Understanding Pulse

For many years now I have sung songs with my students to help them learn various elements of musicianship. One of the first songs we sing helps them understand pulse. This song is the two pitch song Cobbler Cobbler. The children pretend to hold a shoe in one hand and a hammer in the other. They bang their fist in time with the pulse of the song. We then hold the hammer in the air; place the “shoe” on the ground; swap the hammer into the other hand; and pick up the shoe again. We can then repeat the song using the other hand.

They love it! We can use it to explore tempo as sometimes the cobbler is very tired and goes slowly, or he might be running late and need to go fast. Of course the children go so fast that their steady pulse goes out of the window! But they’re having fun and we can tone it down and discuss the different tempos still have a “steady beat”. We can also march around the room to this song or play a simple pat-a-cake game. All great ways of feeling the concept of the steady beat.

Sometimes I use the terms pulse and steady beat interchangeably. We talk about our own heartbeats and I make the children laugh by tapping out a random jazzy “heartbeat” and shout “Quick, call an ambulance!!” A healthy heartbeat is nice and steady and our songs need a healthy heartbeat too. Explaining that the doctors can feel your heartbeat by finding your pulse brings in the term pulse quite nicely. They can rarely find their own pulse so we often have to “call an ambulance” for them too! They find this hilarious!

We can tap the pulse all over the place! On the piano lid, on our knees, on our noses, nod our heads. Anything we can think of. Especially anything they can think of! The more ideas and repetition the better. One of my students wanted to tap his eye – not sure about that!! I suggested eyebrow and he seemed happy enough!

I had one student who found tapping a steady pulse almost impossible. We tried everything from marching around in my garden to nodding heads. One day, almost by chance, I asked her to try tapping fingertips on her chest but keeping the heel of her hand fixed to her body! Hooray! She still can’t clap or march but she can make that very small movement needed to understand the pulse.

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