Coaching Conductorless Rubato

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The main benefit of online coaching: good screenshots of people laughingThe main benefit of online coaching: good screenshots of people laughing

I spent a rewarding afternoon on Thursday with a quartet who had contacted me for advice about how to manage rubato in an ensemble without a conductor. They formed from within a choir they all sing in so are accustomed to using the visual signals from their musical director to coordinate them, and were finding the lack of this external guide one of the major challenges of singing in quartet, especially in music that isn’t strictly in rhythm.

We split the process into two distinct stages: how to rehearse, and how to perform. The former is where the group develops a shared understanding of musical shape and a shared awareness of each other in the ensemble. The latter needs a repertoire of interpersonal cues to transfer those understandings into the performance situation.

We started off, logically enough, with the rehearsal situation, and the first thing we did was to have the quartet sing in box formation, i.e. all facing in to each other. This allowed them not only to hear more of the overall sound, but also to make eye contact so they could share their experience of the music much more directly from within the act of singing.

We then had a discussion of how they make decisions about musical flow. The general guideline here is that whoever has the melody is in the driving seat, as that is the heart of the song that an audience connects with most directly. Theirs is not absolute power, though: there needs to be room to negotiate a delivery that works for all parts.

With this in mind, we had each of the harmony parts duet with the melody, and then also duetted the other three pairings so that everyone had had a chance both to work directly with each other and to hear what everyone else was doing. What I love about this process is not only the way the teamwork develops within each pairing, but also how the acuity with which people listen develops just as rapidly.

We then moved onto the performing situation, and started off by adjusting their formation to bring it more into an arc than a straight line – as if they were standing around a single microphone and needed to be roughly equidistant from it. This immediately gave them access to much more eye contact than they’d had previously, and allowed them to access the teamwork they’d developed while singing directly to each other. The initial question as to how much to look at each other and how much to look out at the audience resolved itself very intuitively once they started singing, shaped by their shared understanding of the music.

We then focused in on how to start together, and they discovered how breathing together coordinates them naturally. They really needed no input from me on this at all except to point out what they’d done so effectively and to encourage them to practise it a few times to gain confidence in the process. Practising starts is always a good idea anyway: the transition from not-music to music is the most hazardous moment of a performance, and if you know you can negotiate this bit safely, it sets you up well for the rest of the piece.

Our final exercise was to take a faster, wordy passage and sing it to a staccato ‘dit’. It’s a fun exercise – you get some good laughs along they wa when it all falls apart on the first couple of attempts, then a feeling of achievement as it comes together. And then the musical rewards of an astonishingly cleaner, precise sound when you put the words back in.

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