Scheduling and Structuring Rehearsals
Rehearsals are one of the most important elements of quartetting. Ideally, rehearsals are rewarding and fun, where camaraderie and togetherness can flourish. Setting aside time for rehearsals should be a priority for all quartets. Regular practice sessions are necessary to polish a performance, learn new material, and exchange ideas among quartet members. It is important to discuss as a quartet what you want to accomplish during your rehearsals. With this understanding, you can work together to improve your presentation.
There are many different ways a quartet can rehearse. Your quartet should develop the format that works best for you. Here are some general guidelines you may find helpful.
- Discussions of the day’s tribulations, excessive joking and the like should be kept to a minimum. The discipline required for you to sing well as a quartet will be easier if you remember this. Plan to leave some time for socializing, though, when your rehearsal period is over.
- Each member of your quartet has different strengths and weaknesses, so approach your rehearsals with patience. Even though rehearsals are serious business, maintaining a sense of humor will help things go more smoothly. Make sure your suggestions to each other are musical in nature, avoiding personal criticism. On the other hand, you cannot spend the whole time walking on eggshells, either. Over sensitivity to criticism is not conducive to individual or quartet improvement. Work to balance criticism and encouragement.
- You practice in order to learn to do well as many things as you can. Since whatever you do repeatedly becomes a habit, practice doing it right! Errors can become habits as well. Discipline yourself to make as few of them as possible. Remember, there is no good time to sing poorly. Strive to sing the very best you can at all times.
- The number of rehearsals you have and their length will likely correlate strongly with the quality and success of your group. If you meet once a week for two hours you’ll likely take a long time before you have an hour’s worth of music and a smooth show. If you can afford the time, twice or three times a week is exponentially better than once a week, because the more often you rehearse, the less you forget between meetings. Also, a performance is often as efficient as a rehearsal in solidifying music and making your group a better performing unit, so as time progresses you may lose a rehearsal in lieu of a gig.
- Save time by doing business via email, text, or web-based tools for reliable distribution of gig information. You’d be surprised how much time you can spend just dictating and clarifying gig information and directions.
- Save all business for the end of each rehearsal. There isn’t a group in existence that won’t begin to eat into their singing time if discussions are placed before singing. In fact, for many groups, this is a big problem. Build a good habit of music first, then discussion. Consider having separate music-only rehearsals and business-only meetings.
- Develop a schedule for learning songs and work towards that goal.
- Maintain a spreadsheet of repertoire songs followed by new, and track what is rehearsed.
- Keep an open rehearsal and encourage each member to speak up and provide feedback. A quartet is four members, and each has a right to an opinion.
- Don’t make your rehearsals an endurance test. Especially at the beginning, use common sense and avoid unnecessary strain on your voices. As you progress and develop the fundamentals of good singing, you will find that you can comfortably rehearse for longer periods of time.
It is helpful to make a rehearsal schedule and follow it. A sample plan might consist of each of the following:
- Individual Warm-up – Plan to arrive at rehearsal with your voice already warmed up. Perhaps you can do this while driving to practice. If not, make other plans for accomplishing your vocal exercises. In any case, do not waste the group’s valuable time on your personal warm-up.
- Quartet calibration – These are exercises focused on specific areas such as blending, vowel matching, rhythmic syncing, etc. Be careful not to use up too much of the rehearsal time on calibration. If quartet members have done their individual warm-up, then the quartet calibration will quickly get all members mentally and physically ready to rehearse.
- Polishing repertoire – Next, to help solidify the mood and focus, it’s often a good idea to sing through a tune or two you already know well without stopping. Once you get songs to a certain level of preparedness, it’s best to get used to singing them all the way through, saving your comments for the end; otherwise, you may find you continue to have problems with the same transitional passages where you find you always stop. In addition, it helps get the group in the mind set of “once you start a tune, you need to focus on it and finish it.” Oddly enough, this is difficult for some perfectionists, who crinkle their nose at every tuning issue or wrong note. Full “performance situation” run-throughs will help break this habit, which “telegraphs” errors to the audience through facial expressions.
Each song goes through two phases (with no clear line between the two): the learning and the polishing. Be sure some time in each rehearsal is spent on each. That is, spend some time learning new songs, but be sure to take some time to run songs that you already know and make comments or work on difficult sections to improve them.
- New Songs – Learning music is an important aspect of any rehearsal. Some groups can sight read well, while others prefer to have someone play the parts on a keyboard one by one. Still others learn by ear, relying on having their parts sung to them or through part-predominant learning tracks and memorizing them before rehearsal. Take the time initially to find out how each individual learns best, and come up with a system that will maximize your in-rehearsal productivity.
- Quartet development, critique and planning – An important principle to apply to your musical learning is the psychological concept of “transfer.” In quartetting terms, this means that a good singing practice that you follow in one instance should be followed in another similar instance, without your having to learn it all over again. In learning to sing well together, you discover many small ways of experiencing success. If each of these aspects has to be relearned in every new situation, you will spend a lot of time at the same level, rather than improving.
As you spend more time together, you’ll fall into a comfortable rehearsal pattern that will best suit your group’s talent, comfort, and needs.
In the process of internal coaching and improving your barbershop quartet singing, don’t concentrate only on correcting mistakes. You should also give attention to what you are doing right. Be sure to give each other praise and positive reinforcement for things that are being done well or, at least, improved upon. Psychological research has shown that positive reinforcement is a far more reliable shaper of behavior than negative reinforcement. Keep your quartet going in the right direction with frequent positive words.
The following guidelines can be used for effective internal coaching for your quartet:
- Singing in duets, with the other two members offering advice, can be beneficial. The duet usually includes your lead. This technique is most helpful for vowel matching and can also improve intonation.
- Trios can be used too, with someone other than the lead listening.
- Pay special attention to duets between the lead and bass. These two parts are the foundation of a barbershop quartet. Some lead/bass combinations hold rehearsals on their own. This can be useful, though it is good to have an outside ear present.
- Singing with the three harmony parts facing the lead can also be beneficial. Greater uniformity in many areas can be attained by the use of this procedure. Among these areas are vowel sounds, facial expression, and precision.
- Facing each other in a square makes it easier to hear. But you should regularly move into your performance formation, so that the lessened sound of facing in the same direction is also comfortable to you.
Your quartet will naturally be concerned with the mechanics of singing, but you also need to spend time reaching agreement on the message contained in each song. Just what is it you are trying to communicate to your audience? How do you intend to do so? Do not assume that you are all automatically thinking alike. In order for your quartet to truly sing songs, attention needs to be paid to this matter. This is also discussed in more detail in The Visual Image section.
Spend time interpreting the song visually, bringing energy and vitality to the face and body while singing. Look like a singer and be an actor when you perform. Show your complete involvement and commitment to the music. This takes effort, but the rewards to you and your audience are well worth the investment. The use of mirrors can be quite advantageous for developing the song visually. Hand mirrors reveal a lot about mouth posture and facial expression, enabling the quartet members to better see themselves as the audience might see them. Full-length mirrors can greatly aid your group’s visual presentation.
Once you get your music to an acceptable level of preparedness, you should consider recording your songs for feedback. You can all listen to the group as a whole more easily than you can while singing, and may discover opportunities for improvement that weren’t as obvious when everyone was focusing on their own part. Regularly using recordings for feedback and analysis will allow you to check intonation, diction, intervals, precision, and balance. Recording can be done as simply as using a smartphone to record with an external Bluetooth speaker for playback. As your quartet progresses, you could consider a handheld recorder or even a 4-track recorder with individual microphones for each member.
As a performance gets closer, sometimes you just need to run your whole set for critique without stopping, complete with logistics such as making your entrance, singing, talking, and exiting. A great thing to do as you near a performance is to videotape a set, watch the video, discuss it, and then run it again. In addition, video recording your group is an excellent way to see how you look when you sing. Look at facial expression, movement, and how the physicality of your group adheres to the music.
It is OK to make a single audio or video recording of a rehearsal or show for archival, educational, or study purposes and to make one back up copy for security.
You may want to consider bringing in an experienced coach or musical friend to critique and work with your group. An outside opinion is always a good way to gain perspective, and sometimes a detached individual can address issues clearly without the distraction of interpersonal or ego issues getting in the way of the message. An external coach is also helpful in the early stages of a quartet’s life when members may not trust that the person doing the internal coaching is knowledgeable about the topic being coached.
The term “coach” can mean a multitude of things. Some coaches are skilled at dissecting a quartet performance and putting it together again as a far-superior production. Some are very good at interpreting a song, either vocally or visually. Others excel in sound production. Of course, many coaches can help a quartet in more than one area.
Coaching a quartet is a tremendous responsibility and is not to be taken lightly. Depending on the methods used, and the effects they have on the individuals involved, new habits are formed, voices are improved or damaged, and lives are changed. Take care to find a coach who serves your quartet’s needs. Avoid anyone whose efforts seem counterproductive.
A coach needs to have knowledge of vocal technique, as well as a grasp of music fundamentals. The coach should understand the purpose and philosophy of barbershopping and must be a person who creates a feeling of confidence. Ideally, a coach is willing to continue ongoing musical education in order to become more effective in the coaching role. Finally, the coach must be willing to devote considerable time and energy to your quartet.
It is usual for coaches ask a fee for their services, though for some it is a labor of love. Reimburse your coach for any expenses that might be incurred.
Talented coaches are everywhere. The ranks of certified judges and chorus directors are obviously good places to look for coaches. Your district music and performance vice president will be able to introduce you to other qualified people, as can other quartets in your area who may have several good recommendations. Of course, you have an opportunity to have your quartet coached by expert Barbershoppers at Harmony University.
Personal Practice and Learning
Rehearsal is what you do together as a group. Practice is what each singer does individually to be ready for rehearsal.
Do as much individual work as you can so that your time together as a quartet can be fully utilized. It is enormously helpful if each member learns the music prior to rehearsal. In this way, you will avoid perhaps the greatest roadblock faced by a quartet – being musically unprepared. Unless you put some time and effort into learning your music outside of rehearsals, you will soon discover how tedious and time consuming being unprepared can become. This is an important point which will make your rehearsals more enjoyable and productive.
Individuals should learn notes and music on their own, and then the quartet works out the interpretation plan and practices together to perfect it and correct any errors. There are various technology aids to learning music. Many popular songs from BHS have learning tracks available. There are also Barbershoppers who develop learning tracks.
If voice learning tracks are not available, it helps to have someone in the quartet who is adept at creating learning tracks using software such as Finale, Noteworthy, Muse Score, or Sibelius. This software can be used to input notes and lyrics from sheet music and generate MIDI learning tracks which are full mix or part dominant.
District schools and Harmony University offer fine opportunities for you to learn. Courses on sight singing, music fundamentals, and the theory of barbershop harmony can help you be a better singer. But there is no reason to limit your barbershop education only to formal classes. Make use of the Society’s educational materials, available online. Put some time into studying other performers, both barbershop and non-barbershop. There is much to learn from people who are already top-flight singers and entertainers.
Recommendations and Lessons Learned
“Have a structure, know what songs you are going to sing, keep the songs within your abilities, and don’t beat a problem to death. Plan about 2-1/2 hours for rehearsals.” – The Chordmasters
“Focus on improving musical and entertainment factors. Use rehearsal time wisely.” – Habitat 4 Harmony
“Try to avoid cancelling rehearsals, even if someone is not singing their best. They can sing softly, sing while sitting down, or lay out of a song that might be vocally demanding for them. Keeping the rehearsal helps to maintain group camaraderie.” – Smooth Brew
“Our performance coach has encouraged us to be our most natural selves and to be vulnerable and open to things that we are uncomfortable with.” – The Newfangled Four
“We have learning tracks made for each of our songs, so we set deadlines with each other with the expectation that the songs are ready to go by our next rehearsal.” – The Newfangled Four
“Have a plan for each rehearsal, a general goal for what you want to accomplish and make sure you do. Don’t be too hard on each other. Have fun and spend time on non-barbershop, non-quartet discussion. Get to know each other and your families and spend time together.” – Razzmatazz
“Practice unison singing and dueting, and get coaching whenever you can get it. Our bass’ wife is a Sweet Adelines director and has been a good coach for us.” – Bay Bridge Connection
“Duets. And trios. Bass/bari, lead/tenor, etc. Also get universal agreement on interpretation, theme, etc. Discover and resolve vowel disagreements and those sort of technical details.” – Boomerang
“Rehearse the non-singing portions of the programs as well as the singing.” – hmmm
“We record songs at rehearsal both for saving our interp and for putting snippets on the website. The recordings are helpful when we need to get certain songs back up to full speed after not singing them for a while. They’re particular useful for our Christmas songs.” – Smooth Brew
“Predictable weekly, dueting and trioing, record trouble spots to help reduce continually troubleshooting while singing.” – Men in Stripes
“Be critical, but be nice. We stop when we hear something that doesn’t sound right, and we repeat problem sections to fix them.” – Summer Time
“Set up a regular time and keep it. When we cancel it’s usually for illnesses. If there is a conflict later in the day on our regular rehearsal day (Sunday), we meet a little earlier rather than cancel. The more you make the rehearsal something that is required, the longer the quartet will exist. Have a set agenda for the rehearsal, but vary the warmup exercises or add some fun things like woodshedding a song or singing tags.” – Smooth Brew
“Our performance coach has helped us to see new things and grasp new concepts. We were not aware of many ideas and were unskilled with this. Our coach has helped us to grow tremendously. Get as many coaches as possible.” – The Front Line Quartet
“Use an agenda published two, three, or four days prior to rehearsal with expectations and deliverables, including timelines. Rehearse regularly (weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, etc.). Work on quartet music between rehearsals.” – Reveliers
“We set aside 2½ hours every Sunday afternoon for rehearsals. Typically we run a few songs in our repertoire to keep them fresh, work on new songs (we add about 4 new songs each year), and record some songs for capturing our unique interp. We have a section of our website that has the next rehearsal’s agenda so we can be prepared.” – Smooth Brew
“Always make a plan for the rehearsal. Feel free to vary from it a bit if a certain song or part requires more attention than allotted. Dueting and trioing have proven to be quite useful.” – Vocal Point
“Be willing to try anything and everything that your coaches suggest. Not all of it will work for your group, so keep whatever works, discard the rest, and carry on.” – Vocal Point
“Leave the attitude at the door when it comes to rehearsing. Coaching from within shouldn’t be taken negatively, and if you are the one providing feedback, keep it positive. Song selection should always be a four-party agreement. For us, a one-person veto is all it takes. Know when to let go of a song if it isn’t working for you. There are thousands more to choose from.” – Vocal Point
“We have a private, internal webpage where we keep a calendar marked with all our vacations and availability. We also put our rehearsal agenda on the site. All of the upcoming performances with location, uniform, song list, and logistics information are on the site as well. These have been valuable in keep all members informed. “– Smooth Brew
“Planning out the timelines and specific goals for rehearsals are helpful. Flexibility is necessary, but we strive to stick to an agreed upon agenda for the rehearsal. This helps maximize value and efficiency and raises everybody’s focus to the task at hand. Outside of rehearsal time, we also have a fair amount chill-time where we just hang out and just enjoy each other’s company.” – The Regulars Quartet