Excerpted from The Bucket Book, by David Birrow

Percussion is really fun to play and possibly even more fun to teach. No other instrument family is more diverse or has more instruments than percussion. With the exception of the human voice, the first musical instrument that a human being played back when we still lived in caves was a percussion instrument.

Maybe percussion’s primordial roots are the reason for its diversity. From polyrhythmic West African drumming to the timpani solo in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to interlocking sarons in Indonesian gamelan, percussionists have more sounds available to them than anybody else. Through the influence of John Cage, contemporary percussionists have been encouraged to find exciting and exotic timbres for their music, no matter how these sounds are created.

Playing strange instruments in strange ways is a routine part of a percussionist’s life. Rarely has a violinist been asked to play the violin while dunking it in a tub of water to change its pitch. Seldom has a trumpet player been asked to play a pair of penguin bones. Have you ever heard of a flute player playing an instrument made out of the jawbone of a donkey? (Don’t worry, the teeth are all wired in to create a rattling sound)!

We’re not sure which came first: the stereotype that percussionists should be “better” at rhythm than other musicians or the fact that percussionists are better at keeping a steady beat and performing a diverse vocabulary of rhythm patterns. We’ve all known percussionists who can’t keep their hands from tapping out an unheard beat on the steering wheel or kitchen table. When it comes to rhythm, percussionists are omnivorous, devouring any beat that strays into their path. Great percussionists tend to be flexible and interesting musicians (and people!).

Always in search of the next cool sound, instrument, or groove, they are driven by curiosity.

This is a trait of great musicians of any sort. As teachers we must instill these traits into our music students no matter if they are second graders, high school students, adults, bassoonists, pianists, or singers. Timbre, rhythm, flexibility, and curiosity: What band director, orchestra director, or choral conductor wouldn’t love to have an ensemble filled with students defined by those words? Everyone should learn about rhythm and timbre regardless of plans to become a musician. It’s part of what makes us human beings.

Luckily, percussion is an important part of music education. Percussion ensembles are found throughout elementary, middle, and high school music classes and range from African drumming to Japanese taiko to drumlines to Orff ensembles. While percussion ensembles are popular, they can also be expensive.

Broadway shows like Stomp and Blue Man Group have popularized the idea of “junkyard percussion”—that is, creating music from homemade or found instruments. With a little planning, 5-gallon buckets, soup cans, and plastic water bottles can create effective, intriguing, and musical results. Junkyard percussion is also extremely affordable, with most instruments costing just a few dollars and many others available for free.

You do not need a background in percussion to teach this style of music. The goal is to get you and your students successfully playing as quickly as possible.

Build Your Own Percussion Instruments at Home

1. The 5-Gallon Bucket

The heart of a junkyard percussion ensemble is the 5-gallon bucket. A versatile, nearly indestructible instrument, the bucket serves as the lead drum in the junkyard ensemble. The bucket is also a logical instrument: inexpensive, readily available, and durable. In a way, the bucket is to rhythm training what the recorder is to tonal training. Both are hardy, simple, and fun to play.

Musically, the bucket can provide a steady beat, articulate unison rhythms, or create a foundation for a group groove. Functioning like a hand drum in a world drumming ensemble, the bucket is versatile and can be played with hands, sticks, or mallets. Using buckets, a great percussion ensemble can be built for a fraction of the cost of other percussion ensembles.

Buckets are available at most home improvement and hardware stores for a few dollars each. School cafeterias and local restaurants are other sources. Condiments and other foodstuffs are often stored in 5-gallon buckets, which usually just need to be washed to eliminate any lingering stains or smells. Buckets will often have plastic or aluminum handles that should be removed with a simple, wedge-like lever (try using a wooden doorstop), screwdriver, or just elbow grease.

2. Constructing Drum Sticks and Mallets

Sticks can be made inexpensively out of half-inch wooden dowels. They are available in pre-cut 12-inch lengths from craft or hobby stores, or in longer lengths that can then be cut down. Make sure to sand any rough edges to avoid splinters. Prevent damage and injury by wrapping the sticks with duct tape or electrical tape. Start at one end and gradually wrap the tape around the stick, slightly overlapping each edge. To increase durability and prevent shards from flying off the stick, add a second layer of tape, or decorate with colored tape.

Mallets can be used to create a different timbre and can be made in several different ways. Using a dowel, wrap several layers of electrical or duct tape around the end of the stick until it is thick enough to create a low, bass tone. Alternatively, layer in folded paper towels with the duct tape to create a slightly softer mallet. Lastly, a cylindrical piece of foam, such as pipe insulation, can be duct-taped to the end of a stick. Avoid using masking tape, as it will easily break and tear.

Gathering Your Sounds

1. How to Play

One of the great things about junkyard percussion is the lack of rules. This extends to technique as well as instrument selection. While there is no “right” or “wrong” way to play a bucket, the two general guidelines to follow are safety and musicality; a student can create a musical sound in any way he or she chooses, as long as that doesn’t cause injury or instrumental damage. But if a more effective way to play an instrument exists, you can teach the student to play that way. Safely and effectively getting the best sounds out of the instruments using hands, sticks, and mallets is the focus of this next section.

2. How to Sit

Before they even get to the instrument, students should know how to sit properly. Most bucket playing is done seated, with the bucket flipped upside down and the open end facing the ground. Students can sit in chairs or on another upturned bucket. Younger or shorter students can stand up or kneel to play—whichever position is the most comfortable. If seated, the bucket should be centered between the feet at a comfortable distance with the big toe of either foot holding the bucket in place.

3. Using Your Hands

  • Fingers should be held together.
  • Move from the elbows
  • Strike bucket with hands slightly off center to avoid hitting the raised ring (painful!)
  • Don’t let the arms or wrists rest on the legs

Creating Basic Tones with Hands:

  • High: Fingers play on sides, thumbs rest on top
  • Medium: Hands hit off-center
  • Low: Pick bucket up with hands on side, stomp bucket on floor

4. Playing with the Sticks

Sticks are the most common implements to play the bucket with. Matched grip utilizes the flexible, accurate wrist joint, instead of the larger elbow/forearm muscles used when playing with the hands. Matched grip is similar to the technique used on barred instruments such as the xylophone. One or two sticks may be used. Motion of the sticks comes from the wrist moving straight up and down, not the forearm. Make sure the stick travels in a straight line and does not curve during its path in the air. Motion of the sticks comes from the wrist moving straight up and down, not the forearm. Make sure the stick travels in a straight line and does not curve during its path in the air.

Use the following checklist when assessing your students’ technique:

  • Thumbs are on the side of the stick. Avoid the “caveman” grip with the thumb on the bottom.
  • All fingers are wrapped around the stick. They should cradle the stick not grip it.
  • Back of the hand faces the ceiling (palms facing the floor)
  • Arms and wrists are not resting on the legs
  • Wrist bends, not elbow or shoulder

Each student is different, everybody’s hands will not move in exactly the same way. For instance, some students will find it more comfortable to have the thumb face the ceiling instead of turned to the side. This utilizes the rotation of the forearm rather than the straight up-and-down motion of the wrist. While there is nothing unsafe about this motion, the wrist has a faster and more versatile muscle group. Use your best judgment when deciding how demanding to be about proper technique.

Now that you know how to hold sticks, you should grab a pair and start to explore the different tones that exist on a bucket. Let your students do the same. Compile a list of all the different timbres that can be created, and then focus in on the three below. Younger students may have a trickier time hitting each spot accurately, but older students will like the challenge. Don’t feel that these three tones should be used exclusively; branch out into whatever sounds make the most musical sense.

How to Achieve Basic Tones with Sticks:

  • High tones: Hit the rim
  • Medium tones: Hit the side
  • Low tones: Hit the center
  • Stick Click: Click a pair of sticks together.
  • Extra-Low Tone: Hit the center with one toe lifted an inch off the ground. This raises one side of the bucket, creating a deep, resonant bass sound.

5. Playing with the Mallet

Low, bass-like tones are obtained using a mallet. Hold the mallet just as a stick would be held. Only one mallet needs to be used per student. The bucket can remain on the ground, or it can be played sideways. Sideways position allows for a more resonant and deeper sound and is performed by placing the bucket on the lap, with the free hand holding either the rim or the side for support. If this is too difficult or uncomfortable, place the bucket sideways on a pair of upturned chairs.

Creating Basic Tones with a Mallet:

  • High tones: Hit the rim with the mallet shaft.
  • Medium tones: Play the side of the bucket with the hand that is holding it.
  • Low tones: Hit the center with the mallet.

6. Dynamic Control

Regardless of how the bucket is played, volume can be controlled by how high the stick is raised before it hits the bucket. The less “running room” the stick has, the less time it has to accelerate and create a louder sound. Sticks high equates to forte playing, and sticks low equates to piano playing. Use these phrases to give students an initial, physical idea of how to respond when you later ask for forte and piano. If you want your drummers to play quietly, you have to teach them how to do it!

7. Making Additional Percussion Instruments

There are other options to round out your junkyard percussion ensemble. The goal is to gather intriguing sounds that create great music. When any object can be considered an instrument, finding a place to begin can be overwhelming.

The following instruments can also work well as a core ensemble:

  • Shaker: Plastic bottles, soup or soda cans, and cardboard tubes and fill with uncooked beans: navy, split peas, and pinto; soup mix; rice, beads, and pebbles
  • Scratcher: A scratcher can be built out of any sturdy object that has ridges. Aluminum cans with deep ridges work especially well. You will need an aluminum can, a wooden craft stick or dowel, and duct or electrical tape
  • Glass bottle: Almost any empty glass bottle will do. Glass juice or soda bottles are preferable because they are light and easy for smaller hands to hold. Wine bottles work as well, and square olive oil bottles provide a different sound and feel. Glass bottles rarely break when played appropriately with a wooden stick. However, glass can break easily if it’s dropped—reinforce the bottle by wrapping several layers of duct tape around it.

Be sure to use great care when selecting any of these instruments for the junkyard ensemble. Make sure they are safe. Materials found in hardware stores or scrap yards are not necessarily designed to be handled by children. Inspect all instruments thoroughly and make any necessary modifications to ensure the safety of your students.

Each teacher puts his or her own spin on a course, and that is as it should be. So, as you are designing your plans, be sure to include content, quirks, and material that brings out the best in your teaching.

The-Bucket-Book-imageThe content of this article is excerpted from The Bucket Book, an inventive program designed to help teachers and students discover the joy of creating music and the fun of using homemade or found instruments to do so. The Bucket Book curriculum teaches rhythm skills and percussion techniques using easy-to-teach lessons that do not require a percussion background. Detailed information, photos, and resources are provided to acquaint educators with percussion vocabulary and techniques. The activities will engage and delight your students as they explore different timbres and search for the next great sound or rhythm they can produce with their instruments.