Playing Sgt. Pepper’s

Our Tutorial rehearsed a cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the title of track of the Beatles album of the same name, which allowed us to actually play the Beatles’ music. As students of a liberal arts college, this activity demonstrates our capacity to do work beyond “general education”:  completing readings and assignments, writing essays, delivering presentations, etc. Although the students in the class have a range of interests and backgrounds, and had never met before the start of the semester, we formed a band with students ranging from a volleyball-playing computer science major to an intended pre-med Spanish major. We put on a musical performance as a band— with some of us on instruments we had never played before—and managed to play a faithful, yet original, version of the Beatles’ classic. By rehearsing and recording tracks for this song, we expanded our understanding of the work the Beatles put into recording the Sgt. Pepper’s album and our understanding of how to function as a group in a college environment.

Members of the class assumed different roles in the cover project, which involved producing both the musical track and a parody of the Sgt. Pepper’s album art. Ten of the thirteen students played musical instruments, so they participated in performing the song. The three students who professed no musical ability took on the job of recreating the cover and developing the list of liberal arts figures who would appear. These three students dubbed themselves “The Lindas” in honor of Linda McCartney, who, though she performed with her husband, Paul, onstage, is known for her limited musicianship. Of the ten students involved in making the song, John managed the recording process while the remaining nine played instruments ranging from piccolo to bass. Kyle and Aidan found and transposed the arrangement and Cooper scheduled times when people could rehearse. The class met a number of times throughout the semester to rehearse together, and toward the end of the semester they each recorded their individual parts.

In the rehearsal process, we gained a better understanding of the Beatles’ challenges in putting together a musical work: scheduling times, arranging parts, practicing and finally working together as a band. The Beatles had performed “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” with guitars, drums, and French horns, while we replaced the French horns with violin, saxophone, and piccolo. According to  Aidan, who worked on the arrangement, “Sometimes figuring out the key signatures was confusing, but once it was done, we could really dig into the music.” Through repeated rehearsals, the song began to come together. Our piccoloist Bella noted, “After we practiced it a few times it turned out well.” As each student learned their individual part, the class learned how to function as a band.

Arranging, rehearsing, and performing the song helped us understand its structure, while laying down individual tracks in the studio gave us insight into the recording process. Even while we had access to computers and the Beatles only had access to analog four-track tape machines, our process did take a while and came with difficulties and setbacks. We had some technical difficulties during both the rehearsal and recording process when instruments like the keyboard and guitar did not work with the amps. While parts of the recording process seemed to go smoothly, the tracks could not, in the end, be mixed together into a cohesive song. With a little more time, we perhaps could have produced a more polished final track, but still found value in the rehearsal and recording process.

Of all the great songs on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, we decided to perform the opening track because of the powerful way it kicks off the album and because it allowed our Tutorial to embrace a new persona as a band in much the same way the Beatles did. This project gave us hands-on experience actually performing the Beatles’ music, and we joined a long list of artists who celebrate the Beatles by playing these songs with their own twist. Both the musical and art covers required creative problem-solving. With the students, professor, and Peer Writing Mentor working together to produce the song and the cover art that represents Grinnell’s liberal arts philosophy, these projects allowed us to put that liberal arts philosophy into practice.