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Coaching Ideas


by Don Gray 8/98 - 10/98

Part 1: For The Record

Elapsed time: 76 days (August 7 through October 21, 1998)
70 days Barbershopping (coaching, teaching, etc.)
6 days touring
Full (2 1/2 hours or more) quartet coaching sessions: 33
Short (30 minutes - 1 hour) quartet coaching sessions: 18
Full chorus coaching sessions: 35
Men's quartets coached: 15
Women's quartets coached: 3
High school (male and female) quartets coached: 7
Singouts/shows attended: 4
Music Team meetings/Chapter Board meetings/Harmony College planning meetings attended: 4
Choruses coached: 8
Contests judged: 1
Arrangements produced: 7
Courses/seminars/clinics/presentation sessions: 14. Subjects:
. Basics of Barbershop (high school music teachers)
. Quartet Coaching Clinic (high school music teachers)
. Arranging From Sheet Music
. Theory of Barbershop Harmony
. Judging Categories
. Music Fundamentals

Part 2: A Barbershop Coaching Method:
A Prioritized List of Coaching Tasks as used by Don Gray

Discuss "How to Retain Changes" with the group (quartet or chorus).

1. Coach makes written notes, gives to group at end of session. (DG used this system).
2. Another person (resident coach or teacher) makes notes.
3. Record full session (audio or video).
4 Record selected parts of the session.
5. Each coached person, take full responsibility for remembering everything. (This method is generally ineffective.)

. Ask the group to sing a very simple, basic song, to which they know all the words and notes. Then, coach them on how the basic Barbershop sound should be produced: full-voiced; rich; resonant; free; placed at the point of maximum resonance for each voice; and totally free of tension in the head, jaw, mouth or neck.

. Discuss the concept of "balance" of the parts: of the total volume of the group, 35% should come from the Lead, 30% from the Bass, 20% from the Baritone, and 15% from the Tenor. Note that when the melody shifts to another part (as in tags), the percentages are exchanged with that part.

. Now ask the group to perform a song that they want to work on. Discuss the concept of "theme." What is the main musical element that should be emphasized? (Generally, the lyrics or the rhythm, but occasionally the melody line or the harmony.)

. Make any adjustments needed in tailoring the arrangement to fit the chosen theme. For instance, if the song is rhythm-themed, make adjustments to the tempo, and eliminate excessive tempo or rhythm changes and pauses. If the key is out of the quality range of any of the singers, change the key or the chords as necessary. If there is a difficult key change, modify or eliminate it. If there isn't enough "metrical room" for a particular breath, modify the arrangement at that point (eliminate a swipe, or use a syncopated attack in the next measure). If, in a lyric-themed song, an embellishment is getting in the way of the message, simplify it or eliminate it.

. Fix the details: breaths, attacks, releases, wrong notes, singable consonants not performed well, vowel sounds not matched, forward motion (ad lib or rubato interpretation) not maintained, rhythm errors (rhythm songs). Discuss the overall volume plan.

. Discuss and modify basic stage presence: faces, eye contact, body posture, use of hands, angle of stance, necessity of Lead visual dominance, etc.

. Discuss, modify if necessary, and coach execution of any choreography plan (that is, planned synchronized movements by one or more singers).

. Discuss, modify if necessary, and coach execution of the "performance routine": tuning up off-stage, walking on, greeting the audience, blowing the pitchpipe, taking the tune-up chord, coordinating the vocal and visual start of the first song, accepting applause after the first song, recovering to singing position, blowing the pitchpipe, taking the tune-up chord, starting the second song, accepting applause, walking off.

Part 3: Miscellaneous Coaching Ideas

The coach's job is INSTRUCTION, not REPETITION; the performer's job is EXECUTION of the coach's instructions and REMEMBERING them well enough for later repetition.

. To hear better, have the quartet sing into a corner.

. Rehearse 3-on-1: have harmony parts face, and watch, the Lead, in order to improve precision (attacks and releases). Lead should give physical signals, as if he were on stage.

. There are three kinds of breaths:
1. Quick (but full) breaths. Used in ad lib phrasing; should occupy "no" musical space; used to provide forward motion; should seem "invisible" to audience; last syllable before breath should be exceptionally well-supported, and new phrase should begin at the same volume.
2. Breaths in tempo. Used in rhythm or ad lib phrasing; take up the musical space of a quarter or an eighth rest; forward motion is maintained, but a clear lyrical break is evident; used for normal punctuation.
3. Full-stop breaths (caesura, indicated by "parallel slashes"): Used to provide great dramatic impact and a complete lyrical re-start; no more than one per song.

. Melodic dominance: Barbershop Harmony is NOT four-part harmony, but three-part harmony around a predominant melody line. The melody must always be heard clearly.

. Melody transfers: Leads need to be especially careful about where, exactly, the melody transfers to another part, so that they can instantly reduce their "melodic dominance" (balance and projection). The "receiving" part must take over the Lead role on the first note after the transfer, so that the audience perceives a continuous melody line.

. Echoes should be either louder or softer than the original statement of the lyrics echoed. The performer should decide which statement is more important to the theme. Echoes at the same volume are just "filler" and don't perform any interpretive function.

. To eliminate unwanted "white spots" (that is, places where no sound is being produced in the middle of a phrase), which are generally caused by singing a word's final consonant too soon, attach the final consonant to the beginning of the next word.

. Quartets and choruses should produce "continuous sound" like an organ, not "percussive sound" like a piano.

. To produce "good music," the breaths are as important as the notes. All breaths must be planned and should always allow for all parts being able to finish a phrase in full resonance. Be very careful to give extra support to the final syllable before a breath. If you control the breaths, you control the song; otherwise, the song controls you.

. "Phonate" all singable consonants to produce a smooth sound.

. Hints for new, small choruses:
1. Sing LOUDER! Barbershop is best enjoyed with a full, rich voice.
(Webmaster's note: I have inserted a comment by Lloyd Erickson on this point):
"It has been my observation through the years that we (quartets and choruses) sing too loud in general. On a scale of 1 (as soft as you can sing with quality) to 5 (as loud as you can sing with quality) most of us like to hover around a 4 most of the time, and then when we want to get louder for emphasis we find ourselves at a 5. Now the climax of the song comes along and we have nowhere to go! Changes in volume are one of the major ways we convey musical interest in our performances. By singing too loud we deny our audiences the excitement of a crescendo; we deny them the climax of the song. This is one time that it is definitely true that "less is more". By singing with less volume most of the time, we will convey more musical interest in our performances. Since this is true of quartets as well as choruses, it should be true of choruses of any size.

Incidentally, the Vocal Majority sing most of the time at what I would say is between a 2 and a 3. Thus when they get loud, they can really get LOUD (by comparison). Perhaps we should pay attention and learn from the best!

(Incidentally, I totally agree with Don regarding the "full, rich voice" part of his statement. But you can be full and rich and still be singing a "1" - although it takes an incredible amount of effort and discipline to do so. And by the way, a full, rich "1" can be every bit as satisfying to the performer as well as the listener as a "5" --- try it, you'll like it!)

Lloyd Erickson - Houston Tidelanders - Innsiders - Arrangement"

2. Stand in a circle, so that all parts can be heard.
3. The director is in change of all attacks and cutoffs; he/ she must be emphatic and clear in his gestures. Each chorus member much watch the director intently, all the time.

. Every singer must sing loud enough so that the coach can hear and fix any problem. If a singer doesn't sing loud enough to produce audible mistakes, then he's not singing loud enough to contribute to the ensemble sound.

. All held notes should change in volume while they're held. Usually, they rise in volume, unless there is a specific plan to get softer.

. Learn the tune-up chord as part of the song, and sing it FIRMLY every time.

. There are two methods for stressing a word: duration (hold it longer) and volume (hit it harder). In an ad lib interpretation, find the important words and stress them.

. You only get one chance to make a great start. Remember that the song starts with the first breath (before the first note), which should be taken with the mouth in the vowel shape for the first vowel sound.

. For precision of releases, the Lead controls/directs all four-part cutoffs. If the Lead holds, then the lowest non-holding harmony part controls the cutoff. When the Lead holds, the lowest moving part controls the timing of the swipes.

. In chorus singing, it is each singer's responsibility to maintain the smooth, well-supported ensemble sound of the section; therefore, each singer MUST breath where he needs to, except in places where there is a planned no-breath point. If necessary, the singer can leave out an entire word (or two) in order to take a full breath. Note that this is a different breathing philosophy than used by a quartet singer, who cannot leave out words.

. More on chorus breathing--each singer
1. MUST breathe at planned spots,
2. MUST NOT breathe at designated carry-overs,
3. Must give extra support to syllables just before breaths,
4. Must give extra support to syllables just before planned carry-overs.

. Fix arrangements to suit the performer, and the performer's interpretation. Simplify or eliminate swipes/echoes at breath points. Simplify or eliminate key changes.

. Use ALL parts of the language, especially diphthongs and singable consonants.

. Each singer must concentrate on putting the target vowel on the DOWNBEAT. Any consonants before the first vowel sound must come BEFORE the beat.

. Responsibility for tuning:
. The Lead ALONE is responsible for horizontal tuning (maintaining the tonal center). He does NOT tune to the harmony parts.
. Harmony parts are responsible for vertical tuning (making sure each chord is in tune). They make any needed adjustments to the Lead's definition of the tonal center.

. Tenor melody in tags:
1. The Tenor must sing with melodic quality (generally bigger, fuller) and melodic volume (louder).
2. The Tenor is now responsible for maintaining the tonal center (horizontal tuning).
3. The Tenor is responsible for the final cutoff.

. For smoothness, focus on keeping the vocal folds moving at all times, rather than stopping them for consonants.

. Within each major section of a song/arrangement (e.g., verse or chorus), there should be some planned volume change.

Don Gray

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