How do members of the choir learn? Some of the harmonies can be quite complicated. Members sometimes feel daunted by the learning of harmony. But there really is no need. It is all about repetition and ear training. How we work is that I work out the harmonies in my head, and then I teach each part in the rehearsal. I never write things down, since firstly I am a lousy reader and writer of music, secondly most people in the choir do not read music, and if they did they would be relying on their eyes and not their ears. Thirdly, this is not a Western Music tradition anyway, rhythmically it’s difficult to replicate the rhythm in notation form. I have found simply that repetition is the only thorough way of teaching. I constantly repeat lines to each group as we sing through sequences, sometimes jumping from lead to each harmonic part until each section has got it. I have observed that as individuals, musically every single member has grown in the ability to memorise, remember and reproduce harmony. Not only that, many are finding it easier to sing in harmony without being prompted ( although some of my harmonies are not obvious). Once the harmony has been learned, it is quite difficult to unlearn, a little like riding a bike. I was impressed also at the ability to learn melodies very quickly without much repetition at a recent workshop we did with Ricardo Axe from Brighton who was teaching us some Candomble songs. Learning songs and harmonies by ear is great aural training and ensures that the learning process in other contexts can only get easier. I have also noticed that wherever choir members physically are now, they can sing in harmony without being put off. In the early days if I asked members to move around the room and mix the groups but still sing their harmony they would not have been able to do it.
Why the need for harmony? I have always really enjoyed vocal harmony. I grew up in a musical family and used to enjoy hearing my fathers rehearsals with his bands. Not so long ago, my father re released an album by one of his early bands, the Three City Four “Smoke and Dust”. the songs recorded were from two albums released in the 1960′s between 1965 and 1967.
I was but a small child then ( between the ages of four and six). He gave me a copy of the re released CD recently and as I listened to the tracks, I found I remembered not only the words but all the harmonies also, despite the fact that I must have been really very young when they were being sung in my house. The point I am making is that musical memory is a powerful thing and once you get a tune in your head, and you learn by hook or by crook a difficult harmony, it is very unlikely that you will forget it.
When the Choir was first formed, I had some resistance to the idea of harmonising these ancient Lucumi Songs by the other founder members. After all, the songs traditionally were never harmonised. My idea, however was that it would have been a shame not to do so. There is so much scope when one has a number of singers in a group. Not only that, these songs are beautiful and lend themselves to interesting vocal arrangements. My opinion has always been that we are a cultural representation of this traditition. Ofcourse within a ceremony singing in harmony is not important or an issue, everyone sings at the top of their voices in what ever key comes naturally to them, and it is all about the energy built, however, when one is presenting a performance to the general public there is scope to do so many beautiful things musically and as long as the sequence is true to it’s origins there is no reason why there should not be any harmonising.
Learning how to harmonise, how to focus on your part, how to listen to the whole and not just your part, develops one’s aural skills. It makes us all better musicians and better singers, and it certainly makes the choir a more interesting place!