A new musical instrument design class is offered at CA

Students work with teacher Max Hall to create musical instruments in a workshop.
Science Teacher Max Hall works with students building their own instruments.

“Have you thought about using these for tuning?” music teacher Nate Tucker asks as he plucks the spokes of a bicycle wheel. Violet Ramanathan ’23 nods, inspecting the wheel on the lab table. She is attempting to build an instrument similar to a bass guitar using the wheel, and she and Tucker hope that the frequency of the strings will vibrate the spokes to create the sound they’re looking for. Around the classroom, some students are diligently working on their own designs. Others are in CA’s Beta Space measuring, sawing, and assembling wood and metal. This hands-on experience is core to Musical Instrument Design, a course that Tucker introduced to Concord Academy this fall.

Tucker has had firsthand experience designing several types of musical instruments. As a percussionist for theater companies, he has created instruments to use in specific productions, and he has also experimented with making instruments by blowing glass. When he suggested introducing a course on musical instrument design at CA, Tucker says, “the school jumped on it right away.” He says students were eager to return to hands-on work, which the pandemic had prevented for so long. 

The semester-long class, which concluded in December, is cross-listed in the Performing Arts Department and the Science Department and is co-taught by Tucker and physics teacher Max Hall, providing an opportunity for interdisciplinary engagement. Both teachers are excited about their partnership. Tucker appreciates Hall’s “real sense of the science element” of the course. Hall says that “being Nate’s accomplice in this has been, and remains, really fun.”

“Being Nate’s accomplice in this has been, and remains, really fun.”

–Max Hall, science teacher

Students began the semester by diving into the science of sound. During one class, Hall and Tucker set up a giant 50-foot guitar string outdoors and used it to replicate the shape of sound waves. Early in the fall, students also played what Tucker calls “found instruments,” objects in nature that can produce sound, such as sticks and bark. For their first assignment, students made a single-stringed instrument that could create multiple pitches. From there, they moved on to designing an instrument with three to six strings. For these multistringed projects, students drew inspiration from their own experiences with and knowledge of other instruments. Kevin Arenas ’22 worked on an instrument modeled after the koto, a Japanese instrument with strings strung over movable bridges. Cecilia Wang ’23 looked to the harp and the lyre for inspiration, designing an instrument with a half-moon shape in honor of the Moon Festival celebrated in China. With the Telecaster as his model, Will Liu ’24 made an acoustic, simplified version of an electric guitar. 

At the end of the course, students shared the results of their hard work, performing with all of the instruments they had created throughout the semester. Listen to recordings of students’ instruments below. 

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