Nikiski Elementary project has everyone singing praises

Posted: Wednesday, May 16, 2001

Move over, Stradivarius.

Students at Nikiski Elementary School have shown an unexpected knack for creating homemade musical instruments.

Music teacher Denise Cox said she wasn't sure what to expect when she asked all the children in the school, in kindergarten through sixth grade, to work with their parents to build instruments from household knickknacks. She gave them six weeks to produce something they could use to generate sounds.

"I wanted to show the kids music can be made from anything," Cox said.

"I was just overwhelmed. I couldn't believe what they came up with."


Eleven-year-old fifth-grader William Oliva performs on the drums he created by cutting a plastic barrel in two. The halves are uneven to produce different tones.

Photo by Jay Barrett

The school has posted pictures and sound clips as a link to its official Web page, and all this month, Cox is displaying the unorthodox orchestra in the school library.

People large and small cannot keep their hands off the instruments, she said.

The collection goes beyond the expected shakers, coffee-can drums and rubber-band banjos. It includes eye-catching oddities such as transparent maracas, a rattling bean pod from Mexico, giant portable plastic drums made from a barrel and a whistle made from pieces of an asthmatic's nebulizer.

Others make compellingly odd sounds, such as a clay ocarina, a stringed picture frame resembling a Japanese koto, a string bass made from a reverberating wooden two-by-four and a pair of "Slinky drums" that gain a weird, wavering tone from the springs dangling from their centers.

The items need not be complex to work.


Seven-year-old first-grader Colton Anderson performs on the sand blocks he made.

Photo by Jay Barrett

Cox pointed to plastic spoons, jar lids, a comb and cardboard construction materials.

First-grader Colton Anderson worked with his family to make sandpaper blocks. The simple device, handsomely crafted, makes a warm, swishy sound.

"It took me a few weekends," he said. "I sanded it, so I wouldn't get any slivers."

Second-grader Justin Phelps chose empty food cans in various sizes, painted them white and taped them together. Turned over and tapped with a drumstick, the oddball assemblage becomes a miniature drum set that reminds Cox of Calypso music, she said.

Elizabeth Hammond, a fourth-grader, has a set of tuned water glasses. She can play seven tunes on them so far, turning out a credible version of "When the Saints Go Marching In" on cue.


Eight-year-old second-grader Justin Phelps beats out a tune on the drum kit he made.

Photo by Jay Barrett

But Cox's favorite of the lot is a handcrafted violin made by fourth-grader Sarah Ralston and her father.

"The violin is probably the creme de la creme," Cox said. "It really does play."

Ralston said that her father has tools, but he had never made anything like the violin before. They bought or scavenged some actual violin parts, such as strings and pegs, but made the rest. The curved holes in the top were carefully cut out with a jig saw, and the sides fastened with dozens of tiny tacks. She strung the bow with actual horse hair "donated" by Goldie, Ham-mond's horse.

She is so proud of the resulting instrument that she has given it a name, "the Ralstonian," and plans to start violin lessons, she said.

The next step, now that the instruments are done, is to have classes work on playing sample songs on them as a group. They will have to work fast, because some of the fragile instruments are suffering from their popularity.


Nine-year-old fourth-grader Sarah Ralston plays a few notes on the violin she made, which includes real horse hair for the bow.

Photo by Jay Barrett

Although Cox is not sure how tunefully the motley instruments will play together, she is sure they have hit the right note for her students. Already she is planning to bring the project back for an encore next year.

"I will do it again," she said. "It is such an overwhelming success."

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