Garage Virtuoso: Flutist Todd Hoover performs in the key of free!

It was a Wednesday evening in August, at an hour when most small American cities had gone quiet, but in the buzzy Jewel-by-the-Sea town, there was a flutist playing his heart out on Prospect Street.

Performing to an appreciative audience doesn’t always mean having to pitch a venue, schedule a gig and promote it all over town. Todd Hoover, a self-proclaimed busker by night and mild-mannered pharmacy tech by day, takes his tunes to the streets playing informally to audiences in the Village of La Jolla.

Hoover performs at the entrance to a parking garage, sandwiched between the First Republic Bank and the La Jolla Athletic Club. Lined up on a makeshift stage, his collection of exotic instruments assumes the respectability of a museum exhibit.

If you walk downtown after 5 p.m., you’ll hear Hoover as he entertains strolling couples, tourists, seal watchers and dancing kids with his assortment of flutes, mouth organs and pipes. His music, soft and sweet, proves the perfect antidote to screeching cars, motorcycles and emergency sirens.

I ask about a pipe instrument he made from a Victorian period easel bought at an old La Jolla consignment store. It reminds me of Gheorghe Zamfir, originally from Romania, the master of the pan pipe.

“I transposed it into pan pipes with the help of a crafty friend. We had to work out the length of the various bamboos,” he laughs. “Whoever appreciates the easel? They’re looking at the painting. This pipe is a repurposed easel.”

I ask, “Which is your most exotic flute?”

“This one, the moseño,” he answers, “made of the longest bamboo section found anywhere on the planet. It grows in Lake Titicaca, the highest fresh water lake in the world deep in the Andes where the Aymara Indians build their islands out of bamboo and reeds. For them, music is religion.”

I ask him if he plays requests. “People are different these days. They like what they hear, listen from a distance, and hand their kids money to give me because they enjoy the music. They don’t want to stay too long because they are into their own thing.”

He talks about a popular song he loves by Jennifer Lopez, the tune of “Lambada,” based on the “Llorando Se Fue” (She Left Crying), then precedes to play.

I wanted to know how he learned to play all these instruments and asked him if he had lessons.

“I’m mostly self-taught. At age eight, I took piano for six months and proceeded to write 10 songs. When I learn a new instrument, I simply close my eyes, picture the keyboard (the diatonic scale) and how it’s laid out. Every other instrument falls into place.”

He asks me to choose an instrument from his collection and I point to a red plastic keyboard, looking like a children’s toy.

“It’s a fancy key harmonica called a Hohner Melodica,” he says. “I tend to go back and forth between that and the traditional harp.”

I liken the Melodica to an accordion and harmonica making love. He laughs and says, “The thing about the accordion is you go in and out like a harmonica, but this is all blown out like a push-button harp.”

“When you learn a new instrument, is there a learning curve?” I wonder.

“No,” he says, “My motto is, ‘never practice, always play.’ Music teaches me — it has a spirit of its own.”

“What is it that motivates you to come here five days a week and entertain?” I prod.

“I love playing. This is a place where I can play as loud as I want. The fact that I am compensated for it with extra sushi money is a bonus,” he says. “I discover new musical options all the time. For example, I’ve never incorporated maracas before, but when you have a one-handed instrument, you’re free hand to play another rhythm and be like Stevie Wonder.”

“What is it you love about being a street performer? Did you ever think about playing in a bar or dinner house?”

“Been there, done that, back in the 20th century. I did gigs, for the La Jolla Historical Society, women’s clubs, parades, the country club. You get dinner for two and your mug in the paper. I like this better. I perform what I want and when I want.”

Hoover admits to sometimes bringing his flute to his day job, “Always have my music on my person. You never know when there is a special occasion. In fact, today is my birthday.”

I suggest placing a sign.

He laughs and says, “No, I like to stay low key. As for my music, I’m not looking to get anything out of it, really, but the joy of playing.”