Making music

posted in: Ed Vere, James Carter, Satoshi Kitamura | 4

Last week M came home from school with a small rucksack containing 2 brand new books for us to keep – part of a UK wide programme from Booktime, a government backed initiative “that promotes reading for pleasure and encourages family engagement in shared reading at an important transition stage in children’s learning and development.” How this translates for M and me is that she (along with every other reception pupil in England) received a copy of Mr Big by Ed Vere and The Booktime Book of Fantastic First Poems edited by June Crebbin and illustrated by Nick Sharratt.

With its appealing bright red cover, M immediately asked for Mr Big to be read to her and I was happy to oblige (just last month Ed Vere won the Baby Book Award at the Booktrust Early Years Awards for another of his books, Chick, so I was keen to see what M made of his style).

The eponymous Mr Big (a trilby wearing gorilla) is, well, BIG. And that’s a problem. Wherever he goes everyone is intimidated by his size and make themselves scarce. This means that poor Mr Big leads a lonely life, but things start to change when one day he takes home a piano and pours into his music-making all his sorrow and loneliness. As his music drifts through his open window, Mr Big’s neighbours are amazed. The music is so beautiful, but where’s it coming from?


The mystery piano player becomes a nightly draw for crowds from across the town and then one morning Mr Big receives an anonymous letter, inviting the Mystery Pianist to play with the band later that evening at a local club. When Mr Big turns up and wows the crowds with his piano playing suddenly everyone can see beyond his size to the lovely and talented chap he is, and before long he’s so popular that he’s got a new problem – he never has time alone!

Ed Vere’s lovely story about finding hidden talent and not judging a book by its cover is a fun read. The story tackles the issue of not basing opinions on first impressions with a lightness of touch that ensures it avoids sounding moralistic or preachy. The illustrations are eye catching – the use of lots of bright colours, and the quirky characterization of Mr Big and his neighbours (various other animals) ensured that M wanted this book read again to her straight away.

So thank you to Booktime for the gift of this really lovely book! It’s definitely one to get out of the library if you aren’t lucky enough to have received it for free.

igor_frontcoverIf I’m perfectly honest, however, I think there is another book out there that tackles a similar theme, also expressed through music, with even better illustrations: Satoshi Kitamura’s Igor, the Bird Who Couldn’t Sing. Funnily enough Ed Vere’s illustrative style in Mr Big is like a pared down Satoshi Kitamura – both use lots of colour and angular, quirky animal characters, but where Ed Vere’s backgrounds tend to be simple and uncluttered, Kitamura’s pictures often contain a lot more detail. So my personal preference would be for Igor over Mr Big if I had to choose just one book, but ideally you’ll find a way to read both!

As we read Mr Big together M asked if we could form a band together, and I thought “Why not?” and so we set too and gathered everything we might need.

See the all important string?
See the all important string?

First of all I did the simplest of jobs, but one which has been on my list for such a long time – I found a length of string and tied it round our piano in such a way as to make sure eager little hands can’t ever shut the keyboard lid on their tiny fingers. It took me all of about 30 seconds, but it’s made a big difference – now the girls can tickle the ivories whenever they please instead of only when I’m within an arm’s reach of a fast-moving heavy-slamming keyboard lid.


Next we crossed off another of my this-has-been-on-my-to-do-list-forever items and got down a very special musical instrument of mine from a life BG (Before the Girls), a slenthem – part of a gamelan – a (mostly) percussion ensemble that originates in Indonesia. In years long gone by I played in a gamelan group and wanted to specialize in the slenthem – similar to a xylophone, but more resonant, and tuned to a different scale. Moving to a different part of the country where there isn’t a gamelan group meant that my beautiful slenthem ended up in our loft, but I knew one day it would come down for the girls to enjoy, and that day arrived with the arrival of Mr Big.



But now we needed to MAKE some instruments and so first of all we went for what we named a bottle organ – we collected 8 of our milk bottles, put them through a dishwasher cycle to clean them….


… and then added varying amounts of water to each, to “tune” them.


To make the whole thing a little more beautiful we added some food colouring…


… and then M pretended she was Evelyn Glennie and tinked away on the bottles with wooden spoon.



Whilst our bottle organ was being tuned we listened to a poem on tape called Electric Guitars by James Carter (on Poems Out Loud, selected by Brian Moses, but available to listen to for free here), about all the different styles of music that can be played on guitars – it a great poem to listen to and which M and I both highly recommend.

And after listening to that it will come as no surprise a guitar was required for our band. We used:

  • A narrow plank of wood
  • An empty 5l plastic container
  • 2 narrow hard items as bridges (we use 2 little metal tins but you could perhaps use wood offcuts instead)
  • 3 elastic bands (you could use more, but we could only find 3!)
  • Some duck tape (strong, and gives quicker results than using glue)
  • A length of ribbon as a strap
  • guitar2

    I haven’t got photos of the various stages, but this is basically what we did:

    1. We cut a hole in our plastic container and taped our 2 bridges either side of the hole (a “normal” guitar would have only 1 bridge, but we found we needed a second one to lift the elastic bands off the plastic container to get a real good twang when plucked).

    2. We stretched our elastic bands around the plastic container and over the bridges (in fact, because our container had a handle we had to cut our elastic bands, thread them through and then retie them but you might not need to do this).

    3. We used duck tape to stick a neck i.e the narrow plank of wood onto the back of the plastic container. M enjoyed decorating this with some pens.

    4. To make it easier to hold and play the guitar at the same time, we added a strap (the ribbon) tied at either end of the plank of wood.

    5. We “tuned” our strings by varying the tension of the elastic bands over the 2 bridges (ie by making them tighter or looser).

    6. We put on some good head-banging music and rocked away!


    mr_big_frontcoverMr Big: 2star (and if you’d like a chance to win a copy of this book for yourself then leave a comment in the giveaway post!)

    And what have we been listening to other than the music we’ve been making ourselves? Homemade Band by Barry Louis Polisar, Join Our Band by Randy Sandke and Playing In A Rock And Roll Band by the Bay City Rollers!

    If you want some inspiration for making some more homemade musical instruments try some of these:

  • Ukuleles from A Cleverer Version of Myself. For another book and another day Ensign Rose has a great wings tutorial too…
  • A tambourine from The Little Craft Box
  • Rhythm sticks from Imagination Station (and a story to go with them)
  • Beautiful drums and shakers from Urban Organica. I think it won’t be too long till we are returning for the weather wheel tutorial.
  • and if you have no milk bottles you could try these musical glasses from wee life. (Don’t miss her great fabrics in the weelife etsy store either!)
  • [Thanks to The Crafty Crow for pointing me to several of these links!]

    4 Responses

    1. EnsignRose

      Hey! Thanks for linking to my blog, I really appreciate it… especially since it has allowed me to find your wonderful blog! What a fantastic idea to showcase the greatness of children’s literature and how it can be integrated!

    2. Maya

      Hi Zoe! Wow, there’s so many ideas here! We’ll be trying both the guitar & those colored water bottles, what a beautiful project. Thanks for linking to me, I
      ll be back! 🙂 I’m always on the look out for more ideas, especially ones with pictures of real kids so I can show the boys.

    3. twig

      My 10 year has been asked to make an instrument with milk bottles and your web-site was brilliant. Thank-you.

      • Zoe

        Thanks so much Kirstie! I hope your 10 year old has had fun with the milk bottles 🙂

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    CommentLuv badge

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.