I had a trip up to Edinburgh at the weekend to work with MacFour quartet. They are a well-established ensemble with a consistent track record both as performers in their locality and in Sweet Adelines contest. Their goal for the coaching session was therefore to explore new rehearsal and performance techniques that will help them build on the skills they have already embedded. They have a really secure technical control over what they do, and wanted to focus the artistic and communicative aspects of their performance.
It was clear when we were corresponding to set up the trip that they are an organised quartet, and they like to have clear sense of method. So the task wasn’t simply a case of working on repertoire, but of providing them with processes and vocabulary they could apply beyond the specific songs we worked on.
A key concept that emerged early on was the distinction between the Manager and the Communicator in a performer’s psyche. The manager is essential to help you learn your job, but gets in the way if they try to run the performance. (Though you still need the manager there in performance – they’re just not allowed to do anything but trouble-shoot if necessary then go backstage again.) Our task was thus to establish the Communicator’s relationship with the music in such a way as to let the intuitive and imaginative faculties operate without intervention from the Manager.
This in itself was a useful discourse to set up. Inevitably, there would be moments when someone needed to say, ‘Can we just check x?’. But now they were able to keep those distractions in their place by saying, ‘My manager just needs to check x,’ and then explicitly send the manager away again once the question was answered letting us get back to work with the communicators.
We approached the songs from both musical and narrative perspectives. The musical methods started with identifying the leading musical element (what the BHS folk rather confusingly call ‘theme’), using that as the starting-point for exploring the music. As it happened, the three songs they had picked to work on included one that was melody-led, one rhythm tune and another whose main strength was harmony. So this gave the chance to explore an unusually wide range of rehearsal techniques suited to these different musical strengths.
The narrative methods focused on situating the songs, in particular identifying (a) the person to whom they were addressed, and (b) the reason why their statements needed making at this point in the characters’ relationship. This developed into an increasingly dynamic attention to the imagined interlocutor’s reactions as a means to understand the songs’ musical as well as lyrical content. A swipe became the response to a child’s curiosity; a key change emerged from the desperation the song’s persona felt as their lover turned away.
It was an immensely productive session – we covered not only a significant quantity of music, but a lot of conceptual content too. This is a quartet that likes to theorise, and it was a delight to see them pick up ideas and run with them to expressive ends.
One of the reasons we got so much done was clearly because they had framed a clear agenda in advance. They knew what they wanted to achieve, and thus came to the work with a real sense of learning-readiness. I think this would have been the case anyway, but I think the way we spent the evening before the main session may also have helped.
Once I got into town, they sang me a few songs to give a feel for the quartet, and then we embarked on an unfreezing exercise I had suggested in advance. This entailed each person singing a solo to the others. I included myself in this exercise to keep the playing field level. We also used a feedback protocol in which we said what we loved and what we learned, but left any thoughts of what could be improved to one side, since it was likely each singer would be perfectly capable of spotting things they would have liked to do better.
The reason I proposed this exercise was that singers typically take a much more proactive role as story-teller when (a) they are the only one singing, (b) they are singing directly to people, and (c) those people don’t know in advance what they’re going to sing or how they’ll sing it. It thus promotes a need to communicate, and this is experienced both as a singer and as a listener. So that’s why it seemed a good way to set up our agenda for the weekend.
Which indeed it was. But I think it also helped in other ways I hadn’t specifically thought about in advance. It brought everyone out of their comfort zone and into their learning zone from the get-go. Well, I knew it would do this, but hadn’t quite anticipated how much it would help us be productive right from the very start the next morning. Moreover, at the same time as it stretched us all individually, it strengthened the ties of trust between us, and did a lot to smooth away the social surface tension people can feel when working together for the first time.
And it was a delight to visit the gorgeous city of Edinburgh; it was delight to make new friends; and it was a delight to emerge from a coaching session with an enhanced estimation of the music we worked on compared to when I went in.