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Wreaking Order with Wrekin Havoc

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WrekinHavocThursday evening brought the quite splendidly-named quartet Wrekin Havoc* over for a coaching session. They are due to be competing in the British Association of Barbershop Singers Convention at the end of the month, so our primary focus was on contest repertoire.

The quartet are all members of the Telfordaires, whom I have been directing since January, and I have not only heard them perform recently, I have also coached all four of them as members of the Music Team, although not as it happens all four of them at the same time. So in many ways I had a good prior insight into where they are on their journey, although interestingly knowing the voices and the people isn’t the same as knowing the quartet. The coaching process is still one of discovery.

One of the nice things, though, about working with a quartet from within the chorus is that I have a pretty thorough knowledge of what kind of input they’ve been having over the last four months. Being able to reference directly work we’ve been doing already gives them a head start on applying it, while the quartet context gives much more opportunity for individual attention and feedback to help it embed more thoroughly. And the extra pay-off is that I know four of my chorus are going to be coming in with more secure, deep-set breathing next week. Win all round.

Working in a quartet context with singers I usually direct pointed up some interesting differences between the two forms of the art, particularly in some of the deep harmonic work. Blocking chords to focus deeply on both the sonic integrity and expressive power of individual harmonies is a valuable activity in both contexts.

In a chorus, it is the director’s job to gather the sounds into a gestalt. One of my favourite activities is taking a sonority and massaging into true. (I nearly said ‘favourite musical activities’ but I can’t think of many things I enjoy more in any other area of life. I guess that’s why I’m a musician.)

In a quartet, there isn’t the guiding consciousness of an external listener, so the singers have to create the gestalt between them. It is the coach’s job set the goal (stay with the chord until it stops being four notes and becomes a single sonority), and to give feedback on how the quartet are getting on, but I can’t do it for them. You can hear, though, when the quartet has made that mental shift from individual self-monitoring to listening to the whole.

Individual self-monitoring remains of course an important part of the process – self-awareness is the prime engine of improvement in rehearsal and private practice. But you also need to be able to let go of that enough, to trust the process enough, to allow both voice and consciousness to merge into the bigger picture. And the pay-off for relaxing the grip of self-monitoring is that your intuitive musicianship makes all kinds of micro-adjustments in response to the experience that are too numerous and too subtle to effect deliberately.

I’m now wondering if what I have just described is a specifically musical instance of Daniel Kahneman’s notions of System 1 and System 2 thinking. If so, it’s as he says: we need both, as they achieve different things.


*If you’re unfamiliar with the Wrekin, you might not get why their name is so good, but it’s a prominent landmark in Shropshire and they have to travel quite far off their home patch to find an audience who wouldn’t appreciate it.

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