Joe Buono and Tristan Clark come from musical backgrounds that would be considered impressive by any stretch of the imagination. At just 26 and 24 years of age, the pair out of Murray Hill has a series of accomplishments between them: Buono is a composer and teacher who has earned two master’s degrees from the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute, and Clark is a recent graduate of the Juilliard School who plays principal trumpet with the Jacksonville Symphony.
But in 2016, it wasn’t the trumpet or a series of original compositions that took the duo on a whirlwind journey of busking that would eventually lead them to a solo debut with the Jacksonville Symphony at the Holiday Pops concert series. It was the melodica – a free-reed instrument crossing a keyboard and a harmonica, more typically used for play or music education than serious performances.
The two saw viral fame after their three-minute melodica arrangement of “Rite of Spring” racked up more than 1.5 million views on Facebook in just a day — exposure that would get the ball rolling for the friends who would later refer to themselves as Melodica Men. With a strong start under their belts, Clark and Buono are looking to take their skills to the stage and beyond – but for that ambition, there was a rather lighthearted start.
It was a toy that lead to the inception of Melodica Men, a duo born almost on a whim after Buono discovered a toy instrument in his grandfather’s attic.
“About a year ago, I found a toy melodica at my grandpa’s house and I thought it was pretty funny, so I just took it,” Buono said, recalling the day he first tried the instrument. “And I just had so much fun with it that when my mom asked me what I wanted for graduation, I asked for a real one.”
Buono would eventually show an equally enthused Clark, and after weeks spent playing the instrument they later put their skills to test on the street.
“During a trip to Seattle, Joe came up to visit and brought his melodica,” Clark said. “We went and played on the street for 10 days over the course of two weeks and, unexpectedly, people really loved it.”
So much, in fact, that the pair netted about $2,000 in those 10 days — enough to fund a trip to Paris where they drew crowds of locals and tourists alike for their street performances. It was in the City of Lights that Clark said they realized how a fun hobby could be a potentially transformative experience, one that made them want to pursue other opportunities as a duo.
“When we were playing Paris, hundreds of people from all over the world would watch us,” he said. “We ran into people from New Zealand, Lebanon – everywhere. So many people from different cultures and countries, some who didn’t even speak the same language as us, would just gather around and have a great time.”
Realizing the significance of bringing people together in what had recently become a high-alert city was in the wake of terrorist attacks was “humanity affirming,” Clark said, and it made the decision clear.
Though Buono and Clark regard their unorthodox new venture with a healthy dose of playfulness and self-deprecation, the young musicians are eager to share with others the sense of joy and togetherness the melodica is meant to bring. In the future, they’d like to begin playing jobs as Melodica Men at weddings and parties. The two are open to acting as entertainers for a variety of events, and are equally excited to spearhead a new style of play.
“It may seem unusual but it’s just really fun because it’s a toy instrument but you can do things with it that are pretty surprising, even to us,” Buono said. “We almost feel as if we’re pioneering this instrument because we’re constantly discovering new things.”
To learn more about Melodica Men, visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Melodicamen.