Plucked from obscurity

27th May 2005 at 01:00
Richard Barry teaches junior pupils how to make a stringed instrument in just a day

"Not another grease-proof-paper-shaker or concave tissue box wrapped in elastic bands! What can I do?" This cry for help from a colleague set me thinking about two subjects close to my heart: a creative primary curriculum and the craft of musical instrument building.

Last year, after 12 years of primary teaching I took an unpaid term's sabbatical and enrolled on a full-time guitar making course in Totnes in Devon. Now, working as a supply teacher, I was keen to apply some of my new found skills in the classroom.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's design and technology unit on musical instruments seemed to offer at least the basis for such an opportunity. On careful reading of the unit, however, I was left uninspired by some of the suggestions for "string instruments" - there's little chance of a musical note on a piece of string.

As I see it, there is a tension between the QCA requirement for children to have produced their own design, and the production of an instrument that they can be proud of and that can be played. The ability to design a product meaningfully depends on a knowledge of how that product functions, which takes time.

Too often teachers find themselves with 30-plus children, all with their own designs, and an afternoon at the end of the term or unit in which to put them into practice. While this approach undoubtedly benefits the sales of ibuprofen it achieves little else, especially in giving children the opportunity to take pride in their own ability to craft a working product.

There are also problems of progression through the primary school, especially if all that is produced in Year 5 is a more skilfully executed version of the shakers made in reception class. Ask children in key stage 2 what sort of instrument they would like to make and most will be interested in the guitar.

There are particular difficulties with stringed instruments, however, as the tension of the strings needed to produce a decent sound puts a high stress on the instrument. A friend lent me a copy of Musical Instruments Made to be Played (Roberts, now out of print). This was full of excellent but time-consuming projects suitable for a 1970s primary timetable but imcompatible with the current curriculum.

I wanted to design a stringed instrument that could be completed by KS2 children in a day's technology workshop and that could be played by the children in a real sense (ie could be tuned). The emphasis would need to be on the construction, although the design would be discussed with the children as the instrument was made. This mini apprenticeship approach gives children the opportunity for success, and is the perfect vehicle for teaching the skills necessary for construction (careful measuring, cutting, joining).

It can either be used as an exciting introduction to the QCA unit, in which case the children will continue to develop their own designs from a basis of a deeper understanding, or as a celebration of all their learning at the end.

Much head scratching and several prototypes later, the "corrulute" emerged from my cellar workshop, a simple, two-stringed fretted instrument bearing an uncanny resemblance to a plastic balalaika.

I chose corruflute (polypropelene corregated board) as the material for the sound box because it is cheap, light and relatively simple to cut and join.

It also tends to be lurking in the resource rooms of most primary schools.

The neck, which extends through the body, thereby negating the need for a stress-bearing joint, is made from wood dowelling or an old broom handle.

It is held together with wood batons.

A few workshops in and I have found that all children are capable of producing an instrument of which they are truly proud and can't wait to take home. Whole-class renditions of "Smoke on the Water" have also testified to the ability of the children to learn to play simple melodies with ease, even for school assembly.

The addition of a cheap pick-up produced the world's first electric corrulute. The children have been inspired to decorate their instruments (acrylic paint works best).

The workshop provides a cross-curricular day with scientific discussions on the use of different materials and their properties together with observations on sound and vibration.

Follow-up work has included their own designs for stringed instruments based on an understanding of the design requirements, something I feel they have gained by making and discussing the corrulute.

Importantly, they have experienced the satisfaction of creating and playing their own instrument. Enthusiastic quotes from the children themselves were plentiful including, "The best school day ever!" now that can't be a bad thing can it?

* Information on workshops


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