7th graders strike a chord learning the art of instrument-making

Cigar box guitars, wooden pan flutes, dulcimers, and cajons are just a few examples of the many instruments that line the tables and shelves of the Lower Level Middle School Art Room.

7th graders have been hard at work learning the craft of instrument-making under the guidance of Music Instructor, Cecile Audette (and other adult volunteers). The students kick off their adventures in instrument-making—formally called the Instrument Projectwith five research days. During this startup phase, they’re encouraged to explore different instruments before they select the one they want to build.

The Instrument Project is part of the general music curriculum and the perfect example of what Friends refers to as a “vigorous” educational experience. The project conceptually spills outside of the music department walls and spans multiple subjects like math and science, but still manages to center a joyful, hands-on learning experience.

And it is quite the experience!

Before picking up any tools, students move through different mini units. There are library days when students put their research skills to work, and math days that cover topics like drawing to scale or calculating conversion rates and measurements. There are also science days that involve learning the fundamentals of audio engineering—how sound waves function and the difference between volume and pitch. And then there are build days. Build days where all the pieces come together into an engrossing, hands-on experience and instruments come to life.

To ease into these build days, students start out with a small project where they construct a ukulele holder. Audette designed this particular project to slowly introduce them to a wide range of tools like bandsaws and mitre box saws. While some students prefer to use hand tools over the power tools, this introductory project has been extremely successful, according to Audette. She also credits parent and teacher volunteers for making student time in the makerspace more productive as they’re able to quickly provide technical assistance.

After putting their research, math, and science skills to work and building a finished product, it’s time to showcase their work. The final presentation to classmates consists of both a demonstration and slideshow presentation. There are some requirements for the presentation, for example, if the student fabricated a pitched instrument, it must have five pitches and they have to play a song on it. For the remainder of their presentation, they must discuss the instrument’s history, what “family” it belongs to, and describe their making process. 

To close out the project, students engage in a “circle debrief” in January where they reflect on what went well, what didn’t go as well, and what could improve for the following year. Prior to coming to the circle, everyone is encouraged to complete a survey which guides the debrief conversation. Audette will read the responses from the survey and give other students a chance to weigh in on their peers’ feedback. Ultimately the collaborative process lays the groundwork for an even stronger course the following year.
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