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Exploring Percussion with the Tambuco Ensemble, Part Four: Keyboards

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Finn Smith is 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 of 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 4 of 5.

The fourth video in this series of Tambuco Percussion Ensemble educational videos focuses on keyboards (or mallet percussion instruments) and the music that can be made with them. These instruments have “keys” that are arranged very much like the keyboard of a piano, but while the keys of a piano are all of uniform size and shape and the piano’s sound is produced by an internal system of hammers striking strings, the keys on mallet percussion instruments are actually tone bars of varying lengths that are struck directly with mallets. These tone bars can be made of wood or metal, and the keyboards they comprise can vary a great deal in size and scale length. A few different types of mallet percussion instruments are showcased in this Tambuco Ensemble video, and while they look fairly similar and are (nowadays) played in similar ways, they each have rather different histories.

Lionel Hampton leaning over a xylophone
A 1952 photograph of the great jazz vibraphone pioneer Lionel Hampton from the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division

The first piece Tambuco plays features a vibraphone and a glockenspiel, and the second features four marimbas. The vibraphone is a fairly modern mallet percussion instrument with metal keys that can be dampened by releasing a foot pedal underneath the instrument. Vibraphones also have spinning motors housed above long metal resonator tubes—these motors create a whirring motion and can be turned on to produce a very unique vibrato effect. The vibraphone is most commonly used in jazz music, and was largely popularized by the playing of the Lionel Hampton in the early twentieth century.

The modern glockenspiel looks like a smaller version of the vibraphone, but the original glockenspiel was actually an assembled series of different-sized bells (the German word “glockenspiel” translates literally to “bells play”). These true “bell-playing” glockenspiels were (and still are!) often housed in in clock towers and played by automated hammers on the hour.

black and white photo of a cathedral with people in front
A crowd of people watch the glockenspiel playing in the huge Munich Rathaus clock tower in 1918, Prints and Photographs Division

Unlike the vibraphone and glockenspiel, the keys on a marimba are made of wood, not metal. Marimbas come in different sizes and varieties, and they have their origins in several different musical traditions, including West African, Costa Rican, and Guatemalan music. If you like the sound of the marimba, check out some of the Marimba Band music included in the Library’s National Jukebox collection, which contains thousands of audio recordings of music from all around the world. For example, here’s a 1916 recording of Strauss’s familiar Blue Danube Waltz played entirely on marimbas by the Hurtado Brothers Royal Marimba Band of Guatemala.

As you watch this Tambuco Ensemble video together, have kids think back to the first video in the series and pay attention to which instruments are keeping the pulse (this is a bit tricky– the pulse itself, as well as the instrument(s) keeping it, change quite a bit throughout the video!). Think about how the rhythms played by each different keyboard instrument interweave with one another to create much more complex rhythmic patterns. Also notice how different each type of mallet percussion instrument sounds, despite how similarly they are played—in what ways does the sonic texture of the glockenspiel differ from that of the marimba? Just like in the “Hands” video, think about how the size of the instruments and the material of the tone bars influence the sounds each instrument makes.

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