Making Instruments and Music at the YMCA

We led a music camp for campers at the South Shore YMCA Quincy Branch from August 1-5, 2011, and we had a whole lot of fun! I was there every day, and Nick Dinnerstein, Chad Gray, and Ken Freeman (all A Street faculty) came out to help on different days of the week.

By Day 5, I was absolutely impressed with the progress all of the campers had made in understanding their instruments, keeping a beat and a rhythm, singing, and understanding basic composition. All of the campers (10-13 kids depending on the day) were entering first through third grade.
On Monday we built claves, an instrument important in Afro-Cuban music. Claves consist of two fairly short wooden dowels, and are therefore a very easy first instrument to make and with which to begin exploring concepts like tempo and rhythm. We cut the claves to different lengths and different widths so that each student’s set of claves would also have a slightly different pitch and a different texture. We had YMCA counselors help us every day, and you can see one counselor helping a camper use her claves in the picture on the right.

On Tuesday we made scrapers. Students cut one very thick dowel to a length between 8″ and 12″, and then filed numerous ruts down the length of the dowel. They cut another very thin dowel to about 8″ and used that to scrape over the ruts in the larger dowel. On Wednesday, students made the instruments that they were perhaps most interested in: funnelphones. This is my favorite instruments, too, since it’s a lot like a brass instrument. It consists of a length of hose with a funnel attached to one end, and a makeshift mouthpiece made from duct tape on the other. Kids were encouraged to “buzz” their lips to make sound, and some had quite a bit of trouble putting the instrument down. On Thursday and Friday, students who were not assigned to the funnelphones were quick to protest. On Thursday, we made flowerpot bells, or flowerpots suspended from a thick dowel. These instruments are played by gently hitting the suspended bells with claves. With the exception of the flowerpot bells, each student was able to take home their instruments at the end of the week.

Until we ran out of these storage cubbies, campered stored all of their instruments here in the art room during the week.

When the campers weren’t building and decorating instruments, they were involved in activities that focused on one or more of the following: matching pitches, keeping a steady beat, practicing using dynamics (loud or soft) and pitch at the same time, or learning some of the basics of musical composition. In our warm ups, we would focus on saying each other’s names and something about ourselves in rhythm. This grew exponentially better from Monday through Friday. We also sang “whale songs,” as one particular campers liked to call them. This was a vocal warm up where one person would move her hands together from close to the floor to high above her head to indicate pitch, and from close together to far apart horizontally to represent loudness. Each student loved to conduct the group in this manner, and it was a good way to quickly teach words like high and low, and piano, mezzo forte, and fortissimo.

On Monday, Nick Dinnerstein finished out the day with the campers by performing movements of a Bach Cello Suite for them. Students had to let him know when he was playing loud or soft, and we also learned how to repeat the rhythms he was playing. This performance inspired some interesting artwork when students decorated their journals, which they wrote in daily.

On Tuesday, A Street teacher Chad Gray and I introduced the students to some important new concepts, including scale degrees and rhythmic notation. These two things are really important and complex ideas. Scale degrees (from 1-7) indicate different pitches in a scale. Over the course of the week, campers learned the “Navajo Song of Happiness,” a song using one and two syllable words (in English, syllables that don’t have any meaning) We picked this song because it is relatively easy to learn, and because it has a history of a celebratory song. Students began to learn the song on Tuesday in terms of it’s scale degrees. They had a little trouble in the beginning understanding the concept, which is actually very difficult for students that young. However, they seemed to perform much better with respect to singing scale degrees by Thursday.

The students also started looking at rhythm through the guise of a matrix. A table was drawn on the board, and each cell indicated a beat of music. We continued to understand musical composition through this guise for the next few days. On Wednesday, Chad Gray had the campers perform on their various instruments short compositions at the same time. I found it really impressive that in three days, students were playing multiple parts. This is a concept that grows in musicians through many years.

Ken Freeman came to help on Thursday and Friday, and he was a huge help in leading the kids to a performance of the “Navajo Song of Happiness” with their own instrumental accompaniment. On Thursday, Ken helped the students better understand how to sing the song. We split the campers into two groups, and while I was working with them on rhythm and creating their own music notation matrices, Ken worked diligently until the campers all sang beautifully in tune.

On Friday, students were separated into groups and chose one accompaniment for each instrument. This was very difficult for some students, but by Friday afternoon, they were all able to perform their parts. To the right is an example of an accompaniment for flowerpot bells. The smaller Xs represent using a small and high pitched flowerpot, and the large Xs represent using a large and lower pitched flowerpot.

Also on Friday, Ken led the students in a really fun song-writing activity. He had all of the students sit in a circle and write down a positive descriptive word about another student in the room, without naming the student. Then Ken played the guitar and had campers sing a phrase using one of the words about the person next to him/her. The students really loved this activity, and it got them ready for their final performance. The entire week provided a great experience for me, the A Street faculty who taught at the camp, and we hope for the kids as well. I was truly impressed with their growth, and I hope they all continue to develop a passion for making music.

Before I sign off for today, I will make a few suggestions for anyone interested in building the instruments we built in camp. (1) building the instruments in an art room was a blessing and a curse. The students had a lot of fun decorating their instruments, but they also had a bit too much fun with glitter, which proved a distraction sometimes when we needed to make music with our instruments. (2) the scrapers need a sufficiently sturdy smaller scraping stick so that it wont break when you play loudly. (3) Do not cut the hose on the funnelphones too short. If you do, it will be difficult to role them into a horn-like instrument. (see picture of funnelphones above). (4) Make sure you get fairly thick and sturdy ceramic flowerpots for the flowerpot bells. If they crack, the sound changes and does not provide a nice bell-like ring.

I’d like to thank Warren Senders, a music educator and performer in Boston, for providing me with the instructions to create these instruments, and for a lot of great advice on how to teach and have fun with the campers. If you have any questions about camp or any of our other services here at A Street Music, feel free to write me at!


About Justin Stanley, Teaching-Artist
I'm a musician and educator based in Boston, MA.

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