In this lesson, students will view the MUSIC episode from the PBS series Craft in America. The episode features the skilled craftwork required to make ukuleles, trumpets, banjos, guitars, and timpani mallets. Students will hear musicians playing each of the instruments. Students will also hear the musicians talk about their personal connection to their instruments. Additionally, the program illustrates how a study of American music is a study of American history.
We play the same songs but the solos are different every night. The form is the same, but the improvisations are what is really what makes that music what it is…Jazz is about being creative, all the time.
– Scotty Barnhart
Grade Level: 9-12
Estimated Time: Six to eight 45-minute class periods of discussion, research, design
MUSIC focuses on finely crafted handmade instruments and the world-renowned artists who play them, demonstrating the perfect blend of form and function. By exploring how various instruments are perfected, MUSIC also offers viewers a unique journey through our country’s past, detailing the contributions of jazz and Appalachian roots music to the American cultural landscape, as well as the intersection of the guitar and political activism, and how the legacy of West African instruments is embedded in the American banjo. MUSIC features interviews and performances from Joan Baez, Rhiannon Giddens, Director of the Count Basie Orchestra Scotty Barnhart, banjo master Tony Ellis, L.A. Philharmonic timpanist Joseph Pereira, and virtuoso ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro. Instrument makers featured are Martin Guitar, Hartel Banjos, Monette trumpets, Stelling banjos, and Kamaka ukuleles.
• American music traces the history and politics of the nation.
• Musicians have a personal connection to their instruments.
• Musical instruments can be made from everyday materials.
• Hand crafting can be used to refine the function and beauty of musical instruments.
• In what ways does American music trace the history and politics of the nation?
• How do musicians demonstrate a personal connection to their instruments?
• How can musical instruments be made from everyday materials?
• Why is hand crafting important in the creation of many musical instruments?
• Trace connections between American music and American history and politics illustrated in the MUSIC episode.
• Analyze the personal connections musicians have to their instruments.
• Experiment to design a musical instrument from recycled materials.
• Describe how handcrafting techniques can refine the function, beauty, and meaning of a musical instrument.
Ukulele, banjo, timpani, minstrel show, context, decontextualize, diaspora, prototype, sound board, acoustics, fingerboard, fret, inlay, articulate.
The minstrel show in America is a complex history of racism and entertainment. However, Rhiannon Giddens values many of the minstrel show musical forms, particularly the extensive use of the banjo. But she is mindful of presenting the music with the history intact; of not “erasing” the tragedies of racism of which the minstrel shows were born and the racist beliefs which the shows actually celebrated. Wikipedia has an extensive entry on the 19th century popularity of minstrel shows and its various forms. Examine the information ahead of time, and print out (or use online) this resource with students. Allowing students to work in groups will be helpful, so they may discuss their responses.
Introduce students to the topic by asking what they know about minstrel shows. Share some descriptions of minstrel shows. Share Giddens’ quote about studying minstrelsy and uncovering its musical forms that,
The history keeps me there… the desire to recast some of this music in a modern light, and figure out how to do it without completely decontextualizing it so that the music is not completely divorced from the context from which it came.
Help students to unpack that quote by defining decontextualize. Her song “Julie” (also available on YouTube) is the story of a white female slave owner who is mystified by the slave Julie’s desire to leave her home. Have students listen to the song, and provide copies of the lyrics for study after listening. Place students in groups for completing the worksheets. Discuss the worksheet responses when students are finished.
Have students share their answers to the worksheet Musical History in a group discussion. As a segue into studio work, share and discuss the four sketch prompts that students will consider on the next worksheet: Innovative Instruments.
Worksheet: Innovative Instruments
Students will brainstorm using the worksheet, followed by three or four 45-minute periods for studio exploration in the maker space.