Sunday afternoon brought a new quartet, Quantum, around for some coaching. They’re new as a quartet, but have a considerable amount of barbershop experience between them, and, oddly enough, the only one I didn’t already know happens to live just round the corner from me. So that was handy for them.
For any quartet in their early days - no matter how much prior experience they have between them - one of the primary tasks is building the ensemble. All their previous quartets will have developed musicianship and vocal control and performance skills which will come in useful for this task, but the actual crafting of their new sound and modes of delivery is still from scratch. So, we started straight in on duetting as the primary tool for all the singers to learn about each other’s voices.
It was interesting to see how this facilitated not just the technical tasks of matching tone and vowel, but also the interactional elements of how the quartet works together. The feedback they gave each other after the first couple of duets felt quite formal, the kind of feedback a visiting coach or an evaluating judge might give on first acquaintance: supportive, enthusiastic, quite global in its focus, and delivered in full sentences.
As we cycled through all the combinations, and each moved beyond their first delivery of feedback, the observations became more both specific and more exploratory. There was a certain amount of mutual puzzling over certain vowels, intervals, voice placements. The act of listening became progressively more intense.
This process showed how well the structure of the exercise works for building mutual trust. Each person is put on the line in turn, as they are subject to their peers’ scrutiny as they sing, and equally, each person is put on the line to articulate what they heard. It distributes power very evenly within the group, which gives everyone space to let down their guards and really start to listen in depth.
An important part of this process was removing the obligation to feel people had to ‘fix’ things. You hear what you hear, you lay it on the table as something for everyone to think about and listen out for, but you don’t have to do anything about it. The exercise is training the part of your brain that does subtlety of perception and intuitive adjustments; anything you try to correct consciously will over-react and react too late.
Anyway, it delivered in the ways it always does: greater cohesion of harmony for the listener to enjoy; greater security within the sound to reassure the singers. I particularly liked the way that certain vowels that nobody had mentioned in their feedback got matched by magic.
Among the various other things we worked on subsequently was the idea of the thought-point, and a particular and interesting instance of it. Normally I use this idea as a means to integrate breath-points into the musical narrative, and we initially introduced it for that purpose. But there was also a moment in one of their songs where they needed a thought-point without a breath.
This is a moderately common occurrence in barbershop performance traditions - the end of one sentence is joined through to the start of the next, reserving the breath point for a comma part-way through the next one. There are all kinds of reasons one might choose to do this, not least - as in this case - the arrangement had been written in such a way that clearly asks for it.
But the thing is, we still need to hear the full stop. If you don’t do with the breath, you still need to make it clear that one idea is ending and the next idea is starting. This is trickier than it sounds (and is often mishandled by even really very good quartets). When I first asked Quantum to do this, they put in the punctuation, but found it hard not to break the sound to do so.
So, we stretched the task, giving them both more time to get their heads round it and an exaggerated expression to practice it on a large scale before doing it with subtlety. Rather than merely sing the full-stop, I asked them to hold the note, and then spend a few seconds hamming up having a good think about what might come next, having the idea, and then carrying on.
This worked a treat, and after a couple of what were essentially parodic deliveries, they had established the coordination of voice and thought and sang a beautiful full-stop. I hope they feel pleased with their afternoon’s achievements - after all, anyone can sing the words, but it takes a bit of class to sing the punctuation...