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Atomic Quartet Coaching

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AtomicI spent Monday afternoon until mid-afternoon on Tuesday with Atomic Quartet, who had come up from Cornwall for an intensive bout of coaching both as quartet and as individual singers. They had initially suggested doing PVIs (‘personal voice instruction’ for those unfamiliar with the acronym) on the Monday, followed by quartet coaching the next day, but I inflected this model into a more flexible approach that shifted between individual and ensemble work more fluidly.

I remembered the way that Rivka Golani taught viola at the Birmingham Conservatoire. All her students were entitled to a certain number of hours of one-to-one tuition as part of their course, but rather than seeing them one at a time, she used to have all of them together for one day a week, observing as she worked with each in turn. Her students spoke very positively of this experience, and I observed strong bonds of trust between them.

For a group of singers who travelled up together, and who are aiming to perform together, it makes far more sense to work with each in the company of the others than to coach each in turn while the others go off and do something else at the same time. Indeed, this model is more fitting for this scenario than Rivka’s, as she was largely training musicians as soloists.

With ensemble performers, every time we made a change to the way one of the quartet was singing, this would have an immediate impact on the others. Better for them all to witness each other’s transformations so that they were each prepared for how the dynamic of the whole would shift in response. The process prepared each of them not only to sing with each other, but also to help each other as they grappled with the conscious competence phase of learning new skills.

It also built in time for reflection and processing for each singer between bursts of focused work. I felt able to zone in on details of technique far more intensively than I would had we been working all together throughout, as I knew that there would be recovery time for each to regroup and re-energise before they were back in the frame.

Note to self though: don’t plan on doing anything much in the evening after a session like this. The singers all had down-time for processing, but I was on duty throughout, so had a lot of decompression to do after they left for the evening.

I used to write warmly about the value of a good night’s sleep in the learning process even before I knew the work of Matthew Walker on the subject. New knowledge and motor skills are transferred overnight from temporary storage into longer-term memory, thus freeing up the short-term capacity of the hippocampus for new learning the next day.

Thus Tuesday saw the quartet arrive with a greater grasp of the skills we had worked on the day before than they had left with on Monday afternoon, and the capacity to build on them further. Our methods were now inverted from the day before: instead of individual work interspersed with duetting and full-quartet moments, we worked primarily on the quartet as a whole, with intermittent moments of focus on individuals or pairs.

We gave a good deal of attention to working methods, looking at how the quartet could take our work away and use it effectively on their own. A recurrent theme was to slow things down and take them in smaller chunks, rather than repeatedly singing through longer passages. At one point we spent 25 minutes on a run of six chords, and in the process not only fixed the music, but found a gentle, patient way of being that allows the music to flourish in a way it can’t when you’re feeling impatient with yourself about your shortcomings.

It may feel like you’re not getting through very much when you work this way, but you are achieving depth rather than skating over the surface, and the gains you make this way will pay dividends forever.

We also developed a tactic to help where a singer had been making a persistent mistake. She knew that she was singing a few notes wrong, and could sing the right version when she stopped to think about it, but in the flow of the music, the neural pathways for the wrong version would snap back into action before she had a chance to correct herself.

So we developed a protocol that a singer grappling with this issue could halt the music just before the key moment, and take time to think about what came next. I was thinking about the Alexander Technique concept of inhibition when we worked on this, and made some interesting connections with the process of myelination which I’d not specifically noticed before. New, uninsulated neural pathways don’t fire as efficiently as well-practised ones, so by definition need more time to activate.

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