Homemade Instruments: Teaching the Teachers

Bean-sorting is part of a larger project which includes cookie tins, nails, metal bottle caps, cardboard tubes, cut steel tubing, large tin cans, paper plates, terracotta pots, keys, sticks of wood, cigar boxes, hammers, wax paper, empty water bottles, string, garden hoses, and crowbars.  And rubber bands.  And drinking straws.  This is all in preparation for a class on homemade instruments.
There won’t be the time to allow hands-on construction of anything, really.  In a 50-minute class, we will barely begin to explore homemade instruments.  Beyond asking what can be made, the question has to be broken down into smaller topics:  How long does it take?  How many steps are required, and what materials and tools are needed?


If the people who come to attend this class are like the ones I see every year, they will be tired and hoping my class is no challenge whatsoever.  They will slump into desks built for teenagers, sigh deeply, and wonder if they will even attempt to teach small restless boys how to build a noisemaker.
And, that’s what I will ask them:  Are you ready for this sort of project?  If you want to make homemade instruments, you’d better be willing to hear kids playing those “instruments” for an hour and a half.  You have to go into that den meeting or that metalworking merit badge class ready, willing, and able to endure plenty of noise.
After that, it’s all about minimizing dangers.  When making a paper plate tambourine, be ready for fingers caught on staples.   When creating a cookie tin tambourine, be ready for someone to need stitches.  When crafting PVC pan pipes or a galvanized steel xylophone, be ready for cylinders rolling off tables and clanking against each other for the duration of the workshop.
I’ll have a supply of show-and-tell items, a stack of how-to-books, handouts with websites, and some serious advice on worst case scenarios.  The way I see it, there’s a little bit of adventurous boy inside every bored adult man: he needs to hear there’s some risk, some challenge, and some way to do the job better than that old lady who taught the class.
Especially after she embarrassed everyone by making them sing Shake My Sillies Out.  Why did I do that?  Because if you’re having a class on making a musical instrument of some sort, you really need to have a song ready for the completed project.



I’m getting used to this new stage in life, where I get a few hours to myself. The boys are all old enough to borrow my car or take off in their own, and until the husband gets home from work, it’s just me and the cat.

Listening has been the most important of the senses, for me. First, there was the pleasant aspect: the soft chime of my mother’s medal striking the cross on her necklace meant she was nearby; my father’s amazing snores meant he was home to keep us safe; and all the usual sounds of favorite television shows or songs on the radio — the usual reassuring stuff of normal life.

Soon enough, there were other things to listen for: the voice of an unfriendly classmate, the sound of the school bus engine, the unwelcome tap on the door, the heavy footfall of the person I was avoiding. Listening became a survival skill.

By my early twenties, listening grew even more important, when, as a new mother, I had to learn a language without words: was the baby breathing normally? Did he burp? Was that a hungry cry or a pain cry or a ‘diaper duty’ cry or…

I came to know every creak of every hinge and floorboard and stair tread, and all the neighborhood noises: car engines, doors, barking dogs, new voices. I learned to tell which of my children was in which room of the house, and what toys they were playing with, never needing to see these things, but just hear them.

And now, the world has grown steadily quieter. No more squabbles to hush between siblings, no more dogs to quiet down…

But somewhere outside, farther away than the windchimes crazily ringing in this winter wind, I have heard a muted booming sound. If this were daytime, I’d say it was hunters’ shotguns, but this is night, and there should be no such noises in the area.

And that’s when it hits me: there are places in the world where that booming noise would not only be a normal part of the soundtrack, it would be much closer, and it would be vital to know who was making it. In my part of the world, it might be fireworks; elsewhere, just heavy fire.