Friday, January 20, 2012

Rhythm Instruments NOT to buy!

Welcome back to Montessori Music Week here at What DID We Do All Day? !

Please do not skim the pictures on this post, think that I am recommending the products pictured, and go out and buy them.  Today's post is about WHAT NOT TO BUY!  

Disclaimer:  If you own any of the instruments pictured and are enjoying them, stop reading, cover your ears and chant "la, la, la, la," and disregard this post because I don't want to ruin your enjoyment!

On our music shelves we have a super nice collection of rhythm instruments for the boys to explore. ON MONDAY I have a post planned in which I will show you what kinds of instruments I chose for our family (I still have to take photographs for that one).  In this post, I wanted to familiarize those of you with the types of instruments widely available and give you some insider's tips.  I have a ton of experience with many brands and styles of rhythm instruments that I've used with large groups of children across many age groups. Today's post is about the types of instruments we chose NOT to put in our basket. You will see lots of little "instruments for children" for sale at toy stores and craft store. Let me warn you, these are NOT great choices. Most of these are not only expensive, but also the following:

  • flimsy
  • too loud, or alternatively, so improperly made they barely produce sound
  • of such poor tone quality you can't stand letting the kids use them.
  • inappropriate for the age intended
  • messy
  • poorly designed, won't last the week (you would think that would fall under "flimsy" but, sadly, some instruments can be both flimsy and poorly designed.)

Many classrooms are outfitted with a collection of rhythm band instruments that you can buy as a collection such as this one:

A smaller set, more appropriate for a single-family homeschool might look like this:

Don't do it!  Let me take you through some of the elements here and explain the multiple problems.  I'll put up the larger collection again for easy reference:

If you have a classroom full of kids and a box full of instruments like this, the kids who are lucky enough to draw the drums, tambourines, cymbals, and triangles are the going to be the only ones smiling.  YOU are going to stop smiling once you hear those drums and tambourines.  THE KIDS with the drums and tambourines will stop smiling as soon as their mallet breaks through the skin of the instrument.  The drums and tambourines in a kit like this ARE toys and the SOUND LIKE toys.  They are also too flimsy to stand up to the rigors of actual use by an actual child if you can stand listening to them long enough to let them actually use them.  The diameter on the little red drums (tom toms) in particular is so small even the kids know they are ridiculous.

The triangle players ARE happy and will STAY happy.  Yea!

The kid who got the pair of cymbals will be happier than the kid who got the  single cymbal with mallet, as long as the cymbals aren't (as they often are) 3 inches in diameter.  Kids like a good 7 inch cymbal.

The kids who got the other instruments are probably depressed and I don't blame them.  Most of the rest of these are just sad unless you are under the age of three and in a "Mommy and Me" class.  One exception is the rhythm sticks (the blue sticks along the bottom).  These are a very valid, and handy, music learning tool.  However, they are fun when the whole class is using them.  They are not fun when you are holding them and the kid next to you has a drum, cymbals, or a triangle.

A lot of the remaining instruments have funny names that are very similar to one another so I dug up some pictures of each to make it clear what I'm talking about.

The "jingle tap":  possibly the most depressing instrument in this collection.  Did you ever notice that tambourines come with many of these silver discs on them?  That is because a single little disc or pair of discs makes a pitiful noise by itself.  This is a single disc from a tambourine with no second disc paired with it to even clatter against.  Sometimes I think these things are designed so the music teacher has something inaudible to give the kids who can't play at the right time in a concert.

A guiro-style tone block.  Kits often come with its equally-sad sibling, the tone block (no ridges).  The problem with this is the design.  Real wood blocks or claves are tricky for the child to hold, so this handled version was invented.  The cylinder has to be hollow to make a good sound and is split into two halves with a slight space between them (see the seam down the right side of the tone block running the long way).  As soon as the child pushes on or squeezes this too hard (usually when getting up from sitting on the floor with it clenched in their hand) this instrument will be crushed.

The "jingle loop."  Like I said, fun when you are two, not when you are six.  Plus, the plastic on these gets really brittle and breaks open at some point making it more a "belt" than a "bracelet."

The "jingle cluster."  Honestly, how much jingling do we need?  Don't the sad sounding toy tambourines have this covered?  That said, this is the best sounding and sturdiest option if you feel the need to jingle.

Maracas.  Ahh, maracas.  Maracas in general are a good addition to a rhythm band collection.  The kits usually come with brown ones like these or the purple ones often seen.  Don't buy these.  They all split apart at the seam eventually spilling their innards everywhere.  Innards made in China.  My students have found some really weird, creepy things inside of the maracas when they fall apart.

In toy stores you often see the really small wooden ones.  Try them first.  Most often the wood is too thick, the cavity inside too small and filled with too few "innards" to make enough sound.

Handled Castanets.  Handled castanets are really a different instrument than regular castanets and are not very musically interesting...i.e., there's not much you can do with them.  Regular castanets with no handle are really very difficult for the child to keep assembled properly or hold properly.  I don't think they are an appropriate choice.

Sand blocks and their evil cousin "wood clappers."  The sandblocks can actually be fun if you are not playing with such a large group that you can't hear yourself and if you don't mind sprinkling your surroundings with sand.  The wood clappers (same exact thing without the sandpaper stapled on) are painfully loud and will damage your hearing.

The last item often found in these kits is a conductor's baton.  This is delicate and will be broken in the first week. Usually it is snapped in half by one child after another child pokes them with it.

I apologize for writing such a long, negative post.  I don't like to be a Debbie Downer, but I'm good at it.  While my pictures address instruments specific to school-type rhythm band kits, I hope you will be able to recognize their colorful plastic cousins out in the toy and craft stores.  I promise I will balance out all of this negativity on Monday when I show how you can spend about the same amount money (or a little more if you decide to get fancy) on real instruments that your kids or students will love, can be used by children or adults for a lifetime, and are pleasant to listen to.

If you are looking for the rest of my series on Montessori Music, there is a tab at the top of my blog under the header, or they can be found here!

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  1. I totally agree with you! I have purchased them before and had the same results you have stated. However for the ones that were still salvageable I plan to use for treasure baskets, or other works not related to teaching music. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I can't wait until Monday! I have been wanting to build up a music area so that I can get some kind of music into our day, and I've been eyeing a few different sets. (the Hohner 6 piece set comes to mind) But, since I'm not musically inclined, I had no idea what to get and what not to get, so I haven't gotten anything yet. Thanks so much for these posts!

  3. So true! You know I "knew it" but sort of ignored it. I have bought some little instruments which are really quite worthless and no fun at all, though we do have some real ones too. Still I left the useless ones linger - out they go now! Looking forward to Monday too.

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