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.


Experiences in the Classroom: Equality

Posted in Jen_Baker by iawmblog on February 7, 2010

One student I taught from Kindergarten through 4th grade had always been tight-lipped and grimacing in just about every class I had with him. He never offered his opinion and only participated willingly if his friend was in his group. After four years of this I had grown accustomed to his behavior but always hopeful that one day he might come out of his darkness. One day he did. It seemed sudden on the surface–he looked me in the eyes and asked questions, offered suggestions and his opinion on activities, and engaged fully in class projects. Even though there were very likely other life issues at play of which I wasn’t aware, I had a sense of accomplishment from his achievement because I kept the door open for him to participate at all times. There were no guarantees that this would happen, but I didn’t ever want to take that opportunity away from him.

I firmly believe that giving kids ownership in the classroom leads to self-discovery, which in turn leads to greater respect for others and social awareness. As a couple of commenters alluded to in my previous post (Introduction), some kids are even thrown off at first by the possibility that they a have a say in what has happened in class (or private lessons). I may get paid to be a music teacher, but the potential for teaching human lessons is limitless. Since my approach is based in holistic teaching, I take full advantage of my role to offer as many opportunities for my students’ self-growth as possible. This is of course exhausting –and worthwhile.

As exhausting as it can be to create curriculum, plan a day’s lesson, or get my materials together, the really valuable work happens when I am face-to-face with the kids, helping them navigate through their own individual processes of self-awareness. It can be tricky to deal with an entire classroom and yet treat each kid as an individual who is equal. In order to do this fairly, I pay close attention to their mannerisms–both in my class and at play times–and keep in mind their character traits (i.e., oversensitive, bold, detailed, leader, hard-worker, etc). I wouldn’t treat a leader the same way I would treat a sensitive kid, or a detailed kid the same way as a bold kid. I find that bolder kids need firm structure and repetition, and sensitive kids would appreciate it very much if you would just talk to them individually about something they had done.

Treating kids as individuals reaps its benefits. They learn to trust their learning environment, and they learn to listen to others’ opinions, for they may be different from their own. They learn that when they offer suggestions, they will be heard. When kids are heard, they are at their happiest, and can grow much faster.


Jen Baker
Jen 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’ll be blogging about experiences in the classroom.

Experiences in the Classroom: an Introduction

Posted in Jen_Baker, Teaching by iawmblog on January 7, 2010

Hi!  Thanks for reading my blog.  I’m really excited to be sharing my thoughts here because I feel that my experiences-both as educator and as performer- are unique and interesting.  I hope you will enjoy my posts.

I have taught music for nearly 17 years.  During this time, I have evolved enormously in my philosophy and outlook in terms of what a teacher is and does.  Prior to 2004, my teaching experiences were limited to private music lessons and chamber music/sectional coaching.  I had never had any interest in teaching classroom music, and had never even considered formal studies in music education.  (Blessed be, I’m a delusional trombonist.)

When I finally realized that I was interested in teaching, I brainstormed my ideal classroom setting and lessons.  These ideas came out of thinking over how to relate better to students so that whatever the age group, the whole person, not just the mental aspect, could participate and contribute to the class. I realized that I needed to have more information about how kids of all ages learn and what the various stages of learning look like.  I believe quite strongly that as teachers, we can better access the minds of our students when we have an understanding of each stage of development, starting as early as two years of age.  At that point most of my students had been high school or college-aged.  My goal then was to create a music class for young kids ages 4-12 that would allow their ideas to be an integral part of the curriculum and would nurture their spirits with compassionate teaching so they would feel free to be their authentic selves.  At the time I believed (accurately, as it turns out) that teaching younger kids would strengthen and enrich my development as a teacher so that when I returned to the high school and college-aged students with whom I had been familiar, I could reach them more easily and be a better teacher.

Here are a couple of the basic concepts that direct my activities.  I will expound further on each of them in upcoming blog posts.

A great way to send a message to a kid that their ideas are just as valid as the teacher’s is to sit in a circle.  I find that this seating arrangement feels better spiritually as well.  Everyone has eye contact with one another, and even though nothing in the circle indicates superiority of one person over another, the implicit understanding is that the teacher is the one in charge.  Besides, it’s not so easy to talk behind the teacher’s back or play with toys when everyone is equally exposed.

Hands-on Projects
Kids aren’t interested in learning theories alone.  They learn the theories by means of physical practice and by making mistakes.  I always include a major component of hands-on learning by using the body, musical instruments, or composition in class.  As much as as possible, I break the group into smaller groups or partners so learning (and making mistakes) can be less intimidating.


Jen Baker
Jen 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’ll be blogging about experiences in the classroom.