Three-way collaboration culminates in performance using instruments made from salvaged local wood

By Gracie Brogowski, contributor

JMU Industrial Design Professor Audrey Barnes has built her own drums in the past, and has had her students give it a try as well. 

“There’s an Afro-Peruvian hand drum called a cajón,” Barnes said. “That’s a great introductory woodworking project, but it’s also a really fun thing to have when you’re done. You basically build an instrument that you get to keep.”

This spring, Barnes expanded on that project by having her advanced industrial design studio students design and build wooden percussion instruments in collaboration with the College of Visual and Performing Arts, using wood salvaged in the city by the group Rocktown Urban Wood.

The 12-week process culminated in a performance featuring the performing arts students and the custom instruments. Along the way, the design students sketched out ideas, presented small-scale models to the percussion students, and then completed the final product. 

To get the main materials for their instruments, Barnes teamed up with Rocktown Urban Wood. This organization collects unwanted trees in town and turns them into material for the community. The organization does this as a way to reduce the amount of trees that go into the waste stream. Barnes got in touch with the organization through Jeremy Harold, the city’s greenspace manager.

“When a public tree has to come down, we utilize that wood. From the small branches, we make wood chips, the larger branches, we make firewood and then but the the big story is the log of the tree, [which] we make into lumber,” said Harold. “We keep it out of the landfill and we save it for projects here in Harrisonburg.”

As a part of the project, JMU students learned about Rocktown Urban Wood through a presentation that Harold gave. He then demonstrated the process of turning raw wood into lumber at the sawmill, and afterwards, the design students selected their materials for their instruments.

Barnes said the project gave her students the freedom to create any type of percussion instrument. While some began with an idea of what they wanted to create, others took longer to figure out their designs. The end result, Barnes said, was an impressive variety of instruments: furniture with an embedded percussion instrument, a gong, and bells designed to break as they were played. Making them gave students the opportunity to try new techniques like casting and use additional materials such as ceramics.

“It was amazing that students could take local wood and design and build instruments that would in return make music. They invited me to the gallery and the James Madison University music students were actually there to play the instruments too, so it’s kind of a full-circle project,” Harold said. 

Harold was fascinated by the outcome. He said the instruments were amazing, but the performance was equally as great.

“[The instruments were] beautiful. Not only to see the projects, but to hear the music, the sound that the products made,” he continued. “I mean, it’s just fascinating that somebody could take our wood, make something beautiful out of the ash wood, but then also make an instrument that makes music and sound.”

Thanks for reading  The Citizen, which won the Virginia Press Association’s 2022 News Sweepstakes award as the top online news site in Virginia. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. We value your support.

Scroll to the top of the page

Hosting & Maintenance by eSaner

Thanks for reading The Citizen!

We’re glad you’re enjoying The Citizen, winner of the 2022 VPA News Sweepstakes award as the best online news site in Virginia! We work hard to publish three news stories every week, and depend heavily on reader support to do that.