Students Serenade the President with Handcrafted, Engineered Instruments

December 19, 2014

A clatter filled Madison Hall on a late-semester evening as the student performers worked on the final tuning of their instruments. Their audience, University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan, sipped her coffee and chatted with some of the students who clustered around her.

A closer look revealed something unusual about the instruments the “performers” were tuning: All were built as engineering projects out of cigar boxes, wire strings and pieces fabricated on three-dimensional printers.

School of Engineering and Applied Science instructor Keith Williams, who devised the instrument-making exercise for his first-year “Introduction to Engineering” students, introduced the ensemble and announced that tonight they would be performing “The Good Ol’ Song.” He noted that the instruments – a motley collection resembling violins, ukuleles, guitars and banjos – had not received government certification and that the audience listened at its own risk.

The players started feebly and then built up a tempo, resting on the foundation built by an actual cello brought in to supplement the class’s handiwork and a hand drum. After they had drifted through the number, the engineers received a round of applause from the president and from other engineering students. Williams noted that the band was pressed for time because of another engagement and could not take requests. The players, however, did “The Good Ol’ Song” for an encore.

“I think it is impressive that they made the instruments themselves,” Sullivan said. “I am sure they learned a lot of things this way, though I don’t think musical theory was one of them.”

Williams, a faculty member in the Department of Engineering and Society, noted that most of the students, who had divided into teams to design and fabricate their instruments, were not musicians, though many made a valiant effort to play.

“I think this was the perfect challenge for them,” Williams said. “They have been working hard on this and they needed closure.”

David Gaulton, 18, of Richmond, worked with a team that designed a violin, with the neck off-center on the sound box and with a Fibonacci spiral as the sound hole, giving the instrument a greater range of sound. Gaulton said the instrument was originally designed for three strings.

“Then we decided it only needed two strings and in the end I only played one string,” he said.

Muriel Sandel, 18, from Switzerland, played a three-string banjo she designed with Ying Lai, 19, of Smithfield, and Suhaib Radwan, 17, of Gaza. None of the designers were familiar with banjos, which gave them a certain confidence in designing a square one, with wooden blocks around the box to hold the leather soundboard in place. 

“The leather is stretched over the cigar box, and held in place by the pieces of wood that are bolted together,” Radwan said. “We put it together without using any glue.”

About 40 of Williams’ 120 students attended the dusk performance for the president.

Daniel Meador, 18, from Clifton, had never played an instrument prior to this project, though his perspective has begun to change.

“Once I started to get my hands on making my own from the cigar box and started to test the resonance, craft the bridge and carefully position the fingerboard, I began to realize how articulate the design of a violin is, and how unique one can be,” he said.

Lucy Fitzgerald, 18, from Virginia Beach, played violin for years, which influenced her group’s instrument selection. 

“The instrument actually ended up having a really good sound, especially once we closed the back and drilled sound holes,” Fitzgerald said. “This project taught me that just about anything is possible through engineering.”

She looked upon this project as a combination of the technical and the artistic.

“I thought there was no way in the world we could make a string instrument out of a cigar box and have it be anything more than dull and flat sounding, but I was wrong,” she said. “Music and instrument-making are artistic skills, requiring a lot of finesse and personal judgment in their execution, but it was cool to see how a lot of the same objectives could be accomplished through data collection, analysis and engineering.”

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications