Manualism (hand music)

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Manualism: Squeezing air through the hands to play musical notes

Manualism is the art of playing music by squeezing air through the hands. Because the sound produced has a distinctly flatulent tone, such music is usually presented as a form of musical comedy or parody. The musical performer is called a manualist, who may perform a cappella or with instrumental accompaniment.

Playing recognizable tunes by squeezing the hands together is extremely difficult, and could take many years of practice to master the art.[1] Some manualists practice for as many as 30 years before finally reaching a presentable level of proficiency.[citation needed]


Just as a trumpeter makes sound by blowing air between the lips, a manualist makes sound by squeezing air between two hands.

The hands are held together, trapping a pocket of air between the two palms.[2] Using the fingers of one hand, the air is squeezed out the top, between the base of the thumb and the opposite hand, to form a musical note. The pitch is determined by the force used to hold the hands together. The tighter the grip, the higher the note.[3]

Bass notes may be produced by squeezing the air pocket out the opposite side, near the pinky finger.

Even with years of practice, manualism is very difficult to control. It may be one of the hardest "instruments" in the world to play, and live stage performances are extremely rare.

Historical references[edit]

Records of manualists performing the art prior to the 20th Century have yet to be discovered, though it seems likely that someone must have attempted to make music in this fashion from the earliest days of musical parody.

The first manualist?[edit]

A Universal Studios newsreel from 1933 [4] may be the oldest filmed record of a manualist performing the art. The footage documents a farmer named Cecil Dill from Traverse City, Michigan, who claims that he first learned to play "Yankee Doodle" in 1914.

John Twomey[edit]

In 1974, John Twomey, a successful Grand Rapids, Michigan attorney, performed "Stars and Stripes Forever" on NBC's The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson . This performance was seen by several million people in the United States, not only in 1974, but annually for many years thereafter, as the segment was repeated many times on the annual Best of Carson shows. It is also included in the Best of Johnny Carson collection.[5]

Twomey introduced himself as "a manualist", perhaps the first use of the term in a musical context. He appeared on several other programs including The Mike Douglas Show where he performed the "Colonel Bogey March," made famous in the film The Bridge Over the River Kwai, and The Merv Griffin Show where he performed "When the Saints Go Marching In." He provided audio for the Barney Miller episode "The Dentist," first aired December 27, 1979, in which a manualist musician is hauled in for disturbing the peace.[6]

John Twomey's last public performance was on November 21, 1998 on the radio show A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor, where he performed "Stardust".[7]

Manualists with recent National exposure[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Manualism Page, by Gaston and Purcell
  2. ^ a b R. A. Wilson radio interview, "Hand Music: No Manual Needed", NPR: Morning Edition, July 25, 2006 (text and audio)
  3. ^ a b R. A. Wilson video interview, "An Interview with R. A. Wilson, Manualist", TVLand (video)
  4. ^ Cecil Dill performing Yankee Doodle, Universal Studios Newsreel, 1933 (video)
  5. ^ The Best of Johnny Carson Collection, Volume 1, Title 2, Chapter 23 (DVD)
  6. ^ Barney Miller - "The Dentist", IMDb
  7. ^ John Twomey performing Stardust, National Public Radio, "A Prairie Home Companion", November 21, 1998 (audio)
  8. ^ Bruce Gaston radio interview, "Mr. Handman", NPR: All Things Considered, April 25, 2000 (text and audio)
  9. ^ List of Jim Rotondo's TV and radio appearances
  10. ^ The Flintstones Theme, performed by R. A. Wilson April 15, 2006 (video)
  11. ^ The Life Of A Manualist
  12. ^ More Talent: Jem, "Britain's Got Talent", ITV, April 22, 2009
  13. ^ Bruce Thomas performing Yankee Doodle, "America's Got Talent", NBC, July 8, 2009 (video at 8:40)
  14. ^ Alex Fletcher, "Britain's Got Talent", ITV, April 22, 2011
  15. ^ "Handmaster Herdling". YouTube. Retrieved 2016-12-03.