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Middle School instrument making unit

I was wondering if anyone out there has done an instrument making unit and could share their ideas?  If you have a rubric that you graded by would be greatly appreciated.  I am thinking of having my 8th graders make instruments and do a powerpoint and written presentation.  Thanks for your input.
on October 31, 2013 7:09pm
Hello John,
   I have taught K-6 music for 12 years and have made a lot of the instruments I use (marimbas, Balinese gamelan, African stave drums, rope tension snare drums, dulcimers and American Indian flutes).  On rare occasions I have done instrument making activities with 5th and 6th graders; would love to do more, but it's difficult with 24-30 students per class for 35 minutes twice a week, with no break between successive classes. 
   One time I made stave drums at home, about 7" dia. x 28" high; beveled the wood on my tablesaw, glued together, then hand planed smooth.  At school, I started to lace on the heads, in the standard way you see on traditional African rope tensioned djembes, then turned each drum over to a group of 2-4  6th graders to complete.  I had to do over a lot of what the did, but they had a good time and gained an appreciation for drum making and perhaps something of an appreciation for the economy and importance of handcrafts in "undeveloped" countries. 
   A simpler project that worked well also was making panpipe tubes from Japanese knotweed, also known as Japanese or Chinese bamboo.  It's that rampant weed of a bamboo that grows in much of the US.  That was in NY state; here in AZ we have a hollow reed that grows along our few rivers which works just as well.  Here's the sequence: I drive my van--alone-- to the site and and fill it with a pile of bamboo or reed stalks cut to 18" long and varying from about 3/8" to 3/4" in diameter; at school the students work in groups of 4 or more at whatever kind of tables you can come up with--card tables, folding school tables. boards on saw horses, etc; I furnish a multitude of standard coping saw blades--2 or 3 per student, and tape for them to wrap around the blade to make a hand grip (a coping saw is a little hand held jig saw--not electric--with toothed blades that are 6' long and 1/8" wide, perfectly safe; use the blades alone, bought in quantity, without the saw frames, to save money); the students saw off a 15 cm. length leaving one end open and the other end closed by a node, blow across the open end like a soda bottle, and write down the pitch indicated on an electronic tuner (one cheap tuner for every 5 kids); then cut the tube shorter little by little until they get it in tune; then make another the same way; goal is to get 2-5 tubes that are in tune and can be lashed together to make a panpipe.  You can aim for everyone to make a matched set with same tuning but it will take longer.  I made a bunch of small, light duty bench hooks to mae the sawing easier, but it can also be done over the edge of the table.  I would consult with a wood worker and try this with a small group first if you're not experienced with woodworking.  It's not very complicated but good to make a trial run.  I didn't use a formal rubric, but had a worksheet for them to fill out: original length (15 cm) and diameter, pitch; new length (after cutting) and new pitch; new length (after 2nd cutting) and new pitch; etc. until student reaches desired pitch; etc.  The rubric could be "student holds saw and bamboo, cuts with difficulty, cuts with facility;  student understands demonstrates use of tuner, applies it to task of tuning bamboo, is able to tune multiple tubes to each other, etc etc.
   As you can imagine, there was a broad range of ability with this, but everyone could do something, and found it exciting.  For those who were able to work faster, I had 12" lengths of PVC water pipe, 3/4" in diameter, to make end blown Andes style flutes.  Students use round files to file a sound notch in the end of the tube (which serves the same purpose as the blowhole on a standard classical flute blown in a transverse position), then get to spend time trying to develop the proper embouchure with which to blow to produce a sound.  If they get to that stage, I provide a slow speed, light duty battery powered electric drill for them to drill finger holes.
   I've had students follow a similar but less formal procedure to tune marimba keys for instruments I was making.  However, this was with a couple of interested students in an after school woodworking club, not in a classroom situation.  I had a bunch of keys to tune--which is done by turning them bottom side up rasping a hollow in the underside, which weakens the elasticity of the key and thus lowers the pitch--and kids who were interested, so put them to work roughing the keys down to approximate pitch.  You could easily due this with a length of ordinary 2x4  15-20" long.  You'd need a sturdy workbench to withstand the force of rasping, and a good rasp.  After every 20-30 rasp strokes, the key is turned right side up and placed on two blocks of foam or strips of weather stripping, struck with a mallet, and the pitch recorded with the tuner.  The nodes of a key are the places where the key does not vibrate.  When struck, the center of the key moves down and the ends up, then vice versa as it vibrates.  The neutral spots are the nodes, and it is here that the key is supported, either on foam pads or threaded on cord.  The nodes are located about 22% of the total length in from each end.  Students can find this point on any key-- metal or wood, homemade or factory made, finished or in process--simply by placing the key on a slab of flexible foam, sprinkling with sawdust or salt and striking with mallet.  The salt will vibrate off, everywhere except the nodes, where the grains will line up across the key.  Very cool, and then students can measure and calculate ratios, percents and decimals.  This is instrument making without the actual making and all the attendant complications.
   At the Richmond VA Children's Museum (or was it the Science Museum?) there was a collection of metal plates of different shapes, perhaps 1/16" - 1/8" in thickness and 8-12" across, with edges ground very smooth.  A plate was placed on a stand of some sort--maybe the plate had a hole in the center which fit over a nail--then sprinkled with sand, and the edge bowed with a violin or cello bow.  Depending on the shape and the bowing speed, and the vibrations produced in the plate, the sand formed various 2 dimensional patterns.  So--like the marimba key nodes, but in 2 dimensions.
   Lastly, the old soda straw oboe reed is worth doing.  The straw is flattened and the corners cut off to make the "reed".  Trouble is, it's hard to find paper straws these days.  Students can make different lengths, measure, and test pitch against the tuners; or insert into a plug (drill hole in cork or laboratory rubber stopper or PVC fitting) in the end of a 3/4" PVC pipe to make an oboe.  Also, a blade of grass between lips or thumbs can be blown on to generate sound, and there are recordings around of Hungarian folk musicians playing grass and leaves.
   A trumpet can be made from a mouthpiece,  length of vinyl tube or hose, and funnel; and there's a recording of Dennis Brain (famous late English horn player) playing part of one of the Mozart Horn Concertos on such an instrument.  I made a simple alphorn that is square in cross section, made from 4 long triangles of wood 1/2" thick, 7' long, 1" wide tapering to 4" wide at the other end; simple glued and nailed together (small nails) with a mouthpiece carved into the narrow end; if you have the facilities or pre cut the parts, students could make these.  Plans are in one of the books by Bart______  (see below).
   You could have students recrreate Pythagoras's experiments with the monochord:  a horizontal board with string suspended between bridges at each end, one end of string fixed, other hanging vertically over edge of table, with varying weights attached to stretch it.  Two things to study: relationship of weight to pitch of string; and, keeping the weight the same, relationships between length of string (bridge to bridge, so one bridge has to be moveable) and pitch.  In other words, reduce string length to half, you get an octave; relationship of half length to third length is a 5th, etc.
   For kits check out Bear Paw flutes; they make a plastic American Indian flute that comes complete or in parts to glue together (about $25); and 3 string Loog guitars; they bolt together in 15 minutes and cost $114 school price if you buy four.  There are several books and websites on cigar box guitars, and another on making a "strumstick"--kind of like a 3 string dulcimer but with a long neck and small body at one end.  Look on Amazon or on West Music's website for books about instrument making.  There aare three good ones by Bart________.  Can't remember his last name, but he's a past president on some association of experimental instrument makers.  Have fun.  bart_brush(a)
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