Create Your Own Instrument:

Sound and Vibration Lesson 6

In this lesson, students applied their knowledge of vibration and instrument classifications to create their own homemade instruments. They explored the capabilities of their own and others instruments and played them according to iconic notation.

Click here to view my lesson plan for Sound and Vibration, Lesson 6: Create Your Own Instrument. Click here for the accompanying PowerPoint.

Students at Work

One of the Four Classroom Structures identified by researcher and educator Lois Hetland is “Students at Work,” a style of teaching heavily based in experiential learning, where students have the opportunity individually or in small groups to pursue their own creative or problem-solving projects. This classroom structure occurs when the focus is not on the front of the room but rather at the workspaces of the students, who learn by making their own connections with assistance or side-coaching from the teacher. I have been researching the impact of Hetland’s Four Structures throughout the semester, implementing them into my lesson plans and documenting the results. Of all the Classroom Structures, this was the one I was most excited to try, and the one I was most pleased with the outcome of! It was also the most energy-intensive lesson, in terms of both preparation and execution. I think it probably isn’t a coincidence that this turned out to be the most rewarding lesson as well.

After a quick introductory review, we jumped right in to this lesson, spending the bulk of our time working on creating our instruments. I divided the students up into four groups and sent each of them to a table waiting with materials. I was very fortunate on the day I taught this lesson to have several student teachers from a local college in the classroom, enough to put one at each station. I think it would have worked out without them, but it was nice to have a little extra supervision!

One of the keys to this lesson was that I didn’t tell any of the groups what the classification of their instrument was; their job was to figure it out themselves. I gave basic instructions for how to assemble their materials into an instrument, but gave the students plenty of free reign to experiment, design, and decorate according to their preference. Their job was to identify, through the process of creating their instrument, how it vibrated and which of the four families it belonged to.

Idiophones: Shakers

Materials: Plastic eggs, small pebbles, uncooked rice, beans, and macaroni. Paper and markers to decorate with (optional) and packing tape to seal up the eggs after they had been filled and decorated.

Membranophones: Packing Tape Drums

Materials: Oatmeal containers (or coffee cans, lear sour cream containers, paint cans, etc), packing tape. Pencils, pens, and other materials to serve as drumsticks (technically optional, but allows for more experimentation). Paper and markers for decorating.

Aerophones: Straw Pan Flutes

Materials: Large plastic straws (Boba straws are ideal), cardboard for mounting (recycle an old cereal box, etc), scissors, tape, paper and markers for decorating.

Chordophones: Tissue Box Guitars

Materials: Empty tissue boxes (or shoeboxes), rubber bands of different thicknesses and lengths, pencils (to be used as a bridge), paper, markers, and tape for decoration.

As the students worked, I rotated from table to table, watching and asking questions. The first graders had a great time experimenting as they built their instruments! I did a lot of side-coaching, prompting them to try out different things:

  •  What happens if you hit your packing tape drum with a pencil instead of your hand? How does it change the sound? Does your drum sound different if you put it on the floor instead of holding it in the air? Why do you think that might be?
  • How do you think these thin little rubber bands will sound on your tissue box guitar? Let’s try a big fat rubber band. How does that change the sound? What does it sound like without the pencil? Do you like the sound better when we add a pencil under the strings or not as much?
  • What different materials did you put in your shaker? Which sound do you like the best? What happens if you fill the shaker all the way up? What if you leave it partly empty? Why do you think that changes the sound? What would happen if you only put one grain of rice in your shaker? Let’s try it. 
  • What order do you want to put your straws in? Will a longer straw make a higher or lower sound? Does the color of the straw change the sound? What family of instrument do you think this belongs to?

After everyone was finished, we put the students in pairs so they could show each other their instruments. The pairs rotated several times so each student got the chance to see and hear each kind fo instrument. I went around with the other teacher, asking questions and answering questions. They loved the chance to show each other what they had made! The students also did a very good job of identifying what kind of instrument they had made and what kind of instrument their neighbor had. It was clear that having a physical, practical, tangible THING to apply these big words to really helped the first graders understand and process the instrument families better. After that show and tell activity, every time I said “Idiophones, hold your instruments up” for example, they all got it. They knew and took ownership of their instrument family in a way they never had before.

Playing our instruments: Iconic Notation

The lat part of this lesson was giving the students a chance to play their instruments in a more structured way using Iconic Notation. In this instance, I let the first graders choose the icons from a sampling of options:

“Here on the screen are lots of different shapes. We need to choose one for each instrument. Let’s choose shapes that seem to look the way the instrument sounds. Which of these looks shaky to you? Which looks smooth like a pan flute? Which looks solid like a drum? Which seems most like a plucked string?”

I’ve done this with first graders before, and it’s always really interesting to watch the students do this activity. They almost always seem to agree intuitively on which shape looks right for the sound. They don’t always agree 100%, but it happens more often than you would think. After choosing an icon for each instrument, we organized them into a row so they could be read from left to right like any other piece of music. I’ve found that if you can copy-and-paste quickly, it’s easy to do this in real time in a PowerPoint.

“When you see the shape for your instrument, play your instrument all together, one time! Let’s make it fair for everyone; each part will get a turn, so don’t play when it’s not your turn. Let’s practice.”

This part of the lesson was to get the students familiar with reading iconic notation; in the next and final lesson, I will use these icons- chosen by the students- in a song to culminate this semester’s project!

Sarah Earl

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