Bricomusic, or DIY Music, is a project about building simple but musically effective instruments with recycled or cheap, easily available materials.
There are so many dimensions to make one’s own musical instruments that it is really difficult to know where to begin. As a composer, arranger, music scholar and teacher, setting out to build different kinds of instruments is a fascinating experience that brings in innumerable rewards. Among them:
- Expanding the available sound palette.
- Better understanding of instrumentation limitations.
- Better understanding of instrumentation history.
- Having lots of fun in the workshop.
- Impressing family and friends of all ages in reunions :-).
Expanding the available sound palette
I guess in my case the departure point were the limitations I found when I was confronted with writing music to be performed by school children.
Spanish school system nowadays is somehow based around Orff Schulwerk. Orff’s ideas make a lot of sense and represented a notable advance in music pedagogy, but I have the impression that today’s kids aren’t connected to the traditional repertoire of folk music the way older generations were.
One of the effects of mass media is that city kids have become part of the global village: their source of music folklore is not anymore nursery rhymes or harvest dances during the local festivities, but whatever pop tunes that make their local radio station hit chart. These can still carry some regional flavor, influenced by the local folklore, but you mostly hear music rooted to a greater or lesser extent in American rhythm and blues.
You can find Orff instruments in almost every Spanish school. With the exception of the recorder, they all belong to the percussion family, pitched or unpitched, since they are ones that present the least technical difficulty to the untrained musician: there is no need to worry about things like intonation, breathing or bowing. However, I found the sound palette offered by them a bit limiting: for budget reasons schools can’t afford instruments in the deep bass range needed by today’s popular music, and they buy mostly the diatonic versions, which only include switchable bars tuned in Bb and F#.
Even in these circumstances the skilled arranger will always try to find ways of making the most out of the limitations he or she has to work with:
Jimmy Ferran Blues
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Anyway, even if you are satisfied with the existing Orff orchestra, I am convinced building musical instruments is a wonderful project for a school: you learn about sound physics, about technology and crafts, about instrumentation history, about instrument decoration, about folklore and culture… And, on top of everything, you can play them! I have indeed received excellent feedback from many teachers of different areas.
Fortunately the internet contains nowadays a wealth of information about instrument building. Some I directly copied. Some I modified for better sound, better materials availability or simplified construction process. In the end I was able to come up with original designs which at some point I would like to share with the community so I can return a small part of what it has given to me.
The accompanying pictures are taken from a video recording of a workshop I taught at Instituto de Educación Secundaria Jaime Ferrán de Collado Villalba.