Air of the dog

17th October 2003 at 01:00
It's big and it takes 19 pupils to play it. Carolyn O'Grady hears about an unusual instrument

Do you have a WOOFYT? Quite a few schools in Hertfordshire do.

Lying in a classroom or corner of their halls is a large contraption - it takes up to 19 children to operate it - made up of a pump, an airbag, flexible hoses, pipes and wooden valve boxes. It's not a thing of beauty, but it has a certain ungainly loveableness, like the big floppy dog it's name suggests.

A WOOFYT is a "music machine" designed to interest children in pumps and how pumped air can be used to make music. Think bagpipes and barrel organs and you're beginning to get the idea. It can also be used for cross-curricular activities linking music to technology and science.

The letters stand for Wooden One-octave Organ for Young Technologists. It is the brainchild of Bill Cleghorn, managing director of Cleghorn Waring Pumps, a family firm which supplies marine and industrial liquid-handling pumps. Last year Bill asked his staff how they'd like to celebrate the company's 50th anniversary. Instead of choosing, say, a junket to New York or a party in Paris, they decided to offer an educational project to primary schools in Letchworth Garden City, where the company is based.

"I wanted to introduce children to elements of pumping technology which is the basis of our business," says Bill, who describes his two main passions as "pumps and music". "I chose air as a working medium, but realised that there needed to be a tangible reward for the effort of pumping invisible air. I hit on the idea of a music output.

"Many devices make music by moving air through pipes, including bagpipes and pipe organs. My idea was to reduce the pipe organ to a machine so simple that its mechanism, inputs and outputs could be understood and manipulated by young children as an enjoyable exercise in both technology and music making".

The result was the WOOFYT which is played by 19 children: two operate a hand pump; others keep the pressure at the correct level (this is indicated by a manometer - a U-tube containing water and two table-tennis balls) by pressing on an air reservoir and the rest press the keys in the valve box.

Now helped by the Oundle International Festival, Hertfordshire's Setpoint, (a network that encourages science and engineering), and a grant from the Arts Council's Arts and Business New Partners' Scheme, projects featuring this floppy dog of a machine are taking off in leaps and bounds.

This term four schools will each have a WOOFYT to work with and will individually be given a two day workshop this month as part of a larger musical project featuring traditional instruments, electronic instruments and others created by the children themselves. Preceding the musical workshops, children will take part in activities linking music to technology.

The project will culminate in a performance of their compositions. In addition, the Letchworth Heritage Foundation is providing funds to take the music machine into 12 Letchworth schools. And John Mitchell, music adviser for Hertfordshire is talking of extending the project: "It's a wonderful creative tool for music. Using it we can explore textures, timbres and rhythms, and it also achieves a natural link to technology and science. And as far as I know it's the only project which can do that," he says.

"And because those manning the machine have to work together - the two pumpers have to be careful not to overpump or underpump, and those operating the pipes have to listen to each others' notes as well as their own - it also encourages teamwork, it is an ensemble instrument."

Sigrun Saevarsdottir-Griffiths, a freelance musician who will run the workshops, has already begun working with St Thomas Moore RC School in Letchworth Garden City. She first allows the children to fiddle about with the instruments, making sure they all have a go, and then moves on to simple melodies. All along children are asked for their ideas: "What if everyone on this side played?" "What if we hold the pump longer?"

"It's a basic instrument," says Sigrun, "but even its flaws are interesting, for example it's quite difficult to keep the pitch level because you have to keep the air pressure constant. But you can play around with that, and make it a feature."

It's strength, she says, is that children have to rely on each other and work with each other. It also has immense novelty value. Children were plainly dying to get their hands on it.

Exercises involve playing long and short notes and investigating different rhythms; learning to tune each pipe by matching it to a played or sung note; playing notes close together so they can learn to discern the differences between them; and making up simple melodies, perhaps using other instruments and voices.

Sigrun says: "It's very exciting for the kids to come up with different ways of using the instrument because at the moment it hasn't been developed. They will be part of developing it."

Setpoint Hertfordshire Tel: 01438 755075Email:

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