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Exploring Percussion with Tambuco Ensemble, Part One: Pulse

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This is a guest post by Finn Smith, a 2021 Junior Fellow at the Library. He is a student at Vassar College studying philosophy and studio art, and is rumored to play (and sometimes teach) music of all sorts. In October 2020, the Library hosted the Tambuco Percussion Ensemble for a virtual concert and a series of five educational videos about percussion. Together, these videos serve as a lively and informative demonstration of how varied and versatile percussion is—while it can be formalized, it is most fundamentally a way of engaging with one’s environment musically, and is accessible to everyone. What follows are some supporting materials and questions to consider while viewing these five educational videos with kids. Part 1 of 5.

What do the seasons, a horse’s galloping hooves, and your own heartbeats have in common? While different in many other respects, they each have a pulse, which is the topic of the first video in the Tambuco Percussion Ensemble educational videos series. In music, “pulse” is a word to describe the most fundamental rhythmic continuity in any piece of music.

One of the most important roles of pulse is determining tempo—in music, “tempo” more or less means “speed,” so the pulse of a piece with a faster tempo will feel very different than the pulse of a piece with a slower tempo. When people are making music together, it is their ability to feel a common pulse that keeps them in time with one another. This Hethu’shka Song from the Library’s Omaha Powwow Project collection, is a great example of percussionists keeping a fundamental pulse while other musicians (in this case singers) perform much more rhythmically intricate melodies. It is in large part the pulse that the percussionists are keeping that allows the singers to sing these complex melodies in unison with one another.

Series of still images of a person on a galloping horse
Pulses are everywhere. These series of images by Eadweard Muybridge from the Library’s Prints & Photographs Division show the cyclical motion of a horse in a gallop, and were the very first precursors to modern animation. Can you sense the pulse of the horse’s footsteps even in these still images?

Can you think of other things that might have a “pulse”?

At the beginning of this first video in the Tambuco Ensemble educational videos series, Mr. Gallardo gives us some examples of some of nature’s pulses, like heartbeats, and even the seasons or the tides.

Ask kids whether they can think of other things that might have a pulse. These things might seem non-musical, but think about how they might have their own unique music to them. When you walk around, do your footsteps create a pulse? What about when you breathe in and out? Pulses—and the music that emerges from them—are everywhere. When you notice that something has a pulse, take some time to pay attention to it and its organic musicality.

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