-4255,,

What: Silent movie “Sunrise” with Dennis James, theater organist

When: 7 p.m. March 11

Where: Washington Center for Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia

Tickets: $17.50/$15.50/$8.75

Information: 360-753-8586,