Mary Lou Smith (right) reacts to a surprise marriage proposal from Rick Race while competing in a past Conch Shell Blowing Contest in Key West. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)
- By: Carol Shaughnessy
- March 11, 2020
It’s not a stringed instrument, a percussion instrument or the musical choice of virtually any “American Idol” contestant. Nonetheless, the conch shell takes center stage in Key West’s music scene each spring, when several dozen hopefuls vie for victory in the annual Conch Shell Blowing Contest.
Fans of the fluted, pink-lined shell displayed their pucker power Saturday, March 7, during the 2020 contest.
But none did it better than Canadian Alliszon Zaichkowski of Victoria, British Columbia, who earned the women’s division crown.
A French horn player for the Royal Canadian Navy, Alliszon impressed the judges by playing excerpts from three melodies: composer Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” Queen’s iconic “Bohemian Rhapsody” and — in salute to her homeland — “After the Gold Rush” by Canadian rocker Neil Young.
Alliszon, who traveled to Key West specifically to compete in the contest, originally began playing the conch shell because it is “the ancestor of the French horn.”
She quickly became so passionate about the quirky “instrument” that she now has a collection of some 20 shells.
“I got one shell and I couldn’t believe the sound that came out of it, and then I just got more shells,” she said. “And before I knew it, everyone I knew was saving shells for me.”
About five years ago, she took her favorite to a tattoo artist and got a colorful life-size replica of it inked on her arm.
“I like to think of the conch shell as my travel horn, because I can’t bring my French horn everywhere — and you also don’t want to be playing a French horn at the beach,” Alliszon explained. “So I always just take my conch shell with me and that’s what I play at the beach.”
“It’s more my vacation instrument,” she added.
The tradition of blowing a conch shell in the Florida Keys began centuries ago. In the 1800s, when the local economy was largely based on salvaging shipwreck cargoes, sailors attracted attention by blowing piercing blasts on the shell.
Contest entrants included men, women, kids and groups, with winners chosen for the quality, duration, loudness and novelty of the sounds they produced.
What advice would Alliszon give aspiring conch shell musicians?
“Try to make a really good sound — the sound is what sells. That’s what my first horn teacher told me,” she advised. “Make sure you’ve got a really good sound, and then just use your hand and bend the pitch around.”
The 2020 men’s division winner was “Cousin” Vinnie Marturano of Big Pine in the Lower Florida Keys, who blew an excerpt from composer Aram Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” — embellishing it with offbeat, high-pitched squeals that would likely leave the composer wincing in creative anguish.
Other entrants included Mary Lou and Rick Race from Florida’s Panama City Beach.
Mary Lou won the women’s division in 2018, AND received a surprise marriage proposal during the event from fellow competitor Rick, her boyfriend of 2-1/2 years.
At this year’s contest, the happy couple competed and also displayed a scrapbook of clippings and photos.
One of their wedding photos, naturally, featured the two of them playing a joyous duet on their conch shells.
Nicknamed the “Conch Honk” for obvious reasons, the wacky competition was presented (as always) by the Old Island Restoration Foundation.
This very worthy nonprofit organization was founded in 1960 and is dedicated to preserving Key West’s fascinating architectural and cultural heritage.