On Musical Fluency

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When you listen to a lot of live performances, you start to observe patterns of behaviour that you wouldn’t notice watching only a couple of times. So the recent rash of barbershop quartet contests I’ve had the opportunity to watch, whether as judge or audience member, have given me new insights into how adult amateur musicians operate.

What I have learned is that there is a consistent correlation between how a quartet sings a tune-up chord and how they deliver the song that follows, both vocally and gesturally. There are three possibilities:

  1. If they build the chord up a note at a time, or start on a unison before moving carefully to the tonic chord, the performance will likewise be delivered in separate pieces. They will stop at the end of each phrase, and the next phrase will start as a fresh entity, not connected to the one before. The separation will be visible as well as audible, with the hands being held still as they finish each phrase, and starting to move again as they start the next.
  2. If they go straight to the chord, and sing it quickly and efficiently, the end of each phrase will be joined to the start of the next by a clear ‘churning’ gesture. The hands describe symmetrical outward circles with the breath, arriving back at the start point as the new phrase picks up. There will be quite a lot of these ‘churning’ gestures within phrases, too, but they will usually only be complete and shared by all singers at the phrase boundaries. The music will come to a stop, however, at major structural points such as the climax.
  3. If they go straight into a song without a tune-up chord (and without any sense that they needed one to get established!), they will perform the song joined up into a whole, with the musical narrative continuing throughout. Gestures will be less frequent, but more varied in form.

These three types of performance seem to represent three distinct levels of musical fluency, with the second as a clear stepping-stone from the more deliberate first to the more fluid third. I don’t think the tune-up chords or the gestural styles are things we should be aiming to manipulate to help quartets become more fluent; rather these are useful clues about developmental stage. Omitting the chord and gluing your hands to your sides won’t produce a more joined-up performance, that is, but once your musical concept develops, the changes in preparation and gestural behaviour will emerge naturally.

Two questions emerge from this: what’s going on in the heads of people at each stage? and how can we help people move through towards greater connection?

Benjamin Zander portrays this kind of development in pianistic terms as one of pulse structure. At earlier stages, the novice pianist is feeling a pulse on every note, then every beat, then every bar – before integrating it all into a long-range impulse that carries the phrase. Zander uses the delightful term ‘one-buttock playing’ to describe this stage – an image that really only works in a metaphorical sense for singers. (But it’s still a nice metaphor.)

I’m not convinced that development happens in quite such a rhythmically systematic way as he suggests, but his account captures very plausibly that sense of spending a lot of time mired down in the detail before suddenly integrating the operations into a gestalt that makes musical sense. It isn’t a linear development, but more like the way a kettle boils – you keep adding heat and the water just absorbs it until it reaches the latent heat of vaporisation, then you get the phase change.

So the million-dollar question is: what does a quartet needs to do in order to precipitate these developments? (Actually, I don’t suppose it is a million-dollar question. I am quite optimistic about finding some good answers, but less so about getting rich from doing so….) And the answers are going to lie in the rehearsal room – how they go about making music together, and what they do in between times. But this post is long enough already – this is a subject to continue another day.

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