Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Instrumental Engineering

Instrumental Engineering

Nathan Scott and Susan Weiss co-teach a course where students learn to make instruments by hand.

Peabody courses that are open to Homewood students are few and far between. Courses that provide an opportunity to get practical experience in a lab setting are also scarce.

For years, the course History and Technology of Musical Instruments has been both. Students spend half of their time in the classroom with Susan Weiss, a faculty member with a joint appointment at Peabody and the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences, and the other half getting hands-on time in the lab making instruments with Nathan Scott, a mechanical engineering associate teaching professor at the Whiting School of Engineering.

Scott — who has a background in woodworking, electronics, and music — has been co-teaching this course for about five years and runs its maker space, a sort of woodworking shop. Since January 2018, the maker space has been at Peabody, deep in the basement of Leakin Hall. Before that, students built instruments at other locations on the Homewood campus.

At first, the course started small, with instruments made from kits and then simpler instruments like cigar box guitars and some non-Western instruments. Last year, they upgraded to making playable banjos from precut pieces. “It’s important for students to put their hands on the materials,” says Scott. “It means students have experiences that are academic but also much beyond academic. Their experiences connect to their lives. All good, high-level education has that connected quality.”

For the 2018-19 academic year, Scott told Weiss that he wanted to think bigger and tackle “harder stuff.” He felt that conservatory students should be making real instruments that are traditionally taught at the school. That’s when they decided to tackle making the cello.

“This was a level beyond,” says Weiss. “What was so great about it was starting from scratch: You learn how much work it entails and about the difference in the end product. They learn to appreciate the time and skill required to create an instrument that has far greater value than one that is machine made.”

So, in the spring 2019 semester, the two dozen or so students in the course set to work in teams to construct a cello, using wood — largely Douglas fir — reclaimed from Baltimore houses, hundreds of years old. Acquired from Second Chance, a Baltimore nonprofit that deconstructs homes and buildings and then sells the salvage, the wood for the bellies and backs for the entire semester cost the program only around $70.

The cello-making process required cutting and sanding pieces to a particular thickness, joining those wood pieces, drilling holes, and chiseling both the front and back pieces by hand using a template. There are different processes for the ribs and neck, which are also hand carved and made of more exotic and pricier materials. “The instruments are rough by commercial standards but they’re going to be playable instruments,” Scott says. “All it has to be is approximately right, and it’ll sound great.”

Weiss and Scott believe the instrument-making class is unique among American music schools and conservatories, and that it serves an important mission in bringing together students from across Johns Hopkins.

“The students from different divisions bring different talents to the table,” says Weiss. “It’s so special to watch the collaboration between them develop. The spirit that I found among the students was dazzling. You don’t see that in too many classes.”

— Margaret Bell