My coaching trip to Ireland continued with a day’s work near Dublin with Nota Bene quartet. They have formed under this name relatively recently, though three of them competed last year in Galway under a different name, and two have sung together in quartet for nearly five years now. This kind of profile offers both specific challenges such as adjusting existing vocal relationships to take account of the new singers’ voices and ways of feeling music, and specific advantages, with the know-how of the more experienced quartet singers supporting the newer additions.
As a result much of our focus was on exercises the quartet can use both as stand-alone activities and with repertoire to develop the unit as an ensemble. Duetting each pair of parts played a central role in this, as it offers each singer the chance not only to build an individual relationship with each other member of the quartet, but, more importantly, gives the opportunity to listen to all the singers in their various combinations.
We found that the observations the quartet had on each other’s duets started out at quite a general level, comparing tone qualities and noticing the extent to which it felt like two separate singers or like a team. After a few combinations, though, the comments started becoming much more specific, noting the effect on individual vowels or specific parts of each other’s range.
At this point, it can feel like practice is making things worse, as you collect more and more picky details. But of course, if you compare the actual performances, they’re actually sounding better as the singers get to know each other’s voices better and gain a more intuitive sense of each other’s phrasing. So the increase in picky details is actually a testament to a dramatic increase in perspicuity through quite a short period of intensive listening.
We also used a variant of the duetting process to help when there were uncertain notes in a couple of places. Here we took a duet that would clarify the harmonic meaning of the note that needed fixing, and got the other two singers to double up on the parts. This helps because it is easier to learn a passage right the first time than to relearn once you’ve learned a mistake, so the two who were riding along could just sing it without worrying about which version, the old wrong or the new right, they were singing. This kept the singer who needed to make a change on track while they practised it through several repetitions to build up confidence.
You can tell a good exercise by its benign unintended consequences. One of these I was prepared for: while the double duet was ostensibly focused on notes, it functioned to make all kinds of subtle improvements in the matching of vowels and voice quality at the same time. Another benefit was remarked upon by the singers was that it kept everyone engaged so that those who needed the help didn’t feel the pressure of worrying that they were holding the others up.
Another useful quartet-building exercise is the use of a ‘virtual ear’ – a sense of listening from a vantage point outside the ensemble for the whole sound rather than from within the ensemble for the individual notes. We used this first in a simple double-duet exercise sounding each note of the scale against the keynote to get the mental technique and to start listening out for the resultant overtones.
We then used it to block individual chords, which is a more complex exercise which can take a while to find the knack of throwing the mind outside to hear the gestalt. There were some truly revelatory moments, though, when people discovered that if they stopped obsessing about monitoring and comparing the sounds of each other and shifted their attention to the whole, the details they had been fretting over fixed themselves.
This exercise also shed light on a number of issues with long phrases the quartet had been having in one of their songs. We had been approaching the question as one of breath, and developing exercises to increase the consistency and control they had over singing right through to their breath points. And of course, we can all usefully extend our technique in this area.
But when singing individual notes, it became apparent that the quartet had a habit of mentally leaving a long note before they had finished singing it. To maintain an overtone, you have to stay with it, keep it spinning, live through it. If you start it off then disengage your attention, it loses focus and clarity, and fizzles away. The quartet needed to start pursuing notes right through to their end if they were to succeed in pursuing phrases to a satisfying conclusion.
A simple exercise where the length of the note is determined within the ensemble turned out to be an excellent medium to bring this home. Somebody had to decide when each note was going to finish, and they needed to signal within the ensemble where this was going to be. Suddenly all kind of interpersonal interaction and cooperation clicked into gear as they defined a temporal goal and moved towards it together. Apparently small shifts in patterns of attention had disproportionately dramatic results on both the operation of the ensemble as a unit and concomitantly on the resonance they corporately produced.