Here Comes the Sun…

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Magenta & guestsMagenta & guestsThe monsoon season arrived in Moseley on Monday night: just before 7 pm the skies opened and rain fell so hard that the drops bounced halfway back up to the sky. Nonetheless, intrepid souls from around the city paddled their way over to the Community Development Trust building for the close-harmony workshop Magenta were presenting as part of the Moseley Festival.

Our goal was to learn a brand new arrangement together. It’s a fun dynamic, because while Magenta’s regular singers have the confidence in their skill from singing together regularly, they are no further ahead on the specific song than the visitors, so they offer moral support at the same time as having to rise to the challenge themselves.

And it is an interesting challenge for me too. I have to teach a four-part arrangement in a total of about an hour and a half – which is all we have once you take out warm-ups, introductions, a short break and Magenta’s performance spot half-way through. It really makes me focus on both my arranging choices and my teaching strategies. Indeed, the two work together more in this situation than any other.

It is a matter of course when I’m arranging to think ‘hmm, how would I handle that if the singers struggled?’ since I'm nearly always either arranging for Magenta or for a group that might invite me to coach the arrangement at a later date. It really keeps you honest when you know that you’re the one who’s going to have to trouble-shoot any tricky bits. But when the learning process takes place in such a restricted time-frame, you can’t write anything down without thinking, ‘Hmm, how am I going to teach that efficiently?’

In Monday night’s new song, ‘Here Comes the Sun’, the main challenge, musically was the cross rhythms at the end of each chorus – played by guitar in the original:

HereComes

Having draped the material over the four parts so as to make singable lines, the main question was how to teach the rhythms. I decided to abstract them and devise a ten-minute exercise to teach by ear before diving into the arrangement proper. I presented this as a means to start singing in harmony after a primarily unison warm-up – and didn’t even mention the tricky rhythms until after everyone could sing them as if they were perfectly normal. (Such deviousness is key to my methods of course.)

The main difference between the exercise and the arrangement proper was that in the exercise all four parts used syllables that articulated the rhythm, which appear only in the baritone line in the arrangement. We all learned the lead and bass parts, and sang them as a round, then did the same procedure with the other two parts. We then put all four together into a long phrase to sing as a four-part round to get our first taste of full harmony.

We then turned our attention to the whole song (well, the whole arrangement - which only used a short subset of the song for an event like this), and discovered that we now had an anchor point that everyone relaxed into each time we came to it. Indeed, participants remarked afterwards that they found this the ‘easy bit’. Now it’s a standard bit of good practice to give people starting a new musical activity an easy win early on to help them build confidence. But I was quite delighted how readily the workshop participants embraced the exercise for confidence-building purposes when its entire existence arose from the need to find a teaching strategy to overcome a potential obstacle.

But of course, we had already established that the people who came along were intrepid by definition for even having made it there. And I’m not saying it was our fault, but as we sang ‘Here Comes the Sun’, the clouds parted to reveal the most glorious sunset.

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