Bang twang toot

Kevin Renton makes instruments out of anything from the garden hose to the kitchen sink. Gerald Haigh found out how you can, too. Photography by William Shaw

aking music isn't all that difficult. Bash a box, pluck a string, blow across the top of a bottle. Bang, twang, toot, what more could you ask? And that's before you get to rattle, swish, slap. Those of us who lived through skiffle (washboard percussion and tea-chest bass) know all about this, as indeed do the Trinidadian pioneers who first conjured real, symphonic sounds from discarded oil drums.

The essential simplicity of music is what drives Kevin Renton, whose life is largely devoted to making,and helping children to make, serviceable - and always musical - instruments from anything at all, including gas piping and dog chews.

The flavour of his work is well caught in the drawing that appears on his literature. A solemn Chinese-looking person with a mandarin beard and a robe sits plucking an instrument - one of those ethnic jobs that we're all vaguely familiar with. There's a flat surface with lots of strings across it, and underneath a bowl shape - a gourd perhaps - to act as a resonator. When you look closely, you realise that what he's actually playing is a multi-stringed stainless-steel kitchen sink and draining board. It's the plughole that gives it away.

Kevin's is an exploratory philosophy that undoubtedly mirrors the drive that brought the earliest instruments to life. Give almost anything solid a bit of space and the freedom to resonate, and it will give off a lively sound if you strike it.

"Many materials have a voice if they're allowed to. You don't have to alter them much, if at all. A good way to start off a tuned set of anything is to get a couple of strips of foam rubber or pipe-lagging so that the things you're hitting can rest on something soft and not rattle. Then lay lengths of wood, metal, whatever across and see what happens."

His approach reflects the way people throughout the world have always made music with whatever came to hand. If you live in a land of bamboo and reeds, then that's what you'll make your flutes from, but if you live in a city then you'll use the stuff you find in roadside skips. Urban pan-pipes, for example, will consist of different lengths of plastic overflow-piping, corked at one end, and fastened together in a row.

The design, technology and science opportunities involved in making instruments are almost endless. A wind instrument works by making the column of air inside the tube vibrate. In a stringed instrument, the string vibrates. The length of the tube, or of the string, determines the pitch of the note. All of that's well known, and solidly within the curriculum.

Actually making the instruments that embody these principles, and meeting the often considerable challenge of producing the optimum well-tuned sound, adds an entirely different level of experiential learning.

Some ideas you can try Plastic pan-pipes z Cut some plastic piping; plug the bottom end; make a set of pipes and tune them by adjusting the lengths; bind them together; blow across the top.

Drums

* Use drainpipe, gas or water pipe. Longer length gives lower pitch. Use open-ended and thwack with a bat, or fit drumskins - Chamois leather (fit it wet and it will tighten as it dries), polythene, canvas, layers of sticky tape, or similar.

* Make "talking" drums using pairs of waste bins.

* Build tuned pipe-drums into an old desk frame.

Whirlers and whizzers Tie them by strings to be whirled around.z Use plastic bottles and film canisters; cut slots in the sides for the air to blow across.

* Wooden ruler; drill holes for attaching a string.

* Two bits of wood (pencil size) fastened in a cross shape, with rubber band stretched around the outside like a kite.

Stringed instruments If you fire an arrow from a bow, you hear a twang. The bow principle's good because it keeps the string taut. Then you can add amplifying resonators to a simple bow. For example, trap an inflated balloon between the string and the wood of the bow.

What's really important, more so than any of the examples, is the fundamental approach, which looks beyond the conventional view of what a musical instrument is, and what it's made of, and finds possibilities in unlikely objects and materials.

Kevin Renton gives workshops in schools and makes outdoor instruments for playgrounds. You can contact him at 55 Russell Terrace, Leamington Spa CV31 1HE. Tel: 01926 426703

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you