Friday, May 5, 2017

Year 7: Week 32 - Dulcimers!

Why dulcimers? Well, I like teaching an instrument I have never studied or performed on, that I only have limited experience actually playing (I’m being sarcastic). More than that, there was really no reason why not. [click here for pictures]

One of the great things about my school is the spirit of collaboration and interest interdisciplinary work. People love working together at my school and the fact that we have close to ample preparation time, allows us to build relationships and put projects together. Also, many teachers on their own like to do interdisciplinary work. I’m currently doing a project involving children’s books in music and one of the art teachers loves doing projects where students make musical instruments. It never lined up that any of the instruments he had the students make, were taught in music class. It’s an idea that we both loved, but we never put in the effort. Combining the art teacher's love of integrating music into art and the great spirit of collaboration, we settled on piloting a dulcimer project with our 3rd graders this school year.


A dulcimer is a three string guitar-like instrument. The fret board is diatonic so it’s easy to pick out melodies and is placed on the lap. In many ways it’s a simple version of a guitar. This is an American folk instrument that lined up with our study of American pioneer culture. I don’t remember when I first heard a teacher play a dulcimer but I knew the instrument was from Backyard music  They sell these dulcimer kits which are fairly simple to put together. The sound is impressive for the price and the materials. It’s a real instrument; it’s not a toy and after getting one and learning to play it, I got excited about doing this with my students.

I needed help though. When I brought this instrument to the art teacher, he got excited about this project and agreed to help the kids put it together during shop class. Another art teacher agreed to help them decorate their instruments. We got administrative support and we went for it.

I bought every single “how to play dulcimer” book that I could find. Practiced over the summer and still didn’t quite feel like I know what I was doing by the time the dulcimers were made and in stacks in a storage closet next to my music room.

So storage is an issue. Where do you put 57 dulcimers? I tried a couple things but ended up using these metal storage shelves. They are pretty light and not too tall, so I just put extra shelves on one shelving unit and got the instruments on it. I had to label the ends so that the kids could find them easily. Finding picks took some doing as well, I ended up with large triangular thin Fender picks.

I got figured out a book to use, and got storage set up and now it was time to teach kids how to play the dulcimer. I went over some basics, handed out picks and realized, I had no idea how to teach kids how to hold picks. One of the other music teachers showed me how to teach kids to make a shark fin with the pick to teach proper pick grip. That was really helpful and worked well after I failed to instruct the first class how to hold that little piece of plastic.

That was only the first of many trial and error teaching things that happened with teaching the dulcimer. I figured out how to tune 57 dulcimers before school (I stopped using a tuner and just put on a cello drone), came up with creative metaphors to teach technique and now we’ve been rolling for a couple weeks. The kids can accompany themselves with some simple chords and they can pick up “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

I love that some of my students who haven’t shown a lot of interest in other activities we’ve done in music class have loved working with their dulcimers. I also thinks it’s great that I have students who are usually leaders in every other activity music class, are challenged by the dulcimer. This dulcimer project is about collaboration with teachers, giving kids ownership and pride in art and music (there’s something so special about playing an instrument that you made). It’s about making connections to their social studies curriculum and learning musical concepts. This project is about keeping me on my toes and stretching my practice as a teacher by bracing the challenge of teaching something I’ve never taught before.

More than all of this, this project is about diversity. It’s about teaching music in another way to encourage student engagement. It’s about embracing a diversity in learning styles and ensuring all students through different avenues have a way to experience and grow through the study of music.

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