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Coaching Note-4-Note

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note-4-noteI spent my last evening as a citizen of the European Union in Bonn working with Note-4-Note quartet. I can highly recommend this as an experience as we could all get thoroughly immersed in the music and forget all the nonsense going on in the public sphere. Also, they are lovely people to work with. (Mind you, I say that a lot – maybe I only get booked by people who have figured out we’ll be compatible!)

They have been together for about three years now, and it was clear in the way they approached their warm-up that they were used to working together. There was a sense both of each singer taking responsibility for her own voice and vocal development, and of a coordinated approach to how to do this. They are very physically engaged as they sing, in the sense of keep the whole body flexible and connected to the vocal mechanism, and also in the sense of using gesture freely to aid their thought processes about both vocalising and musical shape.

With a well-developed vocal foundation, what they needed next were more techniques to glue the ensemble together. Their coordinated approach to voice had brought them a good way on the path to unit sound, so it was now time to develop their collection of aural tools.

Regular readers will at this point be predicting some of our specific strategies. Duetting is never going to be far away on these occasions, and the Virtual Ear exercise for lock and ring never fails to satisfy. More fundamentally, we needed to slow things down and find them more space and time to listen into. The energy they brought to their singing and their songs was sometimes getting in the way of where they needed to go next.

In some dimensions, the process of calming things down was physical. Reducing jaw movements to maintain a more consistent shape of resonant space is a technical task with musical results: it produces a more continuous flow of sound which in turn allows the harmonies to speak more clearly to the ears. Likewise, the lower body movement that underpins the rhythm of an uptune can become distracting in a ballad that is built around the message of the lyric. Grounding and opening up the body offers a more poised framework for the voice, and a more believable delivery of the narrative.

The calming process is also about tempo and coordination – not so much of the songs (which all came with nicely appropriate pacing and shaping), but of their set-up. Getting everyone to breathe out together as the pitch is blown ensures that everyone feels the need to inhale together. Though this in turn brought out the response that not everyone had been ready to exhale when the pitch sounded, so the process of connecting with each other and gathering together in readiness needed to extend back further before the start of the song so that they prepared as a quartet for the sounding of the pitch.

The next stage of refining their preparation to sing lay in how they took the pitch into their tune-up chords. Here I had them spend the moment between the pitch sounding and starting to sing by hearing in their mind’s ear not just the note they were each going to sing, but how the chord as a whole would sound. This produced a quite magical clarity, as the music was already resonating telepathically in the room before it became audible.

The main refinement we made within the flow of the song was to approach the phrase boundaries with what my chorus refers to as ‘Sally breaths’ (guess the name of the person we learned this from…). This is the idea that the breath is always moving, either out or in, never still. Hence, it encourages you to sing to the end of your breath at the end of the phrase, and means that the rebound inhalation that follows feels connected: it comes as a consequence of the phrase that just happened, as well as the logical antecedent to that which follows. It is a lovely way of integrating technique with communication, and to make the transition from sound to silence to sound feel both natural and dynamic.

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