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Eclectic Quartet Coaching

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I'm using their pic because it's better than the one I tookI'm using their pic because it's better than the one I tookI spent Saturday afternoon working with The Eclectic Quartet, who are preparing for their first BABS Quartet semi-final together, having qualified for Convention at Prelims back in November. They bring a good deal of flexibility and musicianship to their singing, with a readiness to drop into a song at any point, which made our work pleasantly efficient.

We gave most of our attention to developing the musical shape of their two newest songs, paying attention to both local details and building the overall arc. One of the challenges of a style that uses only four voices in a predominantly homophonic texture is that the resources for developing musical architecture and contrast are inherently more limited than, say, an orchestra, or even a piano. But within that sound world, even with its restrictions of range, timbre and texture, you can achieve a satisfying range of expression if you have a canny arranger and are alert to the signals they give you. The arrangers of both their charts can be very canny in this way, so we had plenty to work with.

The quartet arrived with a clear concept of where the climactic moments in both pieces were, so much of our work involved getting the less intense parts out of the way to let them stand out. This is not just about volume, but also about vocal weight, and also expressive flavour. Sometimes you just need to be unemphatic to leave a subsequent surprise space to startle. It’s also a matter of finding the medium-term patterns of build and release. You can escalate much more effectively if you also know where to let go.

Another approach we used was to analyse the musical textures in terms of orchestration. In their up-tune this was prompted by a lyric that made explicit reference to band instruments, and its arranger, Greg Volk, had used those associations in his management of texture throughout. Barbershop may not have the timbral resources of a swing band, but the human voice can reflect a full imaginative range of other musical experiences to bring out colour and shape.

The Eclectic Quartet has two arrangers within its ranks (two that I know of, that is!), and so I found myself tying this analytical-interpretive work much more explicitly into music-theoretical concepts than I would normally when coaching. By pointing out the implications of elements such as harmonic flavour, texture, and voicing, I was hoping to support their ongoing analytical work beyond the session. It was therefore very welcome feedback to be told that our work informed how they’d go about arranging as well as singing.

And actually, that’s rather how I feel after an afternoon spent analysing the performance implications of another arranger’s work: I feel I have done good work as a music coach when I emerge from the session a better arranger. I was particularly struck this time by David Harrington’s management of tessitura as we traced how he progressively unfolded the voicings up through the voices’ ranges to increase the emotional temperature of the narrative.

I can well recall feeling, when I was doing my very first few arrangements, how tessitura was a thing that I didn’t have control of that needed controlling. I’m much better at it now, but the memory of that early struggle means that whenever I find someone else doing it really well, I really appreciate it.

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