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Luggage solo: Professor creates a commercial's sound using suitcases

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 22, 2011 - You know that guy who's always tapping out mad beats on the steering wheel, the countertop, maybe even his suitcase?

Don't tell him to stop. It could lead to a career, and maybe a commercial.

Thomas Zirkle is an associate professor of music and the music coordinator at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. He also teaches as an adjunct at Maryville University. At the latter, he works with students who will become music therapists, creating music through what he calls "found objects."

Basically, you can give Zirkle something, and he'll probably find a way to make music with it.

That brings us to the commercial.

In August, Zirkle was contacted by Bus9 Productions, in St. Louis with a job offer. The company wanted Zirkle to make music with some shiny luggage from a line from Swiss Army.

"I initially said no," Zirkle says. He was busy with school, but finally agreed to meet with the company for some brainstorming. James Schwartz, with Bus9, brought one of the pieces of luggage with him, Zirkle says.

"He kind of put it in my hand and then I kind of got hooked."

Over the course of a few weeks, he created and recorded the sounds you now hear in the commercial: turntable-like zippers, the hushed pull and push of the luggage handles, a finger nail clinking on metal, even a rubbery pop as the actors in the commercial jump on the pieces all at once.

This is Zirkle's first commercial (he just saw it Tuesday,) but not his first time making music with things that aren't necessarily instruments. Last year, a colleague created sculptures for Zirkle to play on. You can see that here , and check out other performances on his YouTube channel.

"He is such an innovative musician," says Lynn Venhaus with community relations at SLCC. "He's really probably an under-the-radar person that really needs to have more people pay attention to him."

She certainly did when she saw a link to the commercial that Zirkle posted on his Facebook wall.

"Especially since he played all the music in the recording studio and the actors are just pretending."

Zirkle was that kid always tapping out mad beats, of course. And it probably started thanks to instrument day in 5th grade. That day, he tried them all, but nothing really fit.

Then, his teacher assigned him to percussion.

"I think if she had chosen any other instrument," he says, "I would probably be a math teacher instead."

Kristen Hare

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