MacThree plus MacThree
The weekend took me back up to Edinburgh to work with my friends MacFour Quartet again. I last saw them in November, when our focus was on digging deep into their songs to explore the depths of their expressive detail. With 6 weeks to go before the annual Sweet Adelines regional contest, our task this time was to get the Manager off duty and the Communicator to the fore.
We had booked the session a couple of months ago, and in the meantime miscellaneous circumstances (filed under the category of Real Life) had arisen that meant that only three of the quartet were available on each of the Friday evening and Saturday sessions. The quartet’s stickability and experience showed through in the fact that they did not consider this a reason not to go ahead. It’s as much in these matters of organisation and attitude that a quartet’s longer-term success can be gauged as in their vocal and musical prowess.
Indeed, it is possible that having a member missing for each session may leave MacFour with a stronger ownership of the things we worked on – as this will have forced them not only to discuss and share their understandings, but to do so in enough depth that the fourth singer can make sense of what went on.
We explored several interrelated themes. The first was continuity of characterisation, which we approached by thinking of the songs in filmic terms. If this were a movie, what genre would it be? Who would be playing the main role? Where and when would it be set?
The third of these questions was the one that led us into the real concrete detail. ‘In the here and now’ looks like a specific answer – but which ‘here’? ‘Edinburgh? The UK? The Planet Earth? Does the character live in a suburban semi, a country cottage, a city-centre penthouse? The broad concept and understanding of the song was already in place, but our task was to tease out the concrete detail.
Pressing the quartet into new levels of specificity had several interesting effects. First, a number of more technical details that I had made a mental note to go back to once we’d done the big-picture stuff sorted themselves out without any further intervention. Second, the song revealed a lot more expressive detail than had previously been apparent. Third, there was a shared fund of imagery to draw on to make performance decisions: there was a clear moment when I could feel the quartet taking control of the imaginative process, such that I could mostly let go of the reins for driving and just give the occasional tweak to keep them on track. Fourth, their performance gained a new level of joie do vivre.
A second, related theme was integrating the breath points into the song. From an artistic perspective, a singer’s need to draw oxygen into their body to stay alive is entirely irrelevant. The point about breath points is that they are where the next thought gathers: thus the notion of the ‘thought point’. Related to this was thinking about phrases in terms of complete thoughts, rather than taking mental ‘stop-off’ points en route. At the back of my brain as we were doing this was Trish’s recent comments on one of my posts that linked continuity of breath flow with continuity of concentration, and it certainly seemed that a more continuous imaginative engagement helped the breath last to the end of the phrase better.
Both of these two themes involved a focus on the person the song’s character was addressing: singing to elicit a response, and their response as providing the motivation for the next thought to emerge. Their ballad in particular has some phrase-end embellishments that really come to life when they are imagined as telling us about what is going on in the face of the song’s addressee.
These method are all about the performer’s mental stamina and proactiveness. They require you to get your imagination out in front of your voice rather than singing along with the memory of what you remember rehearsing.
So our final theme was to find rehearsal strategies that would provide the opportunity to embed narrative continuity that runs-through offer, without the commensurate lapsing into autopilot. We came up with a collection of techniques of the kind that Dan Coyle would refer to as ‘practice gadgets’ – ways of rehearsing that increased the level of difficulty in specific dimensions so that those skills are stretched beyond the level they would achieve just by doing the activity.
These strategies included:
- Singing through the song toggling between bubbling and singing to ‘vvvv’. This is not only great for engaging both breath and resonance, but also makes you listen harder to coordinate the ensemble.
- Performing the song, toggling between singing out loud and miming. This is a classic exercise to develop ‘inner hearing’.
- Toughest of all: taking a song a phrase at a time, mentally previewing it, singing it, then mentally reviewing it. This means you are focusing on the music in your head (first conjuring up what you’d like to hear, then listening to your immediate aural memory) for twice as long as you are actually singing.
You can tell when a gadget is a good one for an ensemble when their first attempt quickly collapses in laughter, their second attempt gets a bit further, and their third attempt starts to build some real continuity. (I also consider singers telling me that I’m evil to be a good sign.) This sequence indicates that the exercise is stretching them significantly, but not beyond what is currently possible. It also tells you that they have the appetite to be stretched, which is ultimately the only factor that can drive artistic growth in any of us.