Instrument spotlight · Instrumental Facts

Interesting facts about the piano you should know

You will have heard loads and loads of music played on the piano. You may play it yourself or have children in your house learning to play, but how much do you actually know about this splendid instrument? Well, here are 18 facts about the piano that you might find interesting.

  • The piano was invented in Italy in 1709 by Francesco Cristofori.
  • One of the pianos made by Cristofori is housed in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • The full name of the piano is pianoforte from the Italian words piano meaning soft, and forte meaning loud.
  • The piano got its name because it can play music both quietly and loud, previously keyboard instruments could not do this.
  • The piano can be considered as both a string and a percussion instrument.
  • When you press a note on the piano, a hammer will hit the strings inside the piano’s casing to make a note.
  • Piano strings are usually made from steel and each string holds about 170 pounds of tension.
  • There are approximately 230 strings in a standard piano.
  • Piano keys used to be made from ivory, but have been made out of plastic since the 1940’s.
  • Musicians talk about “middle C”, but the exact middle of a piano keyboard is between the E and F keys above middle C.
  • The left pedal of the 2 foot pedals on a piano is a damper pedal. It works by moving the hammer closer to the string so it can’t hit the string as hard, and will make a quieter sound.
  • The right pedal of the 2 foot pedals on a piano is a sustain pedal. It works by removing the dampers from the strings so that the string continues to sound after the key has been pressed and let go.
  • The piano has a huge range of notes that it can play, a range to rival any orchestra.
  • The piano’s lowest note is the same as the lowest note on a double-bassoon.
  • The piano’s highest note is the same as the highest note on a piccolo.
  • The world’s most expensive piano is one made out of crystal by Canadian piano makers Heintsman & Co. It is worth $3,220,000
  • The world’s smallest piano was made by video game makers Sega. It is just 25cm wide. It is a playable piano, but the keys are absolutely tiny!
  • The world’s largest piano is recorded in the Guinness Book of Records as measuring 8ft 2in wide, 19ft 10in long and 6ft 3in high. It was made by Daniel Czapiewski and was actually played in a concert at Szymbark in Poland on 30 December 2010.

If you have got to the end of this blog post, thank you very much for reading and I hope you have enjoyed, or got something out of this post! If you have enjoyed what you have read, and would be interested in supporting me to keep this blog running, I would be absolutely delighted if you would consider buying me a coffee using the following link: Buy Me A Coffee Thank you!!

Instrument spotlight

Spotlight on Halilit Calypso Band set for babies over 6 months old

You have recently had a baby, and have read about how important music is for babies’ development (hint: music is an amazing activity for all areas of your baby’s development), and you like the idea of having a music box at home for your children to help themselves to. But where on earth do you start with the dizzying array of instruments to choose from? How do you know what instruments are safe for your very young children to play with?

The image above shows a box with Halitlit branding and marked Calypso Band. The box contains three musical instruments – a blue tambourine, a yellow bell, a green maraca. The box says the instruments are suitable for babies 6 months and older.

Well, the Halilit Calypso band is a great place to start!

This is a lovely set of instruments, a Baby Band in a Box if you like. They are nice, brightly coloured instruments that have perfect sized handles for small hands to hold. There are three instruments in this box:

  • A maraca – a green shaker with a chunky handle, played by shaking the maraca up and down or side to side. The maraca can be shaken fast or slow, a really lovely, audible and easily understandable way for children to start learning these concepts.
  • A bell – this bell is encased in a yellow ball and has a big handle for little hands to easily grip onto. Just like the maraca, it is played by shaking it up and down, or side to side.
  • A tambourine – this is the blue instrument in this set. A tambourine is made with zithers (metal discs), attached around the edges of a drum. On a standard tambourine these zithers can break off and become a choking hazard for small children. With the Halilit Calypso Band tambourine, however, the zithers are entirely encased (like the bell above) in a blue plastic case. The tambourine is thinner on the one side to help small children grip onto it and play it. Again this is an instrument that can be played by shaking it up and down, or side to side.
The image above shows the back of the Halilit box. There is a picture of a happy baby holding the yellow bell and the blue tambourine on the box. The writing on the box describes some of the benefits of the instruments for small children, e.g. builds a sense of rhythm, enhances motor skills, develops musical ability.

The beauty of this set of instruments is that each one of them can be played by the children themselves. They can grab hold of them and shake them by themselves. I mentioned above that you can shake the instruments fast or slow, introducing these concepts to small children with an easy to understand demonstration. You can also shake them very gently and quietly, or with huge enthusiasm and loudly (especially the tambourine) to demonstrate the difference between loud and quiet, telling your child that you are playing loud or quiet as you do so.

To see a demonstration of how to play these instruments, have a look at my TikTok on Wednesday where I will show you how to play them!

The instruments are made out of plastic and any small parts, namely the bell and the zithers in the tambourine, are fully enclosed in their plastic outer casing, so you do not need to worry about your baby putting the instruments in their mouths. I am not saying that you can leave your baby unsupervised as they play with them, as your baby can still give themselves a good whack in the face with them – or their siblings…. but they do take away an amount of worry about babies putting instruments in their mouths.

For very young children, being able to play instruments themselves helps your baby to understand cause and effect – your baby will move, or shake the instrument and a sound will come out of it because of their actions. It’s a great independent activity for them, they don’t need you to make the sound for them. (Your little one will need to be able to grip things by themselves to be able to play independently.)

A picture of the three instruments from this lovely set. These are the green maraca, the yellow bell and the blue tambourine on a blue background.

This is an absolutely lovely set of instruments, and a perfect set to start off your music box.

I bought this set from Amazon, and at the time of writing, the set costs £14.99.

If you have got to the end of this blog post, thank you very much for reading and I hope you have enjoyed, or got something out of this post! If you have enjoyed what you have read, and would be interested in supporting me to keep this blog running, I would be absolutely delighted if you would consider buying me a coffee using the following link: Buy Me A Coffee Thank you!!

Instrument spotlight

Spotlight on Rainsticks

This month’s spotlight is turned onto another untuned percussion instrument, the rainstick.

What is a rainstick?

A rainstick, traditionally, was an instrument made from a hollow wooden or plant based tube (in Chille, hollow cacti are used to make rainsticks) partially filled with small objects like small pebbles or beans. The tube would have spikes pushed into it. The rainstick would be held vertically and then turned over so the small pebbles or beans inside would fall from one end to the other, bouncing off the spikes inside producing a sound like falling rain, hence the name.

We have a rainstick as part of our music box, a box in our playroom with various musical instruments in which are generally inexpensive. Our rainstick is not a traditional one, but rather a brightly coloured plastic instrument aimed at children.

How do you play a rainstick?

It is easy to play a rainstick. As described above the most basic way to play is to hold it vertically one way and then turn it upside up down.

  • Hold the rainstick vertically, and turn it upside down, then back over, then over again very quickly.
  • Hold the rainstick vertically and turn it the other way up very slowly.
  • Hold the rainstick vertically and shake it up and down.
  • Shake the rainstick from side to side.

Rainsticks and young children

While traditional rainsticks are a rather different kettle of fish where small children are concerned, these plastic ones are perfect for entertaining even small children.

They are brightly coloured, which is always appealing to young children, and as they are made of plastic with no detachable parts, you do not need to worry about what would happen if the rainstick went into their mouths. Toddlers will enjoy shaking the rainstick and getting it to make a noise by themselves, and even quite small children will enjoy pushing and rolling the rainstick on the floor.

Developmentally, for young children, using a rainstick in this way, and especially getting them to do as much as possible for themselves can help teach your baby about cause and effect – I push this object and it makes a sound.

I bought my rainstick from ELC about 6 years ago when my eldest saw it and didn’t want to let it go. A very similar one is available on Amazon at a price of £7.95 at the time of writing.

This is an instrument, and toy, that I would highly recommend having in your music box at home. It’s fun and easy to play, and (as long as you get one like the one we have at home that is made from plastic) can be used by even very small children.

If you have got to the end of this blog post, thank you very much for reading and I hope you have enjoyed, or got something out of this post! If you have enjoyed what you have read, and would be interested in supporting me to keep this blog running, I would be absolutely delighted if you would consider buying me a coffee using the following link: Buy Me A Coffee Thank you!!

Instrument spotlight

Spotlight on Handbells

My first memory of a handbell is of one being rung in the school playground calling me back in from playtime for more lessons. Years later when I worked at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon I used to absolutely love using one of these old school style handbells to let people know the show was about to start, or re-start after the interval. It is mean I know, but it was particularly amusing if I made someone jump when I started ringing the bell.

What is a handbell?

A handbell is a tuned percussion instrument. Percussion instruments are instruments that are struck, shaken or scraped. Many percussion instruments are made so that they do not play a specific note, however tuned percussion instruments are made in such a way that they can produce a specific note.

Here are a couple of fun examples of music played with handbells from YouTube:

How do you play handbells?

Handbells are metal bells, with a clapper (sort of like a ball) inside the bell. The clapper is hinged, or in the case of the handbells I have at home mounted on a spring inside the bell and the clapper hits the sides of the bell to produce the sound. Handbells traditionally had a leather handle, but many, like mine at home, now have a plastic handle. To sound the bell you raise the handle up and down, or side to side so that the clapper hits the sides of the bell.

You can also play the handbells by placing the on a table or floor and hitting the outside of the bell with a beater.

The set of handbells I have at home are lovely, brightly coloured bells that can easily be played by children, even quite young children. I have a set of 8 at home (although my children have put one of them somewhere in the house that is not our music box so I can’t find it at the moment). They absolutely LOVE grabbing the bells and ringing them as loud as they possibly can do!

Each of my bells in this set are pitched to a note from the scale of C major – I may do a separate blog post explaining what scales are and how they work at a later date if people are interested in knowing more about them. When they first arrived in our house each bell was labelled with a sticker on the top of the handle with the note it was pitched to along with a number from 1 to 8, 1 being C, the first note of the scale for these handbells. Helpfully, given that most of the stickers have long since disappeared (children and stickers!) the same number that was on the sticker is also labelled on the main body of the bell.

As the bells are tuned, and each one is labelled, you can learn to play very simple tunes on the bells and play those with your children. I’ll be honest here though, even as a musician trying to show my children how to play a tune on the handbells they have completely ignored my attempts and just grabbed any old bell and rung it. To be fair to them, they were quite young at the time, and my now 7 year old may be more interested in playing an actual tune, but as young children they just think it is far more fun to shake the bells – and they do so love to do that!

This set of handbells is more expensive than many of the instruments I write about on here. The set I have at home was given to us as a gift for my daughter’s first birthday, and at the time of writing this blog post a very similar set of handbells was available on Amazon (other retailers available, of course), priced at £19.29.

Handbells Music Handbells Easy to Play Metal Hand Bell Children Musical Instrument Multi-function for Home for Children: Amazon.co.uk: Musical Instruments

Handbells and babies/toddlers

As we all know, babies and toddlers put pretty much everything in their mouths. When they are tiny they do this as part of their exploration of the world, and as they get older I think they just do it for fun – in the case of my 4 year old, I am sure she still sticks loads of things in her mouth just because I ask her not to! In addition, babies are not able to control the movement of their hands and arms, and young children. Bells are made of hard materials that will hurt if they are hit against your little one’s bodies, and the clapper can come away from the bell and be a choking hazard if the bell is mouthed. So young children should not be allowed to play with the bells unsupervised and you should keep a close eye on your children when they are playing with them. They are a lot of fun, though, and for my children they have been well worth putting up with the noise the children make when playing the handbells.

I will leave you with one final video I enjoyed of people who are far more skilled than I am playing handbells, and this time there is added Lego animation:

Instrument spotlight

Spotlight on Triangle

You do not need to purchase any instruments to make music at home with your children; there are a lot of household items that you can use as instruments. However, if you are considering investing in a music box, or box of musical instruments, for your children to be able to play with at home (a fantastic idea, by the way), then you could not go wrong adding a triangle to your instruments in that music box.

What is a Triangle?

A triangle is a very simple instrument. It is literally a tube of metal bent into the shape of, yes you guessed it, a triangle!

The triangle is an untuned percussion instrument. Percussion instruments, are ones which are played by being hit or scraped by a beater. Most percussion instruments are untuned, which means that they cannot be tuned to play a particular note, or notes.

How to Play the Triangle

It is played by hitting the sides of the triangle with a metal beater. The triangle needs to be dangled, usually from a string or something similar, although it can just dangle from a finger while you are playing it. I have lost the rubber band thing that my triangle came with, so in making the videos below I improvised using a pipe cleaner to dangle the triangle from.

So what would you do with the triangle at home?

  • Play along with some music on the radio, or that you have chosen to listen to
  • Try to hit the triangle in time to the beat, or pulse, of the music you are listening to
  • Play the triangle as quietly as you can. It is quite a quiet instrument anyway, but can you hit it as gently as possible and make a really quiet sound?
  • Play the triangle as loud as possible. To play loudly, well loud for this instrument, you just need to hit it hard (when playing with young children, watch out for the triangle, and beater perhaps, swinging around quite wildly!)
  • Have a feel of the triangle and discuss its properties – is it hard or soft, warm or cold etc
  • Use it in imaginative play, perhaps as a school bell, or alarm in a fire station; let your imagination run wild

Here are a couple of videos showing the very basics of how to play the triangle:

Another way of playing the triangle:

And once you have mastered the basics, it shouldn’t be too long before you can easily do something like this (well, a few weeks at least):

If you have got to the end of this blog post, thank you very much for reading and I hope you have enjoyed, or got something out of this post! If you have enjoyed what you have read, and would be interested in supporting me to keep this blog running, I would be absolutely delighted if you would consider buying me a coffee using the following link: Buy Me A Coffee Thank you!!

Instrument spotlight · Ukulele Challenge

Our Ukuleles

As some of you who have been regular readers of this blog will know, I am trying to teach my eldest the basics of playing the ukulele. He has often expressed an interest in learning guitar and this is a good starter instrument to learn the basics with before moving on to something else like a guitar. And for me beginner ukulele is much easier to listen to than beginner recorder!

My decision to try to teach him ukulele was also partly based on my own desire to play the instrument. I had bought a cheap ukulele from Flying Tiger to try it out (I have written more about that ukulele below as it is now my 3 year old’s instrument), and then got a much nicer instrument for my birthday that year. It made such a difference to the sound that I made when playing and so my enjoyment of playing and motivation to practise, that I felt it important to buy my son a proper ukulele rather than give him a toy to play with.

I got him a Makala dolphin soprano ukulele from Amazon. I liked the colour of it (red is my favourite colour) and the fact that the bridge was shaped like a dolphin and I thought that my son would quite like it. It cost me around £30 at the time, and at the time of writing there are other Makala dolphin ukuleles available on Amazon at a cost of £35.99 like this one. It is easy to play, has a nice, warm sound to it, holds its tuning well and is a pleasure to play. I should say that if you do buy a ukulele, you do have to tune it several times when you first get it so that the strings settle, if you like, and that is the same when you change strings.

As I mentioned above I had previously bought a ukulele from Flying Tiger when I first decided I wanted to learn to play ukulele myself. It cost about £10, and was pretty, so I thought it was worth a try.

This ukulele is made out of plastic and has plastic strings, and the materials it is made out of makes a huge difference to the sound it produces. It is just not as nice or warm a sound, and the strings do not stay in place, so the tuning of the instrument slips all the time. You tune the ukulele and start to play and sometimes the strings move while you are playing, so it just doesn’t sound nice or right. I kept thinking that I was playing the wrong chords when I was not, and I quickly became quite disheartened with playing. This is very much a toy, not a proper instrument.

It does, however, work very well as an instrument for my 3 year old to play. She is very much into music and always singing away to herself and to us, songs she has learned or just made up. Whatever her older brother is doing, she also wants to get involved with herself, but at the moment she doesn’t have the concentration to learn to play like my eldest is doing. It is really good for her, though, to have an instrument I am happy for her to play around with for her to play along with us and feel involved with our lessons and our music making. As a plastic instrument I am not worried about her bashing it on the floor or the furniture, I am not worried if she plays along with it gently or not, and because it was only £10 it doesn’t bother me if she only picks it up for 5 minutes every few weeks. It serves a purpose that way, but will never be good to actually learn how to play ukulele.

Instrument spotlight

Spotlight on Sensory Scarves

This might not sound like an item that would have a place in a music box, but sensory scarves are a great addition to any musical play you do at home. They are an inexpensive and versatile thing to include in your music box.

What are sensory scarves?

Sensory scarves are brightly coloured, lightweight scarves that can be used in a range of sensory activities, including music. They can be used by children of all ages, including very small babies.

Sensory scarves are a small square of soft, usually see-through chiffon material. They come in many different colours, often very bright colours, which children love. They can be referred to as sensory scarves, dance scarves, juggling scarves when you are looking for them to purchase, and come in multi-packs of, say 12 or 20 scarves. They are generally machine washable, which is great when your baby puts everything in their mouths, but should not go in a tumble dryer. That’s not really a problem though because they dry really quickly. The only thing you have to really watch out for with these scarves is leaving them on the floor because they are very slippy.

How to use Sensory Scarves

We have used these scarves for both musical and non-musical play. I will talk about how we use sensory scarves with our musical play below. In non-musical play we have used them to used them to play hide and seek with – burying the children or toys under a pile of scarves (we have quite a lot of them at home!) and then going to find them. We have played at wrapping things up with the scarves, playing birthdays or Christmas. I have put the scarves inside a Green Toys recycling truck and got the children to pull the scarves out from the different slots in the truck; that was a great game that kept my children busy for at least 5 minutes when they were very small. We have used them to make rainbows. We have used them to hide behind when playing Peekaboo. I am sure there are lots of other games we have played with them, but I can’t think of them right now.

As the children are at school today, I had an able assistant in the form of Giant Peppa Pig.

Musical Play with Sensory Scarves

Sensory scarves are great for musical play. As I mentioned above, they can be used by even the youngest children. They are easy for small hands to grasp hold of and, as they are machine washable, it doesn’t matter if they go in baby’s mouth (although obviously any toy should be played with under close supervision with small children). Scarves are very soft and so you can run them over your little one’s body, they can be put over their heads, they can be thrown in the air etc without worrying that they will hurt anyone. So what musical games have we played with sensory scarves at home?

  • We have held the scarves in our hands (me holding them when the children were babies, and as the children have grown, they have held them scarves themselves), and moved them in time to them music. The scarves can be moved up and down in time to the music, or from one side to the other.
  • Waved the scarves in the air above the children’s heads, or at eye level, or even down on the ground to get them to follow the movement with their eyes or heads. When doing this I tell the children what I am doing, and again I time my movements to coincide with the beat of the music I am playing.
  • Put a song like The Grand Old Duke of York on and used my scarf to illustrate the song – as we sing about the Grand Old Duke’s men going up the hill I wave my scarf up in the air, and when they go back down the hill my scarf moves down towards the ground.
  • When singing Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes we place the scarves on our heads, shoulders, knees or toes.
  • When singing songs about hiding, or playing peekaboo using a sing-song voice, I have used a scarf to either hide behind myself, or to hide one of the children. Removing the scarf with a flourish is a fabulous, fun and very clear way of playing peekaboo with your little ones. Peekaboo is a great game to make small children laugh, as well as a great way to teach your children about object permanence – that people and things do not disappear if you cannot see them.
  • Singing the rainbow song, and using the scarves to point out the colours.
  • As my children have got older, I have given them a scarf or two, put some music on and got them to just dance around moving the scarf to the music as they see fit.

Here’s an example of musical play with sensory scarves, playing along to Dance of the Knights from the ballet Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev:

Instrument spotlight

Spotlight on Sleigh Bells / Jingle Bells

It is coming up towards that time of year when you start to hear sleigh bells in a lot of music. Sleigh bells are definitely a feature of Christmas music, and they make a fantastic Christmas present for children who enjoy music, or whose parents do. I would not buy these as a present for small children who mouth objects, but they can be played by them with extremely close supervision.

What are Sleigh Bells?

Sleigh bells are percussion instruments made by having a sheet of metal bent into a ball shape with ball bearings or a small metal rod inside the ball. Generally several of these balls are attached to something like a wooden stick.

How do you Play Sleigh Bells?

Sleigh bells are incredibly easy to play. You can play them by:

  • holding the sleigh bells in your hand and shaking them. Yep, that is it!
  • holding the sleigh bells in one hand and hitting the palm of your other hand with them.
  • tapping the sleigh bells on your body or on the floor.

Here is a video of the various ways to play sleigh bells.

Shaking the sleigh bells
Shaking the sleigh bells on the beat/to a pulse
Tapping sleigh bells on your hand
Tapping sleigh bells on the floor (this can be loud!)

Sleigh Bells and Small Children

Small children, especially those who mouth objects (chew on them or otherwise put them into their mouths), should never be left unsupervised with sleigh bells. The bells could detach from the wooden stick and could cause a choking hazard.

They are instruments that even a small child can play independently, as long as you are right by their side when they are playing them to stop them putting them in their mouths. The bells make a nice sound and so children really do enjoy playing with them. For us, it was easier to let my son play with the sleigh bells from a younger age than my daughter as he largely stopped mouthing objects from around 2 whereas my daughter has only just stopped putting everything in her mouth at over 3. You know your child best, but in our household the bells have only just gone into the main music box that both children have easy access to. A safer alternative to bells are enclosed mini tambourines, and you can read my blog post featuring these instruments here.

We have a set of bells attached to material that goes around the ankle, and both of my children absolutely love them, running and dancing around with them and making as much noise as they possibly can with them! Once again, while these are great for young children to play with young children shouldn’t play with them unsupervised because the bells here could come off the material as well. With older children, they can dance around with them on to their hearts’ content!

If you have got to the end of this blog post, thank you very much for reading and I hope you have enjoyed, or got something out of this post! If you have enjoyed what you have read, and would be interested in supporting me to keep this blog running, I would be absolutely delighted if you would consider buying me a coffee using the following link: Buy Me A Coffee Thank you!!

Instrument spotlight

Spotlight on Mini Tambourines

Mini tambourines are a good instrument choice for smaller children. They are easier for small children to hold onto, and therefore play independently; and for very small children who mouth objects, enclosed mini tambourines are available, which are much safer for them to use on their own.

What Is a Tambourine?

Tambourine means little drum, and is an instrument from the percussion family. Percussion instruments are those that are played by hitting, shaking, rubbing or scraping them. They are generally hand held, but can be fixed into position, like a drum kit. Tambourines have a round frame with metal discs, called zils, within that frame. The frame can be left open, so just the frame with the zils; or a drum skin can be stretched over the top of the frame.

Spotlight on Tambourine

How Does a Mini Tambourine Differ from a Normal Tambourine?

A tambourine looks like a drum with bells around the side, whereas mini tambourines look much more like a sleigh bell type instrument. We own two, one that is enclosed and one that is open. The open mini tambourine is shaped like a crescent, with a hand hold that does not have any bells on it. It is made out of plastic and so is very hard wearing with children who drop it all the time, chuck it back into the music box, even at each other on occasion if I have not been looking.

Our other mini tambourine does not really look like a tambourine. Again it is made out of plastic. The zils are covered over with plastic as well so that the children cannot actually access them. There is a handle attached to the instrument for easy holding. This type of instrument is the safest option for small children who like to put everything into their mouths as the zils cannot easily detach from the instrument, and if they do detach they cannot escape their plastic container.

How Do You Play a Mini Tambourine?

Basically, a mini tambourine is played in the same way as a tambourine.

  • You can tap the mini tambourine with your hands or with a stick.
  • You can hold the instrument in one hand and tap it against the palm of your other hand.
  • You can tap the instrument against your body, for example your legs, or feet. If you choose to tap your mini tambourine against yours or your child’s head, it would be worth doing it gently, perhaps!
  • You can shake the mini tambourine.

Basically, these are the same instrument as a tambourine, but on a smaller scale. In the case of the enclosed mini tambourine, they are a much safer alternative for very small children to play independently. You don’t have to keep your eyes on your child constantly with the mini tambourine, and you just have to watch that they don’t hit themselves or their siblings (or the cat) too hard with them!

Mini tambourines are a great alternative not only for tambourines, but also for sleigh bells when playing Christmas music, especially the enclosed ones. They make a similar sound and can be played in the same way as the sleigh bells.

Instrument spotlight

Spotlight on Wooden Sticks

This is the next blog post in my series of posts highlighting different, simple and affordable musical instruments that you may wish to purchase to start playing with your little ones. These instruments are almost exclusively percussion instruments, and for each of them your child can start playing them independently to a greater or lesser extent from an early age.

Today I am looking at musical sticks. Very simply two pieces of wood that can be tapped together, or on the floor or on yours or your child’s body. The sorts of sticks I tend to use for this are wooden sticks, but they can be made out of plastic or (and I wouldn’t recommend these with children) fibreglass.

Wooden sticks have been used in music for many, many years. Aboriginal Australians used clapping sticks (also known as musicstick, bilma, bimli or clappers) to accompany voices and keep the rhythm of the chants used in traditional ceremonies. Northern Australians would use these instruments to accompany the digeridoo. A similar instrument, known as claves, were used to play repeated rhythm patterns in Cuban music. You can hear the claves right from the start and throughout this piece of music, Espiritu by Ann Reynolds:

Learning about musical pulse with wooden sticks

So, when playing the sticks with your child, you do not need to to attempt anything remotely complicated at all. Simply, the sticks can be tapped or hit together while you are listening to music together or singing together. Tap the sticks one onto the other along to the beat of the music you are listening to or singing. Every piece of music has a beat, if you find yourself tapping along to music you will most likely be tapping along to the beat. This beat is what you should use when tapping your sticks together.

Wooden sticks are great for helping to teach your little ones about feeling the beat or pulse of music – I will write another day about why is so good for your little ones to learn how to feel the pulse in music; it has perhaps some surprising benefits, but the most obvious one would be in helping children develop motor skills.

Choose music with a strong beat to play along to such as marching music (usually have two or four beats in a bar), waltzes (3 beats in a bar), or many pop songs where you can play along with the drum beat to help you find the pulse.

Demonstrating Playing on the Beat

2 beats in a bar
3 beats in a bar
4 beats in a bar

Learning Dynamics with Wooden Sticks

You can also explore how to play loud and quiet with wooden sticks. You can tap the sticks together very gently, even rub the sticks together to play quietly, telling your child what you are doing. You can bang the sticks together with more force, or bang the sticks on the floor (a hard surface floor), or on a table to make a loud sound, again telling your child what you are doing.

Playing loud
Playing quietly

Independent Musical Exploration

Playing wooden sticks can be very easy, so is great for even very young children to attempt to play.

  • As a tiny baby, your child will not be able to play the sticks themselves of course, but you can play them in front of your baby, to one side of their head and then the other, towards the top of their head, encouraging your baby to turn their head to see where the sounds are coming from. You can gently tap the sticks on their body – their hand or legs for example – when tapping along with the beat. That was your baby is feeling the pulse of the music you are playing.
  • As an older baby and toddler, have two sets of sticks – one for you and one for baby. Encourage your child to hold onto the sticks to see what they feel like. Wooden sticks tend to be fairly thin and so easy for very young children to hold onto. They may try to hit the sticks together, or on the floor, or they may just try to eat them!
  • An older toddler and pre-schooler can copy what you are doing with your sticks more and more, so are more able to play loudly and quietly, or along with the beat as you are doing.
  • As your child grows, you and your child can play “call and response” or turn taking games with wooden sticks – you play a rhythm with your sticks, and see if your child can play the same rhythm back to you. Or you play a rhythm, and see if your child can play their own rhythm in response to yours. Of particular importance here is that you each take turns to play, waiting for the other person to finish before playing yourself.

Instrument spotlight

Spotlight on glockenspiel

This is the second post in my series on musical instruments you might want to purchase to have in your music box at home.

All of the instruments featured in this series of posts can be bought relatively cheaply from various shops (even, dare I say it, Amazon, because we have all found ourselves on Amazon at 3am when up with the children, haven’t we?? OK maybe just me then!) They can sometimes be found at charity shops. This is one of the glockenspiels we have at home, the Halilit Baby Xylophone. We actually have about 3 of them, no idea why, but there you have it. (I should point out here, that I have always thought these instruments were xylophones, but someone kindly pointed out on Twitter that actually the instrument I was writing about was a glockenspiel as xylophones are actually wooden instruments!)

A glockenspiel is a percussion instrument. Percussion instruments are instruments that are played by hitting or striking them, in this case with a beater. The glockenspiel is a tuned percussion instrument, metal bars of different lengths arranged in a similar way to the piano. It is the different lengths of the metal bars that produce the different notes of the glockenspiel as they are hit. The longer the metal bar is, the lower the note produced.

Some of the reasons why I like this instrument with small children in the house are:

  • It isn’t too loud – this glockenspiel can be played nice and quietly, and even when your child is able to grasp the beater him- or herself and hit the thing with all of their might, it isn’t an instrument that goes right through you!
  • It is a simple, easy instrument and does not take much practice to be able to play a tune out of it. Ours came with a little booklet that had a few recognisable tunes you can play in it to get you started. You can also easily play around with glissandi (where you slide the beater up and down all of the notes, and it makes a sort of magical sliding sound. My children loved this.)
  • Your baby can start to play with the glockenspiel as soon as they are able to hold the beater by themselves. They can start to learn about cause and effect playing this instrument – they hit the glockenspiel with the thing in their hand and it makes a noise.
  • It is neat. Such a mum thing to say, but when tidying up I love that I can put the beater back in its place on the back of the glockenspiel and then next time my children get every single instrument out of the music box, we still have everything we need to play the glockenspiel was all together.
  • Our glockenspiel is a lovely bright colour, which is very attractive for the children. The metal bars that make up the glockenspiel have their note names labelled on each bar, and this helps the children play tunes (as they get older), because I can tell my son to play two Cs, then two Gs, for example, to start playing a tune he can recognise.

To play the glockenspiel you use a beater and hit the beater against one of the metal bars. To make a nice sound, you need to hold the beater loosely and hit the glockenspiel with a sort of bouncing action, like this:

If you hold on to the beater too tightly, or hit the glockenspiel too hard, then you will get a much harder, less tuneful sound like this:

That is pretty much it for the glockenspiel , other than having a play around with it, trying some tunes out. I will end this blog post with me playing a quick Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star on our glockenspiel.

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Instrument spotlight

Spotlight on tambourine

If you have read this blog before you will know that we very much enjoy making our own musical instruments. We have made all sorts of instruments from drums, to windchimes, to shakers, and I have more in the pipeline to make with the children over the summer holidays which are due to start at the end of the week – 8 weeks of holidays!! We are also lucky to have a number of musical instruments at home as well – I am a musician after all!

If you are wanting to start a collection of musical instruments for your children what should you start with? And how would you play those instruments if you got hold of them? Where would you find those musical instruments at a reasonable price? I can hopefully try to help you with these questions over time, and I thought I would start with providing a spotlight, if you like, on some of the instruments we have at home for the children to play with. If you have any specific questions, please ask, but for today let us have a look at the tambourine.

Tambourine means little drum, and is an instrument from the percussion family. Percussion instruments are those that are played by hitting, shaking, rubbing or scraping them. They are generally hand held, but can be part of a drum kit and so fixed into position. Tambourines have a round frame with metal discs, called zils, within that frame. The frame can be left open, so just the frame with the zils; or a drum skin can be stretched over the top of the frame.

We have had a few tabourines over the years. Both of my children, together with pretty much all children who are allowed anywhere near a television I think, discovered the delights of Peppa Pig when they were small. At times they have been bought Peppa Pig magazines, and on one occasion there were free gifts of musical instruments on the cover of the magazine. These were small plastic instruments and I think there was a guitar, a harmonica and a tambourine included. None of these instruments survived all that long, I think the guitar broke within days, but the tambourine lasted for quite a while. It was made entirely out of plastic, and so produced a rather muted sound, but the children enjoyed playing with it.

I found our next tambourine in a charity shop, and this one has stayed with us much longer. I have found many musical instruments in charity shops over the years, and would recommend having a look in there, especially when your children are small and like to either chew or chuck instruments more than try to play them. Obviously, especially in these times, anything you buy from a charity shop needs to be cleaned before your children play with them, especially wind instruments like recorders!

For one of the children’s birthdays we asked one of my relatives to buy a set of musical instruments for them, and so we were given the lovely closed tambourine pictured at the top of this blog post. This makes a much nicer sound than the plastic tambourines that we had previously, but it is a little more expensive, and easier to damage, than a plastic tambourine.

So, the tambourine, can be played in three ways.

Firstly, it can be hit or banged like a drum using a beater or hands, as long as you have a tambourine with a skin on rather than an open tambourine. For very small children you can either play the tambourine for them, letting them feel the vibrations of the instrument while they listen to the sound it makes, or you can take their hands or feet and gently manipulate them to play the tambourine themselves. Older children can go wild hitting the tambourine and making their own music, if they want to!

Secondly, a tambourine can be shaken; either gently to produce a quiet sound, or more vigorously to produce a loud sound. Very small babies will be unlikely to be able to shake a tambourine by themselves and will need your help to hear the sound it makes. However, as soon as they are able to grasp the tambourine themselves, your baby will thoroughly enjoy being able to make a noise with it. It is an instrument they can start to play independently from a very young age. It will help your baby to understand cause and effect as well – I move my hand while holding this and it makes a noise.

Finally, it can be played combining the two above. If you use a clapping action, hitting the tambourine with one hand while holding it in the other, or shaking it then hitting it with one hand like this:

You could even use another part of your body, like a leg or your tummy, tapping the tambourine against it to make a sound.

I must sound a note of caution, however. Babies put everything in their mouths, and the metal discs, or zils, on the sides of tambourines that give them their distinctive sound are not safe to go into a child’s mouth. They can be very sharp, they are generally made of metal so not a great material to be chewed, and the spokes holding them in place can break so they could be a choking hazard. A normal tambourine can be played with only under close adult supervision, therefore. You should not leave your baby or young child alone with it. There are baby tambourines, like this one that you can buy that alleviate this problem as they enclose the metal discs and so your baby can’t get them into their mouths. These are great, but the downside is that they cannot be played as a drum like a normal tambourine, so are a little limited in their application. They can provide great peace of mind if your baby always finds the things they are not supposed to be playing with on their own as soon as your back is turned, however.