Made By Hand Instrument Making Projects

“Made by Hand” by Bruce O’Brien © 1994, adapted by Barbara Tilsen from the album “Take The Seed


Throughout time, people have made musical instruments from the things around them—from the earth, from our homes, from where ever we work and play. Several different instrument-making projects that I’ve created or adapted over the years are below. These creative musical designs using recycled and everyday materials nurture children’s self-expression and music-making in the classroom and the living room! When I do an instrument-making project with children, I usually write a new verse about what we’ve made set to Bruce O’Brien’s great song, “Made By Hand.” Check out my new recording, “Take the Seed,” for these three projects in my version of “Made By Hand!”



Materials for critter clackers
2 paint sticks (regular size available in paint departments)
Masking tape (fun colors)
Googley eyes or beads
Magic makers

Cut the curved end of one paint stick to a 3” length. This is the top of the head of the critter. Place it on top of the curved end of the other paint stick and tape it both inside and outside checking to make sure that the piece can move up and down freely. Tape the area behind the head with a reinforcing layer going all the way around the stick to help keep the top piece in place. Using magic markers or paint, add colorful patterns and designs to the body of the “critter.” Make sure this dries before adding any more tape. Cut colorful pieces of yarn and tape it to the other end for a flowing tail and/or behind the head for a flowing mane. Decorate with beads or googly eyes and masking tape shaped for a nose, ridges or whatever else strikes your fancy!

To play, hold in your hand with your pointer finger poised above the head so you can control the height of the top piece as you shake a steady beat in a fun rhythm all your own!



Materials for Shakers
2 or 4 plastic film cans
any of the following: rice, popcorn, split peas, beans, gravel, bird seed
Mylar paper or stickers
Plastic tape (3M brand tape #471 is a great one to use in 1/2”, 1”, or 2” widths—it comes in bright colors)

Fill one film can 1/3 full with seeds, beans or gravel; put an empty film can on top so open ends face each other and tape around the circumference of the opening to make a small shaker. It’s fun to tape two small shakers together to make a large one. Decorate with colorful stripes of plastic tape, strips of sticky-back mylar paper and/or stickers. The mylar paper is great for cutting out your own shapes and designs!


Materials for den-den drums:
3” round papier-mâché box
6 plastic beads
2 9” pieces of yarn
8” Cookie stick
1/8” hole punch
(or 6” cookie stick and use a drill for holes)
Mylar paper or stickers
3m plastic tape
packing tape

Punch (or drill) a hole midway between each edge of the box, then punch another hole on the opposite side directly across (12 o’clock & 6 o’clock positions). Insert the Cookie stick through both holes so that ¼” is showing at the top. Using packing tape, tape the stick to the inner sides of the box so that it doesn’t move when the drum is played. String 3 plastic beads on each piece of yarn, centering them and tying a knot to hold them in place. Tape or staple the other end of the yarn on each side of the box (3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions)—tie a knot in the yarn first if you staple so that it doesn’t pull through the staple when you’re done. Decorate the box with mylar paper, stickers, or paint. The den-den drum is played by rolling the stick between the palms so that the beads strike the sides of the box to make a steady beat.



Originating in northern Chile, traditional rainsticks are made from ocotillo cactus and the pebbles inside create a beautiful rainfall sound. Over the years I’ve used a variety of materials as many have to create the inside pathways for the seeds or pebbles to fall including pounding nails into a mailing tube, twisting 6-pack plastic rings from pop or water; rolling chicken wire and twisting it so it’s in a corkscrew shape, or crumpled paper to name a few. The tin foil described below is my favorite. I found that idea on The Children’s Music Network’s wonderful member email list—an online place of generous sharing of ideas and songs (

Materials for Rainsticks:
2”x24” mailing tube
tin foil (approx. 5’ lengths depending on the width of the roll you select)
Plastic tape
Rice, popcorn, beans
*glue pictures from magazines or calendars to make a collage on the outside
*patterns with mylar paper
*fabric glued onto outside
*paint or markers
I made the one pictured above with two calendar pages from a Nicki McClure calendar!

I prefer using a mailing tube since it’s very sturdy cardboard. As an alternative other cardboard tubes from gift wrap, fabric, paper rolls, etc. work well too as long as the cardboard is firm and holds it sshape. To make the inside pathway, roll a 4-6 foot length of tin foil into a long rope rolling across the width rather than the length of it so it’s not too thick. Coil it around the outside of the tube, then take it off and twist it into a corkscrew shape, compressing it a bit so it will fit inside the tube. Gently guide it through the tube, adding more length if need be so it fits the full length of the cardboard tube. Make sure you twist it enough so you have a criss-cross pathway inside. You can tie a piece of yarn to the end of the foil to pull it through if you have trouble.

Some mailing tubes have plastic covers that will latch on securely; you can also make your own cardboard circles to use for the end pieces.

To decorate outside: use magazine or calendar cut-outs for collages, stickers, colorful sticky-back mylar paper, paint, markers etc.

Tape or secure the cover on one end of the tube and put your filling inside filling 1/4 to 1/3 of the tube. Rice, seeds, popcorn and/or beans make a nice filling. Gravel or kitty litter also can work nicely too. Tape the other cover on the opposite end of the rainstick. And add one layer of tape on each end to make a smooth edge. Enjoy!

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