Phoenix School builds John Smith organ

What do my husband and my middle school students have in common? They are all enthralled with a pile of parts, tools, pipes, leather, a tracker bar, crankshaft, clutch, take-up spool and an assortment of pieces that will eventually become a John Smith 20 note Busker Organ. At The Phoenix School in Salem, Massachusetts, USA, organ building is alive and well. While my 11 - 14 year old students in 5th - 8th grades listen to only modern music at home, at school they are choosing very different tunes which they will play on their soon to be finished busker organ.

It all began when my husband, Charlie Randazzo and I visited the Netherlands in 1985. Since then he has had another love in his life...automatic instruments, especially crank organs. As any wife of a music man knows, the chance to play or tinker with or build an organ is an opportunity not to be missed.

This year our upper school students were scheduled to study sound in science class. They visited a pipe organ company in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Charlie suggested that my students might like to build their own organ Of course, I knew this was a subtle ploy to enable him to build yet another machine, but I also knew my city kids would likely never have an opportunity such as this.

John Smith gave kindly gave permission for the building of his Busker organ as a school project and we began. At first the kids thought the "organ" they would be building would be more like the church organ from the organ company, rather solemn and serious sounding. When Charlie brought his Busker in for them to see their eyes lit up. Several commented that they had no idea what a busker organ was and how neat it was. I knew then that it was more than a science project, but a chance for a younger generation to appreciate and come to understand the technology and the inventiveness of the human mind. I want them to realize that with a willingness to experiment and try ideas, wonderful things can be produced and such ideas can come from regular people like John Smith or even themselves.

First Charlie and the kids made the pipes. They all worked perfectly. It was exciting when the first student blew into his team’s pipe and played a note. Soon there were 19 little notes reverberating throughout the school as all 39 kids tried their pipes. The pipe building for many was the first experience of using tools and producing something other than academic work on paper. Watching kids learning how to cut with a band saw and drill with a drill press was extremely rewarding. They were worried about using these power tools at first but both boys and girls soon became confident and volunteered at every opportunity to cut and drill. Kids who were not necessarily the top academic producers in school found and developed skills they did not know they possessed. Academic leaders sometimes found themselves on a par with those who struggled in others areas of school life. Busker Class very soon became a highlight of the week. Even though progress was sometimes slow when small details took time to finish and glue had to dry, kids did not get discouraged or impatient. They were seeing their own hand work make a music machine that in their experience was usually one that plugged in and turned on instead of being built from scratch and cranked by them.

Soon the spool box took shape, the tracker bar was completed and bellows done except for the final covering. Throughout the process, students took notes, made diagrams and drawings and wrote personal reflections in their Husker journals. As a teacher, I saw all the basic skills reflected in this wonderful project. Each child had to write, read, observe, learn scientific and mechanical principals, measure in standard and metric, deal with fractions and cooperate with each other to bring this project to fruition. This is an authentic project for an interdisciplinary curriculum. It is a thinking project. No rote memorization and regurgitation that we, as educators, know as the lowest level of learning, but true problem solving and thinking for this John Smith Busker Organ project. Activity such as this can only enhance the learning, especially of middle school age students who, as young adolescents, often feel uncomfortable in school and working together. Certainly building a busker organ appeals to all ages and presents limitless opportunities for learning at all levels.

The kids are now designing the art case for their busker organ which is almost finished. They are choosing tunes to punch so they will have a few songs to play for the school and at graduation. Punching songs on Charlie's hand punch, also designed by John Smith, will be yet another story. But just to have had an opportunity to build this wonderful crank organ has been a unique and rewarding experience for every student involved and Charlie is happy, too.

I would be glad to discuss the details and any part of this project with anyone who might have questions or be interested in doing something similar for their school.

Barbara McFalt, Head
The Phoenix School
Salem, MA USA       bmcfall@concentric.net