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Create a Successful Long-Term Quartet

However you define success, fulfillment begins with attention to the basics

By John Barrett, featuring:

John Miller, bass of Grandma's Boys and The New Tradition

Theo Hicks, lead of Instant Classic

Jim Kline, bass of Gotcha! and 139th Street Quartet

Originally featured in The Harmonizer, May/June 2018.

One of the most rewarding aspects of barbershop singing is finding three other people with whom to sing. If you find the right people, you can anticipate years of fun, challenges, and memorable experiences. If you find the wrong people, you can expect angst, arguing, and animosity. So just how should you go about choosing the members of your next quartet?

Personality match matters the most.

Theo sings with Instant Classic, 2015

"Sometimes it's matching the voices, but because you're together for a long period of time, matching personalities and philosophies as a quartet is much more important. If you want to be great singers, you can then build your quartet with that in mind. If you want to be great showmen, you can do that. But for the best possible time, it is important that the guys like each other." -J.M.

"Sing with people you like. That, in the end, will make or break you." -T.H.

Skills matter, but learning styles vary.

"A good quartet singer should be able to read and understand music, tuning, and intervals. Musical skill and education are important. But be mindful of the learning styles of the other members. Some can sight-read and remember, some will plunk it out on piano, some need to hear it 100 times on a learning track, and some need to actually sing it." -T.H.

Be sure you have the same goals.

"Quartets sometimes come together just because they want to win. Often, people find out that the gifted individual singers do not always fit together." -J.M.

"The quartet should have the same goals about competing. We wanted to win, but primarily, we wanted to do our best -- for ourselves and for each other. Make sure everyone is on the same page. It is important that you each have the same goals, commitment levels, and vision for the quartet. Conflicting visions yield conflicting views, and that leads to major conflicts within the group." -T.H.

"Everyone has to have similar goals. If you are just there to sing and goof around, go sing with your friends. Get together with guys in your chapter. Sing with them and have fun!" -J.K.

What type of voices to look for.

"To move up a level, find a great lead! Or, be a great lead. Seek singers with good talent. Keep the experience positive and make sure you have a group of hard workers." -J.K.

John Miller with New Tradition quartet, 1985

"Sing to your strengths. Be mindful of your own voice. As a lead I am more lyrical and seek out songs that showcase that side of my singing.
In a bass, I look for accuracy. My ideal bass should have melodic singing with a soloist's voice. I listen for a blended, rich tone -- not someone trying to PROVE he is a bass.
The baritone should be a great match with the lead. Precise, versatile, but artistic. Ideally, he should make the baritone line sound like a melody. A note-ninja, the baritone should be swift and cunning, but smooth like Jackie Chan.
For tenor, I love a full-voice tenor. I have been spoiled with David Zimmerman. It is great to have a natural tenor, but consistency is the key! The break, or passaggio, is sometimes challenging for tenors. If I can tell when they are switching from chest to head, it is distracting." -T.H.

Test/improve your vocal blend.

"Singing tags is a great test of how well your voices mesh together. For a new quartet, settle in and find your sound. Tags are fun, strengthen your voice, help you find the best resonance levels, and give your quartet early success. Learn to ring a chord together. Everyone has to work to adjust to each other." -J.K.

Get coaching at the right time.

Jim Kline and 139th Street Quartet, 1992

"Good coaching is vital to a quartet's success. We were fortunate enough to have Scott Kitzmiller with us for every step of the journey." -T.H.

"Don't worry about great coaching, yet. Get a diplomatic coach who will encourage the quartet rather than tear the group down. As you get more serious, get a coach close to you so you can work with her or him regularly. Members need to be respectful of each other, and accept coaching/criticism as a means to move forward." -J.K.

Have fun while you improve.

"You sing for fun and for the process. If you like it, you will continue to work together and get better. Ultimately, the four individual voices can really make for a great quartet, but it is a huge commitment." -J.M.

Commit to steady improvement.

"Work until all parts can appropriately match volumes, timbre and pitch. Don't expose your weaknesses. I was lucky enough to find great leads whose range was high like mine. Having regular quartet rehearsals is ideal. Living near each other is a luxury for a high-level quartet. All members of the quartet should have great singing talent, but success still doesn't happen overnight. Quartet singing is a stew ... it takes time to get the flavors to work together and bring out the best flavors." -J.K.