They're Thumping a Happy Tune

At Barrett Elementary in Arlington, Mary-Hannah Klontz's students raise Boomwhackers  --  tubes of varying lengths and colors that create sounds resembling musical notes when struck.
At Barrett Elementary in Arlington, Mary-Hannah Klontz's students raise Boomwhackers -- tubes of varying lengths and colors that create sounds resembling musical notes when struck. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 14, 2005

All right, children, take out your musical instruments. Now slam them on the floor. Use them as weapons in a saber fight. Ride them like a hobbyhorse. Hit them hard against your head.

Oh, you can also use them to play a song.

Third-graders at Barrett Elementary School in Arlington did all those things yesterday as their music teacher, Mary-Hannah Klontz, looked on approvingly.

The classroom was richly stocked with traditional elementary school bells, triangles and recorders, as well as a West African rattle called a shekere and an Egyptian drum called a dumbek. But for yesterday's lesson, Klontz pulled out the Boomwhacker, a new instrument that in recent years has been gaining a foothold in elementary schools across the country.

The colorful plastic tubes range from eight inches to about four feet in length and come in seven colors; each color corresponds to a note on the do-re-mi major scale, the one many Americans learned from watching Fraulein Maria's perky lessons in "The Sound of Music."

The fraulein taught music by assigning one note to each of her young charges. Had she been around today, she might have been a big fan of Boomwhackers, which help teachers do the same thing.

Klontz, who started using them three years ago, said they have caught on better than other experimental instruments she has seen, in part because of their bright colors and their open invitation to hit things.

But there is also some music education going on. Handing one tube to each child and then grouping them into chord "families," Klontz used Boomwhackers to teach the concept of harmony, prompting each group when its turn came to form a chord.

"If you are holding an F or an A or a C, you may play in a crazy way," she told them. "You may also play with your neighbor [hitting two tubes together] if your neighbor is in the same family." The Fs, As, and Cs went wild, slamming their tubes on the ground as hard as they could, cacophonous but on key.

"That was fun," declared Daysi Gonzalez, 8, a little out of breath.

The inspiration for Boomwhackers was accidental. Their creator, Craig Ramsell, was at home breaking down cardboard wrapping paper tubes for recycling one day in 1994 when he discovered that different lengths of tube resonated at different pitches.

"I went across the street to my neighbor and said, 'Hey Pat, I've got a new idea for a musical instrument,' " he said in a telephone interview. "She just rolled her eyes."

Undeterred, he bought some plastic tubing and a tuner, and four years later began selling sets of high-density polyethylene tubes. Since then, his Arizona-based company, Whacky Music Inc., has sold 3.4 million tubes worldwide, mostly in sets of eight, which sell for about $25 per set. In the past year, it has sold 800,000 tubes, half in the United States and the other half to such countries as Japan, Germany, and France, where they are gaining popularity. Ramsell estimates that tens of thousands of U.S. schools are using them.

Locally, Boomwhackers have caught on in Loudoun County, where all 42 elementary schools use them, as well as in Fairfax County. A Montgomery County schools spokesman said that music teachers order instruments individually, and that he did not know whether any schools there use them.

The Arlington school district has bought Boomwhackers for all 22 of its elementary schools. Carol Erion, the arts education supervisor, said that although they could never replace real musical instruments, they are "a marvelous little tool" for teaching rhythm and harmony, or just for getting children interested in the first place.

"Initially they're appealing because first of all, you get to whack them," she said. They are also a lot cheaper than many classroom instruments, she said, adding that a single xylophone can cost hundreds of dollars.

Boomwhackers' tones are, admittedly, less dulcet than those of a good xylophone. There is something dull, something wrapping-paper-tube-like, in their sound. But the notes come through, and when a classroom full of kids gets it right, the chorus does approximate something like music.

"We play them on our shoes, we play them on the risers, we play them against each other," said Joe Puzzo, who uses Boomwhackers in his music classes at Arlington Science Focus School. "Some kids are really, really whacking them, and I just let them do it."


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