The International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM) Blog

Homemade Instruments and Affordable Music

Posted in Jen_Baker by iawmblog on March 10, 2010

As it turns out, kids have a natural fascination for re-using objects for new purposes.  I think about how so many of us found it natural as youngsters to make an orchestra out of kitchen pots, pans and utensils.  It is, or was (for many of us) so natural to spontaneously create sound with whatever tools we have available.  What happened to that curiosity?

When I first started introducing homemade instruments into my classroom curriculum, I emphasized the economy and re-use of the materials we would use, and was pleasantly surprised to see how many of the kids expressed how good it was that we were being environmentally conscious.  This is one of the more profound lessons I’ve learned from teaching.  So as I proceeded with homemade instruments made from found objects, the kids helped create the sounds each instrument would be best suited to make.  As a result of students experimenting, a large water bottle became a Guiro, a box with rubber bands became a banjo, a paper towel tube became a rainstick, and on and on.  Students helped one another and shared resources, and in the end created a strong sense of community at the culmination of our project.

So what did we do with our creations?

Some examples include “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” buzzed on Buzzoos made of a small 3 inch PVC tube with beeswax for a mouthpiece, “Frere Jacques” in rounds on the Air Whistles made of straws cut for a C major scale, class compositions for unusual combinations, ie, didgeridoo and recorder, and sound poetry with all manner of swishy, scratchy, plucky, chimy and crunchy found objects.

It is partly because of one school’s tight budget that I have invested so much time in creating “used” instruments.  In this climate of money problems and environmental concerns, I think this method is very attractive–in fact, I have recently done short workshops at a summer camp and at an after school,  and both programs needed me to find free or very cheap ways to acquire materials.  A friend of mine teaches “Junk Percussion” where he teaches all of the fundamentals of percussion while playing on five gallon buckets.

If music is becoming expendable to so many school programs, then why not find a cheaper way to teach it so it can survive?  Why not teach composition, instrument making, improvisation, and music literacy with junk?  Not that I support financial cuts to the music program, but if we have to eliminate band, can’t we have something else in its place?  In the early 20th century, Stravinsky and many other composers downsized their pieces from the full orchestra to octets, quartets, and trios, and it was largely due to the economic necessity.  Well, here we are, having another economic crisis that has been affecting K-12 music for over a decade.  I’m not so sure that the high school band is going to come back in full force for many of these schools, particularly inner city schools.  So should we just give up and let the music program see its demise, or find an alternative path to keep it alive?

Music will always find a way to live.  Let’s be a part of it!!


Jen Baker is a trombonist who specializes in new music and freelances in New York City.  She also teaches composition, improvisation, and homemade instrument making to children, and she blogs about experiences in the classroom.


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