Wednesday, May 29, 2013

How to Create Boomwhacker-like Instruments out of Cylinders

I've had a lot of interest in my home-made Boomwhacker and boom pipe instruments, so I think readers might be happy to have these basic guidelines for making Boomwhacker-type instruments out of almost any cylindrical material.

Some of my home-made pitched cylinders created with double-walled drain pipe,
shipping tubes, PVC pipe, fluorescent light protectors, hollow table legs, & electrical conduit


Illustration depicting Pythagoras demon-
strating harmonics from Franchino Gafori,
Theorica Musice (Milan, 1492)
Pythagoras (Greek mathematician, musician and philosopher, circa 570 - 495 BCE) figured out the theory of music harmonics about 2500 years ago (amazing!), and his formula remains our basic guide when constructing instruments from common or junk materials. Although we have access to technical information about tempered and just tuning, (and I note differences below), Pythagoras' formula is adequate for homemade instruments, and it's easier to teach/explain to students. 

I always cut my material slightly long and then trim it to fine tune, using reference pitches or an electronic tuner (available as a phone app). Be warned that if you cut a cylinder too short, it will be impossible to correct, and you will have to simply cut the piece shorter for a different, higher pitch.   

Depending on the material you're using, you will need an X-acto knife, small saw, or paring/pocket knife to cut and trim. I used a paring knife to fine tune my boom pipes (large white example above) because the plastic is surprisingly soft.  Warning: PVC dust is harmful to your health, so take your measurements to the hardware store and have them do most of the cutting; then wear a mask if you need to fine tune. 

If you have a limited amount/length of material, simply create a limited tone set such as a pentatonic scale or only the tonic and dominant of a key for use as a bordun.

OK, here's how to figure out the lengths you need:
(1) Find or create your fundamental note (prime, tonic, 'do') by comparing a long but musical-sounding length of your material to a reference pitch or use an electronic tuner (or phone app). Determine what note it is. It will likely be flat or sharp and need trimming. (Remember: longer = lower; shorter = higher.) The note you identify can be the fundamental pitch of your set, or you can trim the cylinder to be the tonic of the key you want. (Hint: middle C is often about 25" long, and the C below is usually around 51".) Note: as with Boomwhackers, if you cap one end, the pitch will drop one octave.

(2) Once your fundamental note is in tune, measure its length carefully (centimeters is best). Divide this measurement by the decimals below to determine the lengths of additional notes.

  Scale   Interval            Ratio      Divide by      Tempered
                                                                                                                      (for comparison)
  do        Prime                1:1        1.0             (1, 1)

   re         Major second     8:9       1.125          (1.22, 1.125)  

   mi        Major third         4:5       1.266          (1.260, 1.250)

   fa         Perfect fourth     3:4       1.333          (1.335, 1.333)

   so         Perfect fifth       2:3       1.5             (1.498, 1.5)

   la          Major sixth        3:5       1.688          (1.682, 1.667)

   ti           Major seventh   8:15     1.898           (1.888, 1.875)

   do'         Octave              2:1        2.0            (2, 2)
BTW, I'll be posting instructions for making a variety of instruments this summer (while I and other teachers have a little more time to explore).


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Music Enhances Problem Solving and Creativity

It's been a while since I've added a poster or posted some music and arts advocacy quotes, but end-of-year assessments and reflections have me thinking about the benefits of music education as it relates to creative thinking and problem solving. So here's a new poster and some favorite quotes I've collected:

“Too often students are given answers to remember, rather than problems to solve.”       
      Roger Lewin

“When faced with a problem to solve, students in music and the arts produce more possible solutions, and their solutions are more creative, according to a nationwide study.”        
         N. M. Weinberger, Arts Education Enhances ‘Real Life’ Personal Skills, 
            MuSICA Research Notes, Spring 2000.

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”     
         – William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)          (I've adopted this one as my mantra.)

“The principle goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done - men who are creative, inventive and discoverers.”          – Jean Piaget (1896-1980)

“The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution and that questions can have more than one answer.”
            Elliot Eisner in The Arts and the Creation of Mind –  
            What the Arts Teach and How it Shows
                        (Absolutlely love this. So true!)

“…the ability to be creative – a key 21st Century Skill – is native to the arts and is one of the primary processes learned through arts education...  arts promote work habits that cultivate curiosity, imagination, creativity, and evaluation skills. Students who possess these skills are better able to tolerate ambiguity, explore new realms of possibility, express their own thoughts and feelings and understand the perspectives of others… Students’ capacity to create and express themselves through the arts is one of the central qualities that make them human, as well as a basis for success in the 21st century.
       21st Century Skills Map – The Arts, 2010,
            Partnership for 21st Century Skills,

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Make a Bop-o-phone for Boomwhackers

This little invention has been a hit with kids as well as teachers. I first created a Bop-o-phone out of desperation for additional xylos. The frame/box costs basically nothing, and it adds some versatility to a set of Boomwhackers. Here are easy instructions and pictures. Please post additional ideas or feedback. Enjoy!
Materials needed: an empty, sturdy box that contained a case of 8.5" x 11" copy paper (usually easy to find in the faculty workroom), wide tape, a meter stick, a marker, sturdy scissors, and a about six feet of yarn or soft string. For each mallet, you will need a pencil or 10" length of 1/4" diameter  dowel, a small rubber ball (party favor or from 25 cent vending machine), and glue. 

Step #1

(1) Begin 2 cm from the left side of the box and mark along the top edge 4 cm wide by 1 cm deep arcs, 1 cm apart. Repeat markings on opposite edge.
Cut out the arcs. (Cutting from each side and meeting in the middle will give cleaner results.)              

Step 2

(2) Gently pull the glued seams on one side of the box apart and lay the end flap flat. Mark a line through the center of the bottom of the box from the open edge to 7" from the opposite side. Then mark a "V", extending from the center line to each corner of the box. Cut along these lines.

Step #3

(3) Fold the bottom sections over each other with the "V" on top (inside), narrowing the width of the open end of the box to about 8". Then fold the end flaps up, trim/square them up, and tape your seams.

(4) Place Boomwhackers in the 'cradles' in diatonic order. (You can leave some off for pentatonic activities). Tie two lengths of yarn around the box and tubes lengthwise as shown in the top picture. Tape yarn in place on bottom of box to keep it from sliding around. The yarn will keep tubes in place, and it doesn't really inhibit tone.
(5) Make a mallet by carving/drilling a hole in a rubber ball, applying glue to in the hole and on the end of the dowel or pencil, and inserting the stick into the ball. (Soft rubber balls actually sound better than hard ones.)

You can use the Bop-o-phone as an Orff-type instrument for ostinatos or as a melody instrument. It's very easy to convert Boomwhackers to and from this mallet format.
Here's a link to my digital song collection of color-coded melodies (with ostinato suggestions), which you might find very useful and versatile: