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    A chicken in a cup! Making instruments with Year 3


    04 May, 2018

    10 : 00

    • This term, Year 3 at Yew Chung International School of Beijing have been constructing their own musical instruments. Using easy-to-buy materials such as cardboard tubes, string, aluminium foil, plastic cups and rice, they made a water xylophone, panpipes, rain sticks, shakers, and the very popular “chicken in a cup”. Mrs Anne Dwyer, music teacher at YCIS Beijing, discusses the project and the ways in which children learn from making their own instruments.

      This topic is always very enjoyable for the children. They love the opportunity to be creative, and making a working musical instrument is extremely rewarding.

      There are several reasons why we do this as part of the music curriculum. While children at YCIS Beijing have all been learning violin from a young age, the process of making an instrument is a valuable way to teach how sounds are produced. It delivers a richer understanding of music-making that builds on lessons that they have been covering in other subjects such as science.

      For example, there is an intrinsic relationship between pitch and instrument size – think about violin, versus cello, versus double bass. When the children make their own instruments and explore the different effects on pitch that changes in size can have, it really brings this understanding to life.

      The pentatonic water xylophone is a great way to demonstrate this. By filling five glass bottles with different volumes of liquid, you can create different pitches. In the instructions, I asked the Year 3s to see if they could make a pentatonic scale by varying the amount of water they poured in. Students here at YCIS Beijing have very strong sense of pitch – I think this is owing to our violin programme that starts from Year 1 – and they were able to create perfect scales from experimenting with the water levels and listening to the chimes.

      There are other valuable lessons that this project covers. I think it’s important for children to think of themselves as able to produce music with their own two hands. Music isn’t just made by the classical instruments that we all know – there is a great range of percussion and wind instruments that can be fashioned at home and still used to make music and rhythm. In a way, this is a history lesson too – taking children back to the origins of music-making, showing them to be music-makers, and forging an appreciation of more simple sounds.

      Finally, it’s a great exercise in team work and collaboration. We encouraged the Year 3s to solve the musical tasks amongst themselves, listening to the sounds they were making and adjusting accordingly. When children work together they can achieve excellent results and I always enjoy the opportunity to remind them of this. 

      While we have finished creating the instruments themselves, the Year 3s are continuing to decorate in their Learning Communities. Parents will have a chance to see a range of the instruments in use at the end of year concert – I’m very much looking forward to incorporating them into the performances!

      How to make “a chicken in a cup”

      I can really recommend making a musical instrument at home – it’s a great summer holiday task that doesn’t feel like homework. The materials needed are readily available and inexpensive, and there are plenty of instructions online. Below are instructions for how to make the “chicken in a cup”, which was one of the most popular of the instruments!

      You will need:

      • Cotton string
      • A disposable plastic cup
      • A nail
      • A paper clip
      • A paper towel
      • Scissors
      • Water 

      How to make it:

      • Cut a piece of string about 40cm long
      • Carefully punch a hole in the middle of the bottom of the cup using the nail
      • Tie one end of the string to the long edge of the paper clip
      • Feed the other end of the string through the hole in the cup and pull it through
      • Get a small piece of paper towel, fold it in half and make it damp in the water

      Now you’re ready:

      Hold the cup firmly in one hand and wrap the damp paper towel around the string near the cup. While you squeeze the string, pull down in short jerks so that the paper towel slides a little along the string. You should hear a clucking chicken!

      How does it work?

      This is a simple example of a sound board. Without the cup, the vibrations from the string would be almost silent, but introducing the cup means that the vibrations are amplified. Violins, pianos, guitars and many other stringed instruments incorporate soundboards – spreading the vibration of the strings across their surface to increase the loudness.