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Homemade guitars offer graders multiple lessons

Fifth graders in Don Owen's class at Prairie View Elementary School will make their instrumental debut at public performances this month.

And what the students have achieved in preparing for such appearances is music to their teacher's ears.

This spring, the class took on a cardboard guitar-building project, Owen said Thursday. In the process, they not only learned lessons in music, but science and art as well.

"I found out about this at a 3M science expo last October," he said.

Ellsworth Schools Superintendent Dan Kaler encouraged him and other district teachers to attend the Minnesota company's event in the Twin Cities, Owen said. There, he met the owner of Musicmaker's Kits, Inc., from Stillwater, Minn., specializing in cardboard musical instruments.

"I was skeptical whether they would work," he said.

But the doubter said his mind was changed when the demonstrator of a cardboard guitar threw it to the floor during the expo, picked it back up, played it and it was still in tune.

"I came back and asked my students if they were interested," he said, getting an enthusiastic response.

Each kit costs approximately $27, money the youngsters were required to raise themselves, their teacher said. One student helped paint a building at his father's farm; another did babysitting. Gopher-trapping, helping around home and even improving grades in school were among other ways class members got cash to buy the kits.

They were ordered from the Stillwater outfit after four months of fundraising, arriving in February, Owen said. Unlike the guitar bodies, made of cardboard, their necks are hardwood, strings are steel and frets are from toothpicks. The graders assembled the components, including installing holes for the tuners.

"The neck is small enough for small hands to go around," he said, noting the four strings enable players to learn musical chords.

The young builders decorated their guitars with their own designs, he said. One used elements from the American flag; another recreated camouflage from a soldier's uniform. Others went with a pinball theme or favorite colors or natural scenery.

Actual construction lasted around a month to a month-and-a-half.

During the project, the students researched information about guitars on the computer internet, the teacher said. Taking advantage of a visit by the "Wordman," they learned to write lyrics, which they planned to put to music. In fact, several have written tunes they'll present before parents, fellow graders, school staffers and area residents in the coming weeks.

Lately, a half-dozen young musicians have been rehearsing "Down the River," a homemade guitar feature set for the school's spring concert on Wednesday, May 17. The guitars were to also be an attraction at the school's upcoming Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) graduation program. The project is being included on a page in a book produced annually by the class.