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Quartet

Standing Positions (The Art and Science of)


Steve Jamison 2013


One of the most crucial steps in maximizing the success of a quartet is finding an
optimum standing position (OSP). Symptoms that a quartet is NOT in an OSP are:
lots of minor sync errors, one or more parts late-to-tune, individual voices
standing out, and hit or miss tuning. Sound familiar? It sounds like MOST
quartets. Well, MOST quartets are NOT in their OSP! Given that you can arrange 4
singers in a line 24 ways (thats 4x3x2x1=24 ways), and that they might not all stand
shoulder to shoulder but maybe in front or behind their neighbor, and that one or
more might be angled in at varying degrees, you wind up with thousands of
possible standing positions. Whats a quartet to do?


Well, heres an algorithm that will find an OSP for your quartet, (or one you coach).

1)
Ask the tenor and baritone to step out and help coach. The more ears, the
merrier! Coaches and wives are great to have around. Have the lead and bass stand
shoulder to shoulder and sing a duet of a ballad the quartet knows well. Explain to
the lead and bass that they are to just sing, and you will occasionally signal them to
switch positions. Explain to the coaches they are listening to the duet to determine
which position has better sync (less late to tune, words start and stop the same
time, etc.) AND which position has better lock & ring (in other words the voices
arent just two good, independent voices but tuning seems engaged and the voices
seem to work together to make more overtones). At first you might have to
remind the coaches what theyre looking for, but soon (after a few switches) theyll
notice a difference which might be anywhere from negligible to profound. Usually it
falls in the quite noticeable range. Use the tenor and baritone to convey to the lead
and bass whats being heard from outside. Also ask the lead and bass what they
hear inside. Its important to engage their feedback as its critical the QUARTET
discovers the OSP. As soon as youve all determined which position is better, stop
the duet and move on.


2)
Once the lead/bass side to side position is determined, leave them in that
optimum side to side position and now explore planes. Repeat the ballad duet
and explain to the lead and bass to start out shoulder to shoulder (STS) but this
time your signal will be to have one or the other move so that his inside shoulder
will be in front of or behind the inside shoulder of the other (still facing forward).
You might have to gently move one or the other to get them aligned some people
only grasp directions by seeing them. If the one behind puts his inside hand on the
inside shoulder of the guy in front they should be about right. Do several switches
from STS to Lead Behind (LB) to STS to Bass Behind (BB) to STS to LB to STS to BB,
etc., etc.

Examples: (Audience at bottom of page)


STS: LEAD BASS
LB: LEAD

BB:
BASS





BASS


LEAD

Find the position that maintains the good tuning and sync and now starts to grow in
fidelity - more amplification of one voice by the other. Frequently a thin, bright lead
will display lower, mellower overtones. Again, engage the singers inside and
outside of the duet for feedback. THEY have got to hear it. As soon as youve all
determined which position is better, stop the duet and move on.

3)
By now the two harmony parts may be itching to get back in and try out the
bigger, better foundation theyre hearing. Pick one (usually I try the tenor first but
dont feel compelled to stick to a hard and fast routine this IS an art, you know!).
Let the tenor try the leads side (facing straight out) and experiment with planes
(STS, Behind, In Front) of the guy next to him, then switch sides and repeat. Use the
baritone to explain to the trio whats being heard from outside. Also ask the trio
what they hear. By this time they should be quite willing to express their
preference! Now if you find there is a negligible difference, try it again with the
baritone. One of the two is bound to give you a substantial, noticeable difference in
sound. Once youve determined the OSP for a trio, stop the trio and move on.

4)
Last guy in stands on the other side but you still want to let him explore what
plane works best. Usually by now this last singer finds his niche pretty quickly and
confidently and the whole quartet agrees there is a bigger, fuller, more in sync
sound. This process is really cool to do when wives are around because they seem
to notice and vocalize the difference! It also looks like you are a practitioner of
Black Magic!

At this point (not quite done yet because everyone is still facing straight ahead) the
quartet may be in one of these nineteen (19) configurations:

Examples: (Audience at bottom of page)
1-plane:
X X X X

2-plane
X X (the Classic)
X X



X X


X X




X X X


X

X

X X X


X

X X X

X X X
X



X X X

X

X X X
X


X

X X X

X
X X X

(the Staggered)
X X

X X



X X

X X

3-plane

X
X

X
X
(the Checkmark) X X
X X
X X
X X




X
X

X
X

4-plane
X



X


X

X


X

X


X
X

By now were up to 24x19=456 possible arrangements. The most common
arrangement quartets start with is the Classic. It is one of the less frequently seen
arrangements when all is said and done. Much more common are the two
Staggered (2-plane) and the four Checkmark (3-plane) arrangements.

5)
The finishing touch is to play with the end guys in turning in by varying
degrees. One at a time have each end guy experiment from Straight Ahead, to 15o
turn, to 30o, to 45o, to 60o, and back until the sound is as solid as it can be.
Amazingly this is often a step function and you will hear a big difference with just
a tiny turn. Repeat with other end person until all agree the sound is there!


Et Voila, you are at OSP. This should be their REFERENCE position from which
they might move away from but always return to. The quartet will now sing more
relaxed and more in tune, have a broader range of dynamics and vocal texture,
exhibit better synchronization, and make a bigger, fuller sound.

This rubric works in almost all cases. Why ALMOST all? There are some oddball
situations:
a)
Sometimes youll have to turn interior guys to get the OSP.
b)
Sometimes everyone will have to turn in like in a 1-plane arrangement,
and all turn the same way like in the 4-plane arrangements.
c)
Even less frequently the lead and bass just cant find a position that works
with them next to each other, so the bass will be on the end! In this case
duet the lead with the tenor and baritone and find out how THAT trio
best works, then experiment with the bass on each end.
d)
Even less frequently the lead will wind up on the outside!


If you follow this process you have Guided the Discovery of an OSP for a quartet.
This is the highest order of teaching as the students (the quartet members) will be
much more likely to invest faith in the outcome because THEY came up with the
solution. In addition, youve given them all something to FEEL that is better, so they
will more likely replace what they were doing before because of that feeling. (We
like to repeat things that feel good, even if theyre not good for us. Dont worry! This
IS good for you!) Dont let them get bogged down in why it works, have them
experience the fact that it DOES work. Guiding them to that experience IS AN ART

and is the most powerful tool in a coachs bag-of-tricks as it doesnt require the
singers to remember anything! Therefore they cant forget it under pressure. Like
any artistic endeavor, you get better at it the more you do it! You can own this
process as a coach and make a world of difference.


IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN THE SCIENCE, READ ON!
Humans have significant directional hearing (not as good as dolphins, but they cant
sing in a barbershop quartet!). But our direction locator works with more than just
sounds waves, and with more than just our ears. We also have two hemispheres of
the brain that process information somewhat differently (most people are familiar
with the left brain vs. right brain idea), and each ear is connected to a different
hemisphere.

Explanation of the side-to-side effect:
In step 1 when you move the bass and lead side-to-side you almost always find one
stance that beats the other as youve aligned them to process what they are hearing
in a more optimal way: whoever was slightly behind before is now in sync because
he is processing what he hears through the more intuitive side of his brain (which
allows for faster and more accurate temporal and frequency anticipation and
adjustment). In step 3 when you move the tenor or baritone side-to-side you are
doing much of the same thing. This is NOT a new proximity effect. Empirically it is
easy to demonstrate that one position beats the other.

Explanation of the variable planes effect:
In step 2 when you move the lead and bass from STS to BB to STS to LB, etc. you are
tapping into our significant directional hearing sense.

Our detection, subliminal recognition, and response to the various frequency ranges
produced by singers are significantly associated with the three apparent sources of
head resonation. Most people recognize these as 1) the front or mask source of
higher overtones, 2) the middle or roof of the mouth source of the pingy
overtones most sought after in the lock and ring of barbershop quartet singing,
and 3) the back or holy-moly rich, low overtones of Elvis thanking people very
much.

A quartet singers response to another quartet singers voice is not limited to the
auditory (sense of hearing) but includes a large degree of tactile (sense of feel). A
singers response to another is generally more positive (in tune, sympathetic
resonance) if the dominant form of resonance of singer A falls impinges upon the
surface area of the head of singer B that is related most directly to that form of
resonance!

For example, a quartet with a 3 bass and a 1 lead frequently has difficulty singing in
sync and in tune, and often sounds empty or lacks unit sound due to the thin
sound of the lead and the mellow sound of the bass. But, if the appropriate STS

exercise is done FIRST (so the more intuitive side of the brain takes over the tuning
and sync), then you put the bass behind the lead, it will usually greatly improve the
quality (used in the Physics sense) of the sound. This is because the physical
vibrations of the air produced by the bass (3 dominant) fall upon the back of the
head of the lead, and the physical vibrations of the air produced by the lead (1
dominant) fall upon the mask of the bass. This enhanced response system
invariably produces a better quality sound, often characterized by an apparent
growth in the leads productions of middle and low overtones not usually displayed
in his own voice. Again, empirical evidence supporting the concept is readily
displayed in the process.

A beneficial by-product is a more relaxed singer, which allows for freer singing and
a happier singer (and audience).

Explanation of the turn to tune effect:
This is truly fine tuning as minute adjustments in the direction from which sounds
are heard can make significant differences in the temporal and frequency
anticipation and response. If it follows the prior procedures (that grossly establish
optimum directionality and intuitive response) it allows those two enhanced
sensory systems (explained above) to guide the singer to his best orientation.
Watch an end guy singer who has NOT gone through the optimization process and
hell be constantly turning, subconsciously seeking a better fit but, alas, he wont
find it.