Building the Toolkit with Aurora Quartet

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Last Sunday brought Aurora Quartet round for an afternoon’s coaching. They are a recently formed quartet, two of whom have little prior quartetting experience, so whilst the content of our work revolved around two of their songs, our attention was firmly on providing techniques and rehearsal tactics they could use to continue their development beyond the coaching session.

Regular readers won’t be surprised to know that duetting featured prominently here, and worked its usual magic. Indeed, it was in this context that previous experience showed most clearly, by producing the most clearly articulated observations on what they had been listening to. Honing the listening skills isn’t just about the ears, it’s about working out what the ears have just perceived, and the duetting process gives a structured environment in which to develop this skill, at the same time as cleaning up the quartet’s performance.

We also spent some time with each singer stepping out in turn to watch and listen to the others as a trio. We had been working on rhythmic feel, and finding a body language that fitted the musical character of their song, and this gave an opportunity for each to observe and learn from the other three.

In some ways, it was really too early in the learning process to be addressing visual performance – it was only to be expected that the facial expressions were quite often those of concentration, for instance – but groove is intrinsic to a song, and absorbing each other’s way of feeling it helps the group form a secure musical foundation to build on.

They had asked for help with the flow of one song – they had a concept of how they wanted it to go, but were struggling to achieve that aim. This proved to be an interesting nexus between musical elements (flow, phrasing), vocal issues (breathing), and expressive aspects (meaning, narrative). It was in the first of these that they had identified the need, but we met it by addressing the second and third.

First we removed physical tension from the breath points, which had been acting as obstacles rather than connectors between phrases. We used the simple expedient of singing with a hand on the chest (hat-tip to Jordan Travis for this trick). This encourages a deeper-set breath and reduces clavicular breathing, while also serving as an act of self-soothing – you feel more relaxed and comfortable when singing this way.

Then we addressed narrative. On the last note of each phrase they were to start thinking about what the next phrase said. This was quite transformative: not only did they completely integrate the breath points into the story, but their eyes came alive with communicative delight.

This is a variant of my ‘thought point’ technique, which I suggested in the context of their needs and the musical shape. Sometimes (as I had been exploring with the Eclectic Quartet the previous day) phrase-end embellishments look back on the phrase you’ve just sung, while sometimes they look forward to the phrase you’re going to sing next. Hence it’s not always musically appropriate to start thinking about what’s coming next before you’ve finished the current phrase. But for these people, on this stage of their journey, with this song, it was just what they needed to manage these transitions meaningfully and without extraneous effort.

We had a conversation at the end about technical versus holistic work. They had remarked that the approaches we had used together had been overwhelmingly holistic, in contrast to their more usual technical approach in rehearsal, and had made significant, global improvements to their performance as a result. I encouraged them not abandon a technical approach entirely, as sometimes a good bit of nitty-gritty technique is just what you need. Indeed, if their rehearsals were generally holistic in approach I’d probably have been more technical with them in coaching.

Both modes contribute to an ensemble’s development; the knack is to balance them. In particular, if you find yourself getting stuck, with diminishing returns in either approach, this is probably a sign that you need to shift mode. To return to one of my favourite metaphors for this: it’s like walking. You can only go so far by moving one leg forward. After a while you need to put your weight on it and start moving the other one.

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