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Discoveries from a Quartet Project

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Over the past few weeks, Magenta has undertaken a quartet project which has done all kinds of good things for us, individually and collectively. The initial rationale behind it was two-fold: first to generate a little more repertoire for a long gig we have coming up, and second as part of our 2011 goal to build all singers’ independence on their parts.

Back in May I asked who might be interested, and had 14 volunteers out of a choir of then 18 singers, which we all thought was a pretty good response rate. One later dropped out, but we still had 4 different quartets on the go, heading for a night in mid-July when we would all perform to each other. (The numerate will notice that this involved some doubling up.) I offered the three quartets in which I wasn’t singing a couple of 1-hour coaching sessions each en route, so long as they made sure they had rehearsed together before coming to see me.

So, one of the interesting things about this was working with quartets at a really early stage of development. Usually when people seek out coaching, they’ve got a fair bit of experience under their belts, so it was quite illuminating to see how people found the initial process, and to hear the conclusions they reached after their own reflections on the experience.

So the first and possibly most important thing to learn was how relatively ropey it sounds at first. We know each other’s voices quite well in Magenta, and we all knew that each quartet was made up of four expressive singers who sound good to listen to. So you’d expect the quartet to sound nice – but it really doesn’t right at the beginning, and it is a bit of a shock to the system. (It was useful to be able to tell them that Crossroads had found that too.) Quartetting is so much more about the quality of ensemble than even a small choir like Magenta.

The flip side of this was that how quickly it improves, and how exciting it is when it does. And my big penny-drop realisation in observing this process is the relationship between resonance and confidence. The more the voices get lined up in both rhythm and tone quality, the more they resonate together, and the less isolated each singer starts to feel. Instead of feeling alone on their part, everyone starts to feel wrapped up together in the envelope of sound they create together.

One quartet also talked quite a lot about how it was the supportive ethos within the ensemble that made things possible at all. The more experienced singers were there to help the less experienced, and it was central to their success that they were able to make suggestions to each other without taking things personally.

Two rehearsal techniques emerged from this process that will be useful additions to my coaching repertoire. One was intoning a song on a static chord, i.e. each singer singing the correct words and rhythms for their part but to a single note in a four-part chord. This was a great way of drawing attention to matters of synchronisation, both in terms of rhythmic coordination and of matching word sounds. Indeed, the exercise helped us experience these as closely related, the shaping of words being integral to the articulation of rhythm. At the same time, it allowed the quartet to build a sense of continuous resonance: you could hear so clearly that the better the sounds coordinated, the richer and fuller the bath of sound they could get immersed in.

The other rehearsal technique was a slow duetting with more than one person on a part – either 2+2, or 2+1 where we had a singer missing. (As an aside, you can get a lot done with a trio when busy lives make getting all four together at once difficult. My quartet is running at about 30% of the rehearsals having all four parts at the moment, but it still feels like we’re making good progress.)

The original reason for using this technique was to support someone in learning their part. When someone’s floundering a bit for notes, a bit of moral support is useful. And doing it slowly gives time to think and get things right when reading music for the first time.

At first, this might have felt like it was quite a laborious use of time; it’s not a method that gets through a lot of music quickly. But we soon found that the singers doing the helping were finding it as rewarding as the singer who needed help found it supportive. Taking it slow and simple, along with the doubling up got all kinds of minuscule technical details sorted out without having to talk about them: vocal matching, vowels, shaping of words. And with this came resonance. I am more than ever convinced that there is a specific part of the brain that lights up with joy from the sheer acoustic pleasures of voices locked and ringing together.

In any case, this lingering, painstaking practice pays off strongly with a significantly enhanced blend and sense of ensemble when the quartet splits back into one voice per part. And indeed when the quartet is re-absorbed into the choir as a whole. It’s early days to tell as yet, but it looks like our quartet project may have not only increased the individual confidence of singers, but also have enhanced their sense of connection and interdependence.

Oh, and the most important thing is that everyone had a good time and had reason to feel proud of their achievements. As far as I can tell, these are the only things that keep singers coming for more.

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