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"Shake up your art room" MAKE MARACAS!

One of the most commonly made instruments in the world, even predating the drum, is the "maraca," more generally called a rattle. The high-frequency sounds of the maraca have been used by American Indian shamans for healing and by Tibetan lamas to uplift the soul.

Maracas have been made out of various natural resources, from hides and gourds (the "calabash" and "shekere" in Africa), to smaller gourds used by American Indians, to wood (Cubans, Latin Americans).

Other indigenous materials used to produce sound are seashells, hooves, seeds and cocoons that were either strung on the exterior or occasionally encased in the interior of things such as tortoise shells, horns and baskets.

Modern-day maracas include "cebasas," which have metal beads on the exterior, or maracas made from hammered tin or even tin cans. For this project, we made our maracas with clay.

This project began when the music teacher and I decided to make instruments to enliven our school spring parade and festival. Two classes of multi-age third- and fourth-graders gathered in the art room for a one-and-a-half-hour session. Parents volunteered to help and some even chose to make their own maracas.

Sound was an important element of our lesson. As students entered the art room and worked, they heard examples of maracas in Latin American and African songs. The music teacher began the session with a brief history and introduction to her collection of maracas, along with photos and a reading of the Guinea legend about maracas from Mikey Hart and Frederic Lieberman's book, Planet Drum: A Celebration of Percussion (HarperCollins Publishers, 1991).

The students were seated at tables, and were given forks and slip to attach the clay pieces, water to moisten the cracks in the clay, rubber tools, newspaper and clay beads. About a week prior, each student had rolled 35 to 50 clay beads--the size of small pebbles--to put into the maracas. As the students chose their beads, I told a story about how, when making "ganzas" (rattles), American Indians carefully picked stones from anthills, believing that the ants had specially chosen those stones to be included in the rattles. It was a delight to see some of the students also putting great effort into choosing the beads for their maracas.

Students were very excited about the project and easily understood and followed the detailed instructions. They began by making two pinch-pot bowls that were about pancake-thick. The lips of the bowls were left just a bit thicker to withstand slipping and scoring. Any cracks that appeared in the bowls during the forming process were smeared over to make a uniform texture.

The students then slipped and scored the edges of the bowls. In one of the bowls, they placed roughly half of a sheet of newspaper that had been crumpled around 35 to 50 clay beads. The newspaper served to support the interior of the maraca as students put the second bowl over the first and sealed the seam between the bowls together.

Once the bowls were connected, students used the rubber tool to scrape excess clay into any small cracks, creating a smooth exterior. (The rubber tool works best if scraped in different directions.) Thin coils were rolled out of soft clay and applied to the surface to create low-relief designs. Handles were formed from a wide coil, which was left thick on one end to attach the maraca, while the other end tapered to a soft point. Both the handles and the coils were slipped and scored onto the maraca.

At last, initials were lightly carved into the clay, and a small hole was pierced through the "skin" of the maraca for the air and smoke from the newspaper to escape through during firing. The maraca handles were propped up to avoid sagging while they dried. Once fired, the made a chime-like sound. The students made detailed acrylic paintings on the bisqued clay and added an acrylic gloss finish.

The maraca makers were the envy of the school, and the students felt proud of their work. An additional consequence of the lesson was that some of the parents of children in the younger grades asked us to do a similar project in their classes. Although I wouldn't recommend the project for first- and second-graders, it is definitely a lesson I will repeat in a couple of years.


* Clay

* Slip

* Scoring tools, such as forks

* Rubber tools

* Newspaper

* Pin tool

(Time needed for project: 1 1/2 hours for clay, 50 minutes for painting.)


Students will ...

* know the differences between materials, techniques and processes.

* know that the visual arts have both a history and specific relationships to various cultures.

* identify connections between the visual arts and other disciplines in the curriculum.


* Hart, M. and Lieberman, F. Planet Drum: A Celebration of Percussion. HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.

* Warner Dietz, B. and Olantunji Babatunde, M. Musical Instruments of Africa. The John Day Company, 1965.

* deBeer, S. Open Ears: Musical Adventures For A New Generation. Ellipsis Kids, 1995.

Miranda Nelken is the art specialist at Thatcher Brook Primary School in Waterbury, Vermont.
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Author:Nelken, Miranda
Publication:Arts & Activities
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2001
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