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Making music: Students design homemade instruments for music, engineering project

  • Pioneer Valley Regional School seventh grader Jared Goulston with the three-string guitar he created for the combined engineering and music project.   Contributed Photo

  • Special guest Jonathan Crocker visited the virtual classroom to share his own musical invention – the Potato Slide Whistle. Crocker said it is the only instrument he knows of made from one entire naturally occurring object with nothing added or removed. Staff Photo/ZACK DeLUCA

  • Special guest Jonathan Crocker visited the virtual classroom to share his own musical invention — the Potato Slide Whistle. Crocker said it is the only instrument he knows of made from one entire naturally occurring object with nothing added or removed. Staff Photo/ZACK DeLUCA

  • Special guest Jonathan Crocker visited the virtual classroom to share his own musical invention – the Potato Slide Whistle. Crocker said it is the only instrument he knows of made from one entire naturally occurring object with nothing added or removed. Staff Photo/ZACK DeLUCA

Staff Writer
Published: 5/7/2020 7:01:15 AM
Modified: 5/7/2020 7:01:05 AM

Middle school students at the Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield showcased their musical talents and engineering design skills recently during a combined class project through which they built and played musical instruments using materials found at home.

The project was coordinated by Engineering Teacher Dr. John Heffernan and Pioneer Music Teacher Maki Matsui. According to Heffernan, students learned about the ways each type of instrument functions, and used their math and science skills to design the instruments to play a high, medium and low note and perform “Hot Cross Buns.”

“There are several different types of pitched drums, and some cool wind instrument ideas using anything from straws to carrots,” Matsui said. “I love that this project uses found objects from home. When I scroll through the students' design ideas and see Lego pieces and jelly cups and even some contents from the refrigerator, I feel really tickled.”

Special guest Jonathan Crocker visited the virtual classroom to share his own musical invention — the Potato Slide Whistle. He created the whistle by pushing a short Norwegian apple corer halfway through a potato and cutting around the utensil. This allowed him to slide the top half of the spud up and down to adjust the pitch while blowing over the hole the corer made. Crocker said it is the only instrument he knows of made from one entire naturally occurring object with nothing added or removed.

Matsui said some students read a form of “proto-notation,” a system of musical notation stripped of complicating elements and focusing only on basic elements of meter, rhythm, and scale. According to Matsui, this helped to “even out the playing field” for students without previous music experience. For the students who are musically oriented or already taking music courses at Pioneer, there was an option to play a more challenging repertoire or to tune their instruments to specific notes.

Many students made string instruments using anything from tissue boxes and Lego pieces, to wooden planks and fishing line. By adjusting the tightness of a string or rubber band on their instrument, students were able to change the frequency of the vibration, which changed the pitch and hits different notes. Other students created percussion-style instruments, filling bottles or glasses with different amounts of water to make different pitches when blown into or tapped with a stick.

Heffernan said he was impressed with the variety of approaches students took to build their instruments. The middle school students took part in a Google Meets class Friday where they shared their final designs and performed for classmates. Some students constructed various plucked stringed instruments that are shaped like ukuleles but played like harps, with one pitch to a string.

Students needed to explain how they worked through the engineering design process. Heffernan said they submitted a detailed design drawing, constructed the instruments and made adjustments or improvements as needed. Part of the engineering design process involves learning from what doesn’t work and uncovering new design possibilities to find solutions.

Seventh-grader Jerad Goulston built a full-size three-string guitar using scrap wood and fishing line. His father often builds various DIY projects from scrap wood and he said this inspired him to build the instrument from wood. He made sure to “measure twice and cut once” to make sure all the pieces fit together properly. Goulston drew the entire design by himself and his father supervised any use of power tools.

“I’ve been playing the trombone since fourth grade,” Goulston said. “I was inspired to play by Trombone Shorty. I really like brass and bass instruments, but I decided to build a guitar for the project.”

One problem he encountered came when adding the strings. He had to add pieces to the neck of the guitar to further extend the strings and get the right sounds. Goulston used three different weights of fishing line for the strings, which created three distinct notes when plucked. By running his hand up the neck and pressing the strings at different points, Goulston said he could hit a wide range of notes.

“One thing I didn’t expect was how tight I could get the strings,” he said. “I tested pulling the strings as hard as I could to see when they broke so then I could pull them to a tightness that made a pleasant sound.”

Goulston said his favorite part of the project was the satisfaction that came from fitting all his pieces together and hearing the instrument played for the first time.

Matsui said she enjoyed working alongside Heffernan and other students she doesn’t normally cross paths with while completing the project. For the musicians among the students, Matsui said this will give them a way to stay in touch with music and to exercise their musical creativity. For the non-musicians, it was a chance to do something they wouldn’t otherwise have tried.

“It’s possible that some kids who don’t study music and don't know me in school will become interested in taking a music elective someday, maybe in high school,” Matsui said. “I’ve heard from many of them that they would be interested in learning to play the guitar. Maybe I need to design a guitar course for the future.”

Zack DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com or 413-930-4579.


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