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Students in the Bending Instruments course used their imaginations in creating homemade musical instruments and modifying others.

‘Bending’ to create homemade musical instruments

Students in an innovative class this spring made their homes not only classrooms, but also studio and laboratory spaces as they imagined and created unique musical instruments out of materials close at hand.

Taught by Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri, assistant professor of music, and Trevor Pinch, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Science and Technology Studies, both in the College of Arts and Sciences, the Bending Instruments course drew on both professors’ experience in building unusual instruments.

Combining hands-on building with critical exploration of scholarship and new ideas at the nexus of sound art, sound studies, and science and technology studies, the course’s goal was for every student to produce a unique sounding object.

“We had elaborate plans for workshop sessions, visits from musicians and instrument-builders, and using specialized tools and supplies and dedicated spaces such as the Mann Library makerspace,” Pinch said.

Before the university’s decision in mid-March to switch to virtual instruction, “we had held two building sessions, and some of the students had drawn up plans for prototype instruments,” he said.

Readings and class discussions continued via Zoom in early April, “and we invited students to build their instruments out of whatever materials they could find in their new isolated situation in their homes,” Pinch said. “They were asked literally to build ‘home-made’ instruments.”

“We asked students to let their imaginations run free, and to think of their home as their new studio/lab,” Papalexandri-Alexandri said. “We encouraged them to concentrate on the sound, the aesthetics – keep it simple – and physical control, with no computer controls or processing.”

The projects were presented via short videos during the final class session.

“Students rose to the challenge of the forced constraint with an incredible creative range of new instruments made from household objects and implements,” Pinch said.

The course was sponsored by the Center for Teaching Innovation.

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Abby Butler