Here’s one way of looking at Unit Sound.
Listening Skills provide the foundation to all good ensemble singing. You need good ears to hear and adjust to the others in the group, but you’ll find that as you get better and better, your ears will also improve, so you can hear smaller and smaller decrements of difference and work at eliminating them.
Instant, Accurate Pitch is required to produce vertically aligned chords. It’s pretty hard to think about unity if the sound is muddy from chord to chord, or plain out of tune!
Blend is the bit that most people think of for unit sound, not surprisingly! We’re looking for similar vocal production skills and the same ideal sound, but also the harmony parts need to listen to the natural strengths and characteristics of the Lead’s voice and try to sing with a similar character – enough to make the blend great and the sound clean. This is why it is ideal if the four voices in a quartet are naturally similar in resonance. Any time too much “adjustment” is happening (above and beyond everyone’s journey to their own best sound) you are compromising vocal freedom for blend. But if it’s easy enough to dial the resonance forward for a naturally forward lead/bass – do that!
Instant, Matching Vowels will make a huge difference to lock and ring and fine synchronisation, among other things, and working on vowel matching can help with unifying Sound. The bit I’ve called One Voice is the hardest part. It’s 100% mental. It’s the transition from singing together to singing as one. You can’t achieve it without a certain mastery of the other aspects of unit sound.
There are several techniques that spring to mind to assist in promoting these skills in a quartet.
- Sing in a circle – only back-to-back. It’s a totally different aural experience.
- Use vowel vocalises to focus your ears on matching the vowel shapes – this is why ‘warming up’ as a quartet is essential. My fave is the 5 vowel unison-split to chord, followed by 5 chord tag sung on those vowels (‘I Sing Barbershop’ tag chords).
- Duetting – if you can’t hear the lead, you’re too loud. MATCH RESONANCE to give her full support without drowning her out. See my other posts on why duetting is brilliant.
- Sing lying down, with your heads in the centre. This totally changes how gravity affects your breathing mechanism and facial mask. It’s much harder to force chest voice (therefore much easier to mix into head tone) lying down, so you end up with an open, relaxed tone which is easier to mesh with the rest of the quartet. It’s also easier to maintain relaxed and correct alignment when lying down with knees up for neutral spine.
- Bitch pitch. And ALWAYS lift the octaves and 5ths (that’s YOU baris and basses).
- Break down phrases to identify target vowels and ensure all 4 voices match. Watch out for consonant clusters.
- Resonance Tunnel – get your lead to sing “wee wee wee” (slow and strong) on an Eb or so in her best resonant, open tone. Stand in front of her, adjusting for height so that her voice is projecting directly into the back of your neck (your voicebox). Sing the “wee wee wee” with her, matching her sound as much as you can, feeling her voice resonating through your voicebox and out through your mouth, mixed with your sound. This can be a really weird experience at first! Get the other 2 to stand out front and comment on the blend. This is the best exercise I know to get in touch with the Lead sound. Thanks Dede 🙂 You can do this with phrases from your song too.
- Use One Voice – more on this later.