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Holiday activities: Make this handy harmonica

Struggling for holiday activity ideas? Let The Big Issue be your guide.

The summer holidays are in full swing and finding ways to fill the time are surely high on every parent’s priorities. So at The Big Issue we’ve teamed up with science teacher and writer Alom Shaha as part of our Summer Survival Guide, helping parents across the country find cheap or free ways to have fun, cut costs and keep their little ones happy.

If there’s one thing most kids love it’s making lots of noise. So this week Mr Shaha shows us how to make a handy harmonica out of little more than ice-lolly sticks and rubber bands. (Top tip: damp toilet paper stuffed in your ears make great earplugs!)

Make Mr Shaha’s handy harmonica

“According to NASA, the first musical instruments ever taken into space were a harmonica and some jingle bells,” says Mr Shaha. “Astronauts Walter Schirra and Tom Stafford smuggled the instruments on board the Gemini VI spacecraft in December 1965 and used them to play a surprise rendition of the Christmas song ‘Jingle Bells’ for a radio transmission back to Earth.

“You might not get the chance to take this home-made harmonica into space, but with a bit of practice, you might be able to play a song or two to surprise your friends and family.”

Ready? Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 2 wooden ice-lolly sticks (clean and dry)
  • 1 wide rubber band
  • 4 small rubber bands
  • 1 piece of scrap paper
  • Scissors

Once you’ve got all the bits and bobs together, follow these directions to make your harmonica. And if you get stuck you can watch the video allow to help you along.

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First, cut your scrap paper into four pieces that are roughly 4cm long by 1cm wide. Fold each piece of paper in half along its length three times so you are left with a folded piece of paper roughly 1cm by half a centimetre. So it’s 4cm long, then 2cm long, then 1cm long, then half a centimetre. Do this four times and keep them to one side.

Stretch the wide rubber band lengthwise over one of the ice-lolly sticks, then place one of your folded bits of paper on top of the rubber band at one end of the ice-lolly stick. Put the other stick on top so that the piece of paper is sandwiched between the sticks.

Wrap a small rubber band around the paper and ice-lolly sticks so that the piece of paper is held firmly in place.

Place a second bit of folded paper in between the ice-lolly sticks so that there is a gap of about 1 cm between it and the first piece of paper. Again, cut off any paper sticking out from between the sticks.

Use another small elastic band to hold that piece of paper in place.

Repeat with another piece of paper placed about 2 cm along, and then with the final piece of paper placed right at the other end of the ice-lolly sticks.

With the rubber band side of your harmonica facing downwards, blow through the gaps between the paper dividers.

If the harmonica doesn’t sound quite right, try moving the positions of the spacers.

“When you blow into the harmonica, you make the rubber band vibrate,” says Mr Shaha. “The vibrations of the rubber band are passed on to the air around, making sound waves that travel outwards and eventually into your ears. You can feel these vibrations with your fingertips where you hold the harmonica, and you can see the rubber band vibrating if you look in a mirror while blowing.

“You get a different pitch of sound depending on which hole you blow into because the different lengths of rubber sandwiched between the paper dividers vibrate differently. Shorter bits of rubber vibrate more quickly (with a higher frequency) and produce a higher note. Stretching the rubber band more tightly will also change the way it vibrates — a more tightly stretched rubber band will produce a higher note.

“Can you design and make a harmonica that only has one hole between two dividers, but allows you to make different notes?”

Mr Shaha’s Marvellous Machines is available from all good book shops.

Here’s our Summer Survival Guide, which we will update regularly with new articles and tips on making sure your kids have a fun summer without breaking the bank.

Get involved with the conversation on social media and share all your tips and advice for families using the #SummerSurvivalGuide

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