Musical Instrument Maker

Judean Village
A curriculum for mixed-age elementary grades by Dan Harper
Copyright (c) 2015 Dan Harper

The musical instrument shop is a popular shop in the Judean Village, mostly because the “apprentices” finish up with a satisfying final product.

In this project, the kids make a three pipe panpipes tuned approximately to a C minor chord. This is musically interesting enough to be fun for the kids to play, the minor chord goes nicely with the sound of the panpipes, and not only do the kids like it but it sounds good enough that it will not drive adults crazy.

Why pan pipes? Because pan pipes are an instrument traditionally associated with shepherds — highly portable and easy to play, they make a pleasant sound to while away the hours while watching the sheep. This pan pipe project, though limited musically, is highly portable, and can easily be stowed in a pocket.

Making Simple 3-note Pan Pipes

Materials:

1/2 inch schedule 40 PVC pipe
electrical tape
#6 (3/4″) cork stopper (#4 size will work, see below)

Tools:

PVC pipe cutter (with ratchet action)
ruler marked in centimeters
pencil
150 grit sandpaper
150 grit foam sanding block
pair of scissors

Preparation:

(a) Make a sample set of panpipes, as described below.

(b) Learn how to get musical sounds out of the panpipes so you’ll be able to show the kids (see section on “Playing the Pan Pipes” below).

(c) Cut two complete sets of pipes at the proper length. This allows younger children (who may not know how to use a ruler) to measure their pipes against a sample.

How to make a set of panpipes with a group of four or five children:

(1) Give each child an 18 inch length of PVC pipe. Have the children carefully mark out the correct lengths on their piece of PVC pipe. Younger children will find it easiest to mark from sample lengths of pipe you have already cut. Older children may want to use a ruler and measure as follows:
16.5 cm, for the note C
14.1 cm, for the note Eb
11.1 cm, for the note G

(2) Using the ratchet action PVC pipe cutter, cut three lengths of PVC pipe. The pipe cutter takes quite a bit of strength. If you have a small group (two or three), older children may want to try cutting their own with your help. For younger children or if you have four to six children in your group, you will want to cut the pipe for them.

(3) The PVC pipe cutter leaves pretty sharp edges on the pipe, sharp enough to cut your lip. So you need to round off the outside edge of one end of each pipe with the sandpaper.

The easiest way to do this is to put a piece of sandpaper down on a hard flat tabletop; hold the piece of pipe at about a 45 degree angle; drag the pipe along the sandpaper, rotating the pipe as you drag it. Keep doing this for a couple of minutes, slowly making the angle between pipe and sandpaper shallower and steeper as you go. After a couple of minutes, you’ll have a nicely rounded edge.

The sanding usually raises up a burr of PVC material. You can use the foam sanding block to take this burr off. But go easy — you want a nicely rounded edge on the outside where your lip will go, but you want a nice sharp edge on the inside — that sharp edge is what splits the stream of air and makes the sound.

(4) Now it’s time to assemble the pan pipes. This works best with two people. Take the two longest pipes, and line them up so that the sanded ends are exactly even. One person holds these two pipes on the surface of the table, tight together, so that about two inches sticks out over the edge of the table. The other person carefully wraps tape around the two pipes about three quarters of an inch from the end of the pipes. Wrap the tape tightly all the way around. Once those two pipes are tightly taped together, snip the tape off with the scissors.

Then line up the shortest pipe so that its sanded end is exactly even with the next-longest length of pipe. Again, one person holds everything down so that the ends stick out over the table edge, and the other person wraps tape all around the whole assembly.

(5) Turn the panpipes around so that the other ends of the pipes stick out over the edge of the table. Tightly wrap a length of tape all the way around all three pipes.

(6) Finally, put #6 corks into the lower ends of the pipes (the ends you did not sand). Look down into the pipes from the sanded end to check and see if each cork is airtight — if you can see any daylight coming around the edges of the cork, throw that cork away and put a new cork in.

You can also use #4 corks. For #4 corks, stick them in backwards (large end first) — you may have to rotate the cork to get it to squeeze in, and since the diameter of the corks can vary some corks may be too big to squeeze in or too small to stay in. Once the cork is in, check it for air-tightness as above. The nice thing about using #4 corks is that you get a slightly cleaner tone, and you can also tune each pipe by sliding the the corks in and out. But it’s harder to do, the #4 corks can fall out, and the kids probably won’t care about tone or tuning.

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Playing the Pan Pipes

The Musical Instrument Maker should learn how to get notes out of the pan pipes before doing this project with children. As soon as they finish the project, they are going to want to know how to play the pipes, and you will have to be able to show them!

Put one pipe against your lower lip. Purse your lips so you’re blowing a small stream of air. Direct that stream of air across the opposite inner edge of the pipe, so that some of the air blows across the pipe and some of the air goes down into the pipe.

Experiment: blow harder and softer; purse your lips more or less; direct more or less of the stream of air into and out of the pipe. Keep experimenting until you get a sound.

This is pretty much the same as getting a sound out of a flute, so if you know someone who plays the flute, get them to show you how.

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Calculating Pipe Lengths

In the project above, I’ve chosen pipe lengths such that the pipes are easy to play (lower and higher notes get more difficult). But you may wish to make pipes with different notes. This section gives you enough information so that you can design your own set of pipes.

The pipe lengths given above assume that you use Schedule 40 PVC pipe with an inside diameter of 1.525 cm (0.6″). The pipe lengths are then calculated as follows:

a. determine length in cm for different pitches based on the table on this Web site
b. add 1.25 cm to these lengths, to allow room for the cork to be pushed in the bottom
c. round to nearest one tenth of a centimeter for practical length to cut

Given that there’s an extra 1.25 cm added to the length, you may wonder why these instructions insist on high accuracy when cutting lengths of pipe — after all, you can tune the pipes by sliding the corks in and out. There are two reasons why:

(1) When you’re making musical instruments for real, high accuracy in measurement and cutting is required; by asking high accuracy of the children, you are giving them a taste of what it’s really like to make musical instruments; and

(2) The children can tune the instruments reasonably well by simply pulling all the corks out about the same amount; this makes it possible for them to tune the pipes without a reference note, should they accidentally bump one of the corks in or out

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Larger Sets of Pan Pipes

Yes, you can make panpipes with more notes. But it will take longer than the time typically allotted in the Judean Village program, and it is a more challenging project. If you do have more time, and you want to make a more complicated set of pan pipes, I would suggest a A minor pentatonic scale covering one full octave — you can play some nice minor-key folk melodies on such a set of pan pipes.

The challenge in such a project is how to attach more than 3 pipes together. If you use electrician’s tape, you wind up with half a dozen layers of tape, which is kind of ugly — if you go this route, make a prototype before doing this with kids.

You can also use other attachment methods such as tying with rawhide or waxed linen thread. There are instructions for several workable joining methods on this Web page. However, alternative methods of joining pipes together take more time than you have in the Judean Village program. But if you have “advanced” apprentices, e.g. you include middle school kids in your program, this could become a very nice multi-week project.

(You can of course use PVC cement and strips of PVC materials to glue the pipes together. If you do this, make sure you work in a well-ventilated area. Personally, I would be reluctant to use this method with children due to the toxicity of PVC cement.)

Here are the pipe lengths you would use for an A minor pentatonic pan pipes:
A — 19.61 cm + 1.25 cm = 20.9 cm
C — 15.24 cm + 1.25 cm = 16.5 cm
D — 13.65 cm + 1.25 cm = 14.9 cm
E — 12.00 cm + 1.25 cm = 13.3 cm
G — 9.81 cm + 1.25 cm = 10.1 cm
A — 8.67 cm + 1.25 cm = 9.9 cm

Below is link to PDF sheet music with “Shalom Haverim” adapted for this set of pan pipes; following the adapted melody is a harmony part that could be played against the standard melody (e.g., someone could sing the standard melody, and the pan pipes could play the harmony part).

Shalom Haverim adapted for A minor pentatonic pan pipes (PDF)

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