Quartet Overtones - auditioning/testing/training
(c) 2005, Mike Barkley

See, for instance the overtone chart in the SPEBSQSA publication "Sound for Ensemble Singing", p. 6, and also the chart of just vs. tempered intervals on p. 13 of that publication by way of explaining to the singer whether or not to nudge a note up or down on a specific interval.

The following is a result of my need to encourage the lead in a long past quartet to lock on the overtones I generated so as to solve the quartet's pitch problems. It's derived from listening to Four Voices II CD, from comments by Ron Black and Alan Gordon, from listening to and comparing quartets in the contest when Sam's Club won the FWD Championship, and from my own ear, plus other influences I've temporarily forgotten. Naturally, conforming internal and external mouth shapes, and proper breathing and support will improve the results.

Basically, the problem is that we've all been told over the years to "tune it" this way and that way and so on, and to be pleased at the lock and ring and expanded sound, but nobody is zeroing in on what that lock is and how it is the sound expands. So I devised the following set of exercises to help the quartet find and lock in on those overtones and get used to hearing the lock, ring, and expansion. For these, you need a bass who is dead on, rock solid on the pitch. Pitch these exercises up or down to match the range of the quartetters.

1) Bass sings an "Ah" sound (as the strongest vowel) on the F below the bass staff, strongly, with full resonance. One at a time, bari sings the octave up against him, lead the fifth above that, and tenor two octaves up. When each of the other 3 have locked onto the overtone, then all 4 parts sing together - if all 4 parts don't lock, start over until it does.

Ideally the four parts would be on the octaves since those are the strongest overtones, but few quartets can handle a three octave spread, so this is a compromise. In some cases the lead cannot find the fifth, in which case trade the bari and lead intervals since the bari usually is (or should be) a skilled tuner, but the long-term goal is to train the lead to match those overtones immediately.

2) Bass sings C in the bass staff. One at a time, bari sings the fifth up, then lead the octave up, then tenor the tenth (third above lead). After each part locks, one at a time, again sing all 4 together.

3) Bass sings F in the bass staff. One at a time, bari sings the third up, lead the fifth up, tenor the flatted seventh up. After each locks, one at a time, again sing all 4 together. This is the number one goal of the exercises, to enable the quartet to hear and practice a locked barbershop seventh.

4) Singing together on the intervals in #3, the quartet sings each of the following words, singing through 4 of them and then taking a breath, but not moving from word to word until the quartet is satisfied with the vowel match and overtone lock on each word:





This teaches the quartet to listen for the lock on each of the common word sounds, and trains the quartet to listen for them in all the singing it does. It goes past the years of hit or miss tuning efforts in quartets and choruses and goes right to the point of barbershop.

I have found that every quartet I've run through this exercise has an immediate improvement in tuning and expanded sound, and that as the quartet continues with them over time the improvement continues. This set of exercises also is a very effective audition technique for the trio looking for that fourth member - if the applicant can't hear or match the overtone, the prospects diminish for competitive success with him.

--Mike Barkley, 161 N. Sheridan Ave. #1, Manteca, CA 95336 (H) 209/823-4817
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