Workshopping with Magenta

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Sunday afternoon saw hordes of barbershoppers thronging into my erstwhile place of work for the British Association of Barbershop Singers’ annual Quartet Prelims, at which quartets compete to qualify to sing at the annual convention in May. It feels most ungrateful of me, then, to have missed the entire occasion, with so many friends and so much interesting music coming right to my own home patch.

But I spent the day instead just three minutes’ walk away in the city’s glorious new library, leading a workshop with Magenta that involved choir and guests learning a brand new arrangement in a bit less than 3 hours, then performing in the Book Rotunda that lies at the heart of the building. Magenta has offered these workshops every so often over the years, previously as our contribution to Moseley Festival each summer, but this was the first time we’d done one in the city centre with city-wide publicity.

I have written about a couple of these workshops before, with particular focus on the interaction of arrangement and teaching strategy, and on the intensity of the learning experience. And, looking back, those comments still hold true for this time. It remains an absurdly ambitious plan, but the combination of detailed planning (including tactical arranging decisions), and teamwork on the day pulls it all together.

Two observations I would add to my previous reflections. First, there’s how to juggle with the question of how to develop a piece of music that is manageable to learn in such a short time-frame, yet long enough to make a satisfying performance. The use of repeats is of course useful here. Musical forms always have bits of music that come back again, and where one might vary the repeats in an arrangement destined to be a show-piece, there’s nothing wrong with getting all 18th-century about it and doing entire bits twice.

(Of course in the 18th-century, it would be the performers’ job to add the extra embellishments on the repeat, but fortunately 21st-century audiences don’t seem too fussy about that, particularly when they are surprised to come across an a cappella performance in a public space.)

But one can also use textural variety tactically to cut down learning time, and thus increase the length of learnable music. Passages in fewer than four parts are proportionately quicker to learn than a full harmonic texture, and also give you a chance to build shape into the form. When you’re arranging for a one-a-part ensemble, you need to be a bit careful about unisons and doublings, but with a larger group, there is something rather exciting about the way a monophonic texture flowers into harmony. Antiphony likewise can offer a larger group structural interest at the same time as efficient learning speeds.

My second observation follows on from the point about the role Magenta’s singers play in making these workshops effective. I may provide the arrangement and lead the learning, but having a core of singers who don’t know this piece, but are experienced in the approach we take to learning it is an essential part of the process. They help the guest participants find their way round the music, they model the kind of vocal and performance techniques we use, and they identify where people near them need help, and ask the questions that visitors might be too shy to articulate.

So that’s all good for our visitors. But it is also good for Magenta’s singers. One of our more recent joiners who had not previously experienced a workshop remarked to me at the end at how much she had enjoyed the opportunity to help others, to find herself in a leadership role, and how it had been really good for her confidence. Now, we do a lot to hand round leadership within our rehearsal processes as a matter of course, but that’s in a context where we all already share a large knowledge- and experience-base. It takes meeting people who don’t share this to realise how much we have in fact learned together!

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