MasterMixing it Up
Last weekend brought a visit from mixed quartet MasterMix for a coaching session. I’ve worked with a few long-distance quartets in my time, but this one is raising the stakes rather in terms of logistics: not content with a journey between Derbyshire and Essex to sing together, they bring their bass in from Sweden. It seems appropriate, really, that their first two contests together will have been in Ireland (last autumn) and Spain (coming up in April).
Long-distance quartets typically have a skill profile in which the individual singers are operating initially at a higher level than the whole. They will often have considerable experience in other ensembles through which they have honed their skills, and are motivated to take on the extra travel to work together by the opportunity to sing with people who can bring this experience to the table. By the same token, their opportunities to learn how they are going to operate as a unit are relatively few compared to a local quartet, but commensurately more intensive. If they can only meet every few weeks, they make a proper weekend of it.
What this means for the coaching experience is that you can get a lot done without bumping into individual skill deficits. There’s a really solid substrate of technical control and musicianship you can rely on as you get the voices and the music all lined up together. And they have developed stamina. A quartet that usually rehearses for two hours at a stretch fades faster on a full day’s coaching than one that does not have the luxury of frequent meetings.
One of the features built into the nature of the mixed quartet as a genre is that it always requires at least some of its members to sing in a different range and/or voice-part from usual. In the case of MasterMix, their lead’s track record is primarily as a bass, and both baritone and tenor would usually sing lead.
This puts everyone just a shade outside their comfort zone, but by the same token aids the formation of the composite quartet sound. One of the challenges of putting experienced singers together is that they all bring to the new quartet the ways they learned to inhabit their voice in previous quartets, which invariably needs adjusting in the new collective vocal environment. If in stepping into the new ensemble, they are also changing range and/or role, they have more work to do, but they are likewise weighed down with less baggage.
If this general cognitive load wasn’t enough, one of the first things we did was shift one of their songs up a tone. Key choice is always a matter of negotiation, and it’s a good generalisation that a female bass will sit happily in the range of a male lead. But in this case, the lie of the line was just off the bottom of her best sound. She had the notes, and if she had been singing a harmony part you’d have been perfectly happy with them. But the lead is the part that the audience identifies with, and the melody thus needs to be fitted to where that voice can deliver it best.
Vocally, this wasn’t a problem for anyone. A woman singing male tenor always has plenty of headroom, after all, and whilst it could have made difficulties for the baritone had it been a high bari line to begin with, in this song he had the range to accommodate the shift. So we got an immediate win, with a more assured delivery of the melody and a bit of extra brightness all round from the lift.
But it’s funny - a tone isn’t that big a change, but it is big enough to periodically bamboozle. The process of tweaking and reimagining within a coaching session always has the potential to make a well-known song feel strange to a singer, and this effect is amplified when it is also sitting not exactly where you muscle memory expects it to sit. There is a particular look of fleeting panic-then-relief that crosses the face when someone is thinking, ‘Why have I lost my note? Oh, because it’s in a different key; there it is, phew.’
When people talk about the attraction for singing in a mixed quartet, it is often framed in social terms - quite heteronormative social terms indeed. And, yes, it is nice for heterosexual partners to sing together, so I am sure that will always be part of it. But the kinds of musical and vocal challenges the genre offers experienced singers has to be part of it too. There is something particularly exciting about embarking on a musical project for which you have all the necessary skills and experience, but which is nonetheless going to stretch you in new ways. MasterMix are certainly having fun with the ride.