By: Martha Bettis Gee

Enjoy this article from our print edition archives!

Praise God with trumpet sounds; Praise God with lute and harp!

Praise God with tambourine and dance; Praise God with strings and pipe!

Praise God with clanging cymbals! Praise God with loud clashing cymbals!

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!  Praise the Lord! (Ps. 150:3-6)

From an upright piano to a full pipe organ; from guitars and a bass and a full drum set to hand bells, musical instruments have been a part of our experience of worship for centuries.  It’s true that the Reformers favored a sparer, simpler approach to music in worship.  Some Christians of the time frowned upon the use of any instruments at all!  But Calvin himself affirmed the use of the Psalms as the hymnbook of the church.  And woven throughout the Psalms is the affirmation that we should make use of song and dance and rhythm to express our profound sense of thanks and praise for what our creator has done for us.

Most often our worship experiences do not involve many worshipers in the playing of instruments.  In most congregations from one Sunday to the next, the routine is probably an organist or pianist to accompany congregational singing, with the occasional instrumentalist playing a violin or clarinet for a prelude.

As Psalm 150 affirms, we are called to praise God with every ounce of our being, and with every instrument at our disposal.  But churches without the budget for more expensive instruments can consider using simple or homemade instruments to enhance the experience of worship and to expand the participation of worshipers beyond just the few who can sing in the choir or play an instrument.  Making and playing such simple instruments can enhance our responses of praise, using several intelligences to engage us more deeply in the experience of worship.

Children often have the opportunity to make simple instruments during church school classes, mid-week programs, or other educational events.  Sometimes they get the chance to play their instruments during a closing time of worship in their class, but it is not so common for them to be able to play those instruments in congregational worship.  Consider making some of the following with children or youth:

Drums:  Most indigenous cultures make and use drums as part of their religious rituals, for communication, or as a part of rites of passage.   Although each tribe or culture has its own unique style of drum, there are common characteristics that can be replicated with simple materials.  For very young children, an oatmeal box and a stick can make a very effective drum.  Other children may enjoy making drums using clay or plastic flowerpots with pieces of inner tube stretched tightly over the opening and secured with large rubber bands or cord.  One drum similar to the Doumbeli of West Africa can be replicated by stretching inner tube over an embroidery hoop, then taping the “drumhead” over a 6” flowerpot and nestling the flowerpot in a heavy cardboard carpet tube.  Or simply stretch squares of inner tube or parchment paper across the top of a terra cotta flowerpot.  If children use a variety of sizes of flowerpots, the drumheads will have a variety of tones when played.  Encourage children to decorate the completed drums with painted designs.

Wood blocks and dowels:  Many other instruments can be made with simple materials.  Ask a woodworker in your church to cut woodblocks about four inches square and sand them completely smooth.  Attach cabinet knobs to hold the blocks.  Children can play the blocks by clapping them together.  With the addition of sandpaper glued to one side of the blocks, these become sand blocks that can be rubbed together.   Or cut dowel sticks, two each of a variety of thickness, to between eight and twelve inches long.  The different thickness will make various tones when tapped together.

Tambourines:  Curriculum lesson plans offer a variety of ways to make tambourines.  Most involve two heavy paper plates glued together with something inside that will make a noise (small nails, dried beans, large paper clips, and so forth).  One tambourine for older children is made from a metal pie pan.  Punch holes in metal bottle lids so that children can thread them to the sides of the pie plate with wire or heavy cord.

Maracas:  Simple maraca-like instruments can be made with soda cans.  Thoroughly rinse out each can, then have children fill two cans partially with dried beans, small paper clips, tiny nails, or any other substance that would make a sound when shaken.  Use masking or duct tape to securely tape the can shut.  Encourage the children to shake the can gently to make a sound.   Older children can use burned-out light bulbs to make maracas.  First have them paper maché over the entire light bulb.  When it is dry, they can paint the outside.  Then they gently tap the light bulb until the glass breaks inside the paper maché.

Purchased instruments:  If you prefer, you can often find fairly inexpensive indigenous instruments at fair trade retailers such as Ten Thousand Villages, especially percussion instruments such as drums and many types of “shakers.”  The rainsticks often seen in global markets can also be used as a musical instrument in worship.

Using instruments in worship:  A challenge in using homemade or simple indigenous instruments in worship is to fully engage children and youth in praising God with their instruments, while at the same time not venturing into the kind of chaos that inhibits, rather than enhances, the experience of worship for everyone.  Following are some tips to ensure that the use of instruments expresses true praise to God:

  1. After children or youth have completed making the instruments, allow for a time when they can experiment with the sounds that instrument can make. Encourage them first just to see how many variations of sound their instrument can make.   They may need a reminder that homemade instruments are not designed to stand up to hard use and that they should take care not to exceed the limits of what such an instrument can do.
  2. When children or youth have had enough time to experiment to their hearts’ content, spend some time teaching the group to initiate various rhythms and volumes.
  3. If you will be using instruments to accompany a particular hymn or anthem in worship, now is the time to practice. Decide what rhythm to use, and practice with the music until you and the group are satisfied with the sound.
  4. Homemade musical instruments can also be used to help children focus on a particular aspect of worship. In one church, young children made “jingle wires” by threading small metal jingle bells onto pipe cleaners, then twisting the pipe cleaners closed to make a handle.   Every time the words “peace on earth!” were spoken or sung in worship, children were encouraged to shake the jingle wires.  At Easter, in another congregation, children threaded brightly colored ribbon with bells, then attached the ribbons to sticks they were to shake when they heard “Alleluia.”  Children could also make wind chimes to hang in the sanctuary for Pentecost.
  5. Offer a prayer to God that your instruments will truly express what the psalmist is getting at in Psalm 150:

Praise the Lord!

Martha Bettis Gee has served as associate for child advocacy and networking, Presbyterian Church (USA) and a writer, editor and consultant.  For 16 years she was a curriculum developer for the PC(USA).  She has also edited adult mission studies for the United Methodist Women and has written or edited several mission studies for both children and youth, including Seven Friends, Seven Faiths, an interfaith study for children.  She is author of For Your Children, Creating Communities of Faith in Our Families and the Things to Make and Do series.