Close-Harmony Singing Intensive

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It is absurd to expect a group of amateur singers, two-thirds of whom have never sung together before (and some of whom have not sung since they left school), to learn a four-part close-harmony arrangement from scratch in less than three hours, isn't it? And you wouldn't necessarily expect them to keep the tonal centre rock steady throughout, would you? And it would certainly be too much to expect them to perform it from memory at the end of the afternoon, yes?

There is often a moment in the days before one of the workshops that Magenta periodically offers for our local Moseley Festival, that I too think this is impossible.

But by the time I have that thought, it's far too late to change our plans, so I get back to massaging my detailed time-plan into something that feels at least potentially realistic. And it works: at the half-way point in our most recent workshop on Sunday, we were precisely 3 minutes ahead of schedule for getting the first part all together in four parts.

So, how does this work? How do we manage to amaze our visitors with how much it is possible to achieve in an afternoon? And amaze ourselves, if I'm honest.

There are certain factors that help here. The one third of the group that are used to singing together are of course a significant help. They are learning the music from scratch too, but they have the experience in finding their way about the music to be able to help the visitors. During the first 40 minutes or so of learning the song, I spend a lot of time watching little huddles of singers pointing things out to each other, learning to use the sheet music as a road-map and aide-memoire to help build a mental picture of the song and arrangement. I have learned to read body language so I can recognise when people switch from completely-wrapped-up-in-my-current-question to ready-to-absorb-more so as not to them hustle along from overwhelmed-but-coping into panic.

And the music itself helps. We pick famous tunes for these events: people don't have to read the rhythms, they can remember how they go. Moreover, as I've mentioned before, having to teach an arrangement in a limited time is a really good discipline for an arranger. Intuitive lines are always important for producing good performances, but they are essential for producing performances quickly. Any line that isn't largely self-evident costs time and saps confidence - which in turn slows everything else down. The success of the endeavour is won or lost as I'm singing through all the parts at home.

Along with the detail of the arrangement is the detail of the planning for the workshop. I notice this most in the schedule I make for myself to lead the workshop: breaking the song down into sections, deciding what order to learn and combine the parts for each, deciding where to go back and review and where to plough ahead. I'm looking for quick success early on to build confidence, then to get a strong overview of how the song as a whole works, then to shunt between detail and overview so people can build a mental map of the song.

But of course, the logistical planning is also key. The sense of smooth organisation and absence of faff that results from the work Magenta's members put in to setting the whole thing up is a significant facilitator of learning. People arrive at an event like this feeling a bit nervous, not quite sure what to expect. Being met with cheerful greetings and a clear sense of purpose helps them lower their guard and get on with it all.

So, there is much in the set-up that makes the sheer volume of learning possible. I suspect that a certain feature of Magenta's working methods also has an impact. We are in the habit of all singing each other's parts as we learn the music. This is for the musical reason that it gives a wider perspective on the whole - you have an immediate intuitive insight into how the part you sing works having sung along with all that accompanies it.

Now, in theory, you might think this makes things harder, because you're asking everyone to absorb four times as much music than if they just learned their own parts - but I have always been ready to accept that theoretical overhead in return for the musical depth it offers. But on Sunday I started to suspect that this might actually be part of what accelerates the learning. Partly for the musical reasons: a stronger mental map of the whole actually helps you grasp the music more effectively.

But also from an experiential perspective - more than one workshop participant remarked how they enjoyed not having to wait around while the other parts learned their music. And I think this is part of how the very over-ambitiousness of the endeavour contributes to the chemistry. I've observed before that keeping the pace up keeps you in the musical part of the brain for more efficient learning, and that is certainly part of what's going on when you are aiming to get through a lot in a short time. The specific learning method that minimises non-singing time thus is key to keeping the brains working at peak efficiency.

The cognitive intensity is one aspect. There's also an emotional intensity that results from focused musical activity in a group. (This is of course why people like to sing together!) The more time you spend actually singing together (rather than waiting for other people to sing) the more you get that feeling of being merged into the group, of bonding with others. The combination of unfamiliar circumstance and potential overwhelm from having a lot to do in a short time gives you an adrenal shunt into a state of arousal, while the social connection generated by intense coordinated activity keeps you feeling safe.

The result is a heady mix of communion and flow in which everyone gets swept up into the musical moment and over-achieves because they haven't got space to reflect on how absurd it is to attempt so much in a short time. It is a most pleasurable way to spend an afternoon.

Wow, sounds like a great workshop Liz!

I too am amazed what a bunch of amateurs can achieve in a short time. I ran a one-day gospel workshop last Saturday and had lots of people who didn't think they could sing at all. By the end of the day we'd learnt four 4-part harmony songs including one really tricky jazzy one with hard rhythms. I always record the end results because people don't realise how good they sound!

Some points I've taken away from your post:

  • no matter how many years I do this, I still can't interpret whether a frown means: overwhelmed-but-coping or i-have-no-idea-what's-going-on!
  • my experience of using famous tunes is that everyone has remembered a slightly different version and it takes ages before we're all singing it the same way rhythmically, melodically and with the correct lyrics.
  • I've tried teaching everybody all the parts, and it works with some easier songs and definitely means people dont' have to wait around. But I've found that it does become confusing with harder material. I always try to break songs down into small enough chunks that nobody waits for long and we have harmonies up and running very quickly.
  • I teach very fast. My philosophy is that I introduce the overall map/ structure of the song quickly, and can then go back over it to fine tune it. The faster I teach, the less time people have to worry whether they've got it right or not!
  • I plan my workshops in fair detail, but perhaps not as much as you do. I have found that I've had to throw a plan completely out of the window when I discover that for one particular group the 'easy' song turns out to be extremely difficult, and the 'hard' song is a cinch! Or that the way I've decided to break down the song is not working that day. Each group is very different.
  • And finally, I totally agree: "It is a most pleasurable way to spend an afternoon."!

From the Front of the Choir

Exactly Liz!! Since I have been learning my part more in conjunction with the other 3 parts rather than stand alone, I have found that my insight to the meaning and direction of the music and song that we are singing has increased enormously and the light bulb moment of realising how, where and why my part fits so well into the whole ensemble is startling! Now then.... how to work this into the chorus as a mode of learning ...... only one way for it methinks.......... longer rehearsal time.....Oh yes!! Bring it on!!

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