Music Theory Workshop
By Eleanor Marriott
Recently I learned a whole new language, all in the course of a couple of hours. By returning to my favourite rehearsal venue, St. Mary-At-Hill, on a cold January weekend and staying quiet for a change, I went from not really understanding anything about de-coding sheet music to having a good grasp of the concepts of both pitch and rhythm – all thanks to Richard’s basic music theory workshop.
Throughout my life, music has been both familiar and foreign to me. I was probably tapping my feet to some slightly muffled pop song before I was even born. But, other than knowing what makes a catchy tune and honing my musical taste over the years, the actual art of making the music has always been a mystery to me. It’s a bit like wearing a nice sweater without having a clue about the stitches used to create it.
Which isn’t surprising, considering that music was not exactly my forte at school. So much so that I practically trembled my way through class, in constant fear of being picked out by the teacher and asked to recognize a note, or worse still replicate it. I suffered the humiliation of being instructed to mime in the school musical, then the further indignity of being banned from learning the guitar after my first lesson because I had ‘tuned’ my new instrument so badly. Which apparently would have been forgivable if it wasn’t for the fact that it sounded fine to me! (Without casting any blame for my ineptitude, let’s just say that the music department at my school was never going to win any excellence in teaching awards!)
And so, like several others filling the majestic Wren Church that productive Saturday morning, I have spent my life appreciating music whilst being totally in awe of that incredibly talented species of humans able to create it.
Now I’m not saying that everything has suddenly changed and that after Richard’s workshop I’m going to be able sit down and compose the 21st century’s answer to the 5th Symphony. Nor that it will improve my musical ear or suddenly give me perfect pitch. But I can say that a significant part of the code has now been cracked for me and it isn’t quite so foreign or bewildering any more. In fact it is not only totally logical, but extremely enjoyable to decipher – so much so that next time I’m bored on the tube I may well dig out some sheet music to help kill the time.
So, in case you’re wondering, I now know the difference between a sharp and a flat; a bass and a treble clef. And I can recognise a stave or a crotchet when I see one. Furthermore, quavers have risen from being a cheesy crisp to a musical instruction of both significance and beauty (don’t you just love that little squiggle coming off of it?) I may not yet be an expert on reading sheet music, but the transformation from knowing nothing to finally understanding what I am being asked to do shouldn’t be underplayed.
I don’t want to give too much away about the content of the workshop itself, as Richard can explain it so much better than me, and I hope he will be repeating it for those that couldn’t make it. But here are some of the nuggets I discovered: firstly, Julie Andrews was really on to something with her Do re mi song in The Sound of Music. Secondly, the beat is not just a sound (or a Ska band) but a basic unit of measurement. Thirdly, music and rhythm is as much about the silence in between the notes as it is about the notes themselves. As Richard put it “Always remember the ‘ands’.” And if that’s not all, I now know how to scribe the tune to Postman Pat! Don’t knock it. We all have to start somewhere.
Ever the optimist, I am also taking salsa classes and ukulele lessons this term (that £6 ukulele tuner may turn out to be my best purchase of 2017). The great thing about Saturday’s workshop is that it didn’t only help me with reading sheet music for the purpose of singing in the choir; it will also help me with my ukulele instructions and with keeping in rhythm for dancing. So I think I really got my money’s worth there (maybe that tuner wasn’t my best investment after all…) Heck, you never know, I may even compose a ditty for my trusty uke some day. Okay, don’t hold your breath on that one, but let’s just say that I’m feeling empowered right now!
So, if you missed the workshop I definitely recommend twisting Richard’s arm for another one. Or maybe taking the follow up class if your previous musical training has been somewhat more rounded than mine. The only disappointment for me was being told that having perfect pitch is something you are generally born with and not something you can acquire. Sadly, I suspect I am not one of the blessed few in that respect. But apparently one of our very own, Morgan Pearse, is. So Bass singers, if you’re a bit unsure about your pitch, my tip is to place yourself as close to Morgan as possible and copy whatever sounds he makes.
Now if there are any pitch perfect Alto 1s out there, please can you make yourself known to me. I’d be happy to explain the difference between a G sharp and a G flat in return.