Group signals

December 15, 2011 at 08:38 PM · As concertmaster of a string quartet, I'm noticing a problem-- it's difficult to come up with a signal that:

a) is easy to make while playing

b) gets the quartet's attention

c) doesn't get the audience's attention

d) is meaningful

So, naturally, I decided to mosey over here to see what solutions others have found for last-second signals such as "repeat", "stop", and "keep going".

Currently, I'm tempted to have someone wire a stomp button for me on a circuit board with three LEDs on it in three colors.

Better ideas?

Replies (37)

December 16, 2011 at 01:58 AM · Wonderful! (don't let the conductor of my orchestra know about this gadget!)

December 16, 2011 at 04:06 AM · Haha....I'll suggest that to the quartet and see if that idea floats.

December 17, 2011 at 06:59 AM · When would you ever use "stop"?

I've had group "will we repeat??" moments in performance. Basically we all make eye contact and decide by how much tension there is in the air (how nervous we are? The musical flow?) if we should go on or if we should start again from the beginning. Usually it's very easy to tell (especially if it's before the development section of a sonata).

I've guessed wrong once before, but I knew that there was a high chance somebody in the group would do something different than the others based on the horrified looks the lower three strings were sharing and was able to shift *very* quickly. Some of the quartet members didn't even notice.

I think the best is just to always discuss this before hand.

Incidentally, what is a quartet "concertmaster"?

December 17, 2011 at 07:06 AM · if you uses a shok coller you can hid the marks it mekes on yur nek with a buton shert that what i do when sosial sirvises came buy one dey a teechar saw thim marks on boos nek and almust gotz me in truble he wares a buton shert now a litle mekup 2

December 17, 2011 at 11:15 AM · "Queentashika"

You're certainly an imaginative soul. Cool spelling too. Looks like you're going to be adding (how should I put it?) a different dimension to our little chats here!

December 17, 2011 at 12:31 PM · Isa justa kik dem in der bals if dey git it rong, and in da case of dem wimin I just kicha dems ars.

December 17, 2011 at 01:38 PM · There speaks a retired seasoned pro from the UK!

December 17, 2011 at 02:26 PM · I've often considered becoming a seasoned pro but I've been told it might be illegal ...

December 17, 2011 at 04:23 PM · thanks you gef peter seams 2 be mekin fun off me i dont thank thets vary nise off hem my mum namad me aftar queenlutifa bot ditn wont it 2 be tha sam

i lives in mempis havnot ben pleyin the voilin long i likes it a lot thow vary boataful to me

the music tharapy ladi in the hospitul is given me lassuns im pregnut and my 2 boos keeps me buzy thets whyz i has to uze the shok coler somez time

my teechr lit me burow all fer strangs im in book 1 now

December 17, 2011 at 05:14 PM · You go girl, Queenshatika. Good that you picked up the violin and glad you're liking it.

I might steer clear of the shock collars though. Think about something your mom did to you that still makes you mad, there's always something. Hope your kids don't have a similar memory when they become grownup.

Rob, generally the best cues are lifting the scroll of the fiddle up and down. It's sort of like conducting, only you hold a fiddle in your hand. Establish with your quartet what you mean when you lift the scroll in a certain way. For example, if you want to take the repeat, you lift it 2x quick. Don't know your particular situation but something with the scroll makes the most sense to me.

December 17, 2011 at 06:14 PM · Queentashika Johnson

No I wassn't intending too. Much more I was having a laugh about having dubious signals passing between quartet players, often leading to big rows because people have misunderstood or missed the meaning of the signal. I often use strange language to describe somethimg, its my strange sense of humour.

I'm pleased you have found playing the violin rewarding and hope you keep it up. You will find lots of tips on here, but just ignore anything I say!! (wink)

December 18, 2011 at 12:14 AM · To clarify, we play at weddings a lot. Songs like "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" can easily be looped around to the beginning, and there are about four or so good stopping points in the piece. If the unity candle ceremony is still going, I need the quartet to keep playing, but as soon as it's over, they have to stop so as not to keep folks waiting.

Perhaps an even easier example to convey is the canon being played as the bridal party makes its way down the aisle. The last two weddings we've played at, only one of us could see the procession from where we were.

Also-- in response to "what's concertmastering in a quartet?"-- I'm keeping the rhythm on violin. Bobbing the scroll is how I'm keeping our beat, cutting off fermatas, and making sure everyone slows down at the same tempo when we ritard. So bobbing the scroll probably wouldn't work for signalling "repeat" or "stop".

December 18, 2011 at 12:16 AM · one shok meens stop 2 shoks meens keap pleying it werks four boo

December 18, 2011 at 12:24 AM · ....Ms. Johnson, it was funny the first time. I was hoping to have an intelligent discussion here to get input from people on how they actually do handle this real challenge in their quartets. Please don't make me report you for hijacking the thread.

December 18, 2011 at 02:04 AM · I haven't checked, but suspect that there are computer applications interfacing "shock collars" with "Spell-Check". LOL

Queen dear, right now, I'm thinking that you're pulling our leg. If not, I will try to help.

One never knows though. In Detroit, we have public assistance claims like,

"I don't know who the father is, because I was taken from behind after I'd had too much to drink at a party, and was leaned over barfing out the window."

December 18, 2011 at 02:17 AM · Activating the shock collar now...

December 18, 2011 at 02:29 AM · I kind of like the shock collar actually . . . . but if you develop really good "First Violin/Crazy Eyes", those will probably be more effective than anything else!

I think when you're playing chamber music, ideally, your sheet music is a guide, but you'll be spending a lot of performance time looking at others, whether in peripheral or direct vision. Eye contact should be frequent, and present between all the members of the group, and you can certainly discuss points (and mark them!) where you want contact with any player.

Body language is at least 70% of communication anyway!

December 18, 2011 at 09:21 AM · To be serious for a moment (yes, even me!) I think I would make a big gesture with the bow high in the air to stop a quartet, but as I don't do weddings or funerals this would for me only be to cut off at a general pause or similar, in a rehearsal or concert.

If things start getting out of hand, I would use more and more body language to relate what I think the tempo or beat should be. But most of this should be uneccessary and only occasional at worst.

The most difficult gesture is the one needed to convey the tempo and start the other players off. A difficult example is the start of Mvt 1 of the Haydn Emperor quartet (Op 76 No 3) where we all have an upbeat quaver. Breathing together helps a lot. Sometimes I use a subtle sniff to get it going as one.

Regarding Queentashika Johnson I did give her the benefit of the doubt, but like David and others, I'm now suspicious that she is winding us all up.

December 18, 2011 at 01:03 PM · If you are the sort of player that sways around all the time you have a problem. Keep still, and play po-faced. Then you have a blank canvas on which your body-language and facial expressions can and will alert attention at moments of panic (and there will be many of these !). Your colleagues will learn to ignore you if uncontrolled mannerisms make you seem to be appear to be crying "wolf".

"Wolf notes" is another thread.

December 18, 2011 at 02:30 PM · I agree with David's comments about moving around too much.

The benefit of using the scroll as your primary means of starting/stopping/communicating is that you can move your scroll and it doesn't affect your sound. Using your bow means you have to take your bow off the string, or something which affects your tone in some way.

It has the added benefit of reminding one not to press down on the instrument too much with the head.

December 18, 2011 at 07:43 PM · Hmmmm. Since we've made it clear I'm already pretty animate as far as scroll-bobbing for the sake of keeping players together, I like your analogy to "crying wolf"...and I think we might be onto something here. Establishing eye contact with the cellist seems to be pretty easy most of the time, and maybe the thing to do here is to mouth the signal to him (which he usually does fine receiving this) and have him understand he needs to pass that signal along to the two violists (who don't usually receive my signals quite right if at all).

Thanks all for your input, we'll try this when we meet up in January again and see if that works better. :)

December 18, 2011 at 09:11 PM · I used to play quartets with a 'cellist who specialised in foot-tapping. Fortunately he did this silently enough - the piece of carpet 'cellists use for the spike is a help here.

Using the feet to signal is an under-used resource, IMHO.

Eyebrows should be a great weapon, but so many players let them go up and down unconsciously. Control these and the world is your oyster. Beware the sniff, all too often audible on recordings; it seldom improves ensemble. Dirty looks work especially well in Beethoven. If you ever wondered why, look at his death-mask.

December 19, 2011 at 06:39 AM · The convention among bluegrassers is to raise a foot when it's time to stop. I don't think this has crossed over into the classical world, though.

December 19, 2011 at 09:03 AM · David -I should add that the "sniff" is used only in rehearsals and not concerts. But it is a useful tool if one can get them all to breath together on the upbeat.

"Two violas" - this must be an interesting quartet - surely one is bad enough!! (wink)

December 19, 2011 at 02:00 PM · Raising a foot to signal the end of a tune set is also common in English and Irish folk sessions, especially if everyone is sitting around an empty space.

December 19, 2011 at 11:31 PM · In my quartet, we nod to repeat, shake the head to go on, and if we need to stop in the middle of a piece I will exagerate the rall so it is obvious that it is coming to a stop. These signs can be very subtle as long as everyone has eye contact

December 20, 2011 at 08:40 PM · That sounds like the most practical suggestion so far :D

December 21, 2011 at 01:37 AM · Greetings,

I am really shocked, but the one thihg that I don`t think has been mentioned is what the old timers used to do like crazy. Watch the left hand fingers. Especially the cellist who may be m,aking bigger movements. I personally think this approach is one of the greta secrets of good quartet playign once you get used ot it. Body movements are fine but just a little vague and often detract form the fatc that as time passes one can actually play together with virtually no signal as a result of group empathy. CF one of the Gingold masterclasses where he makes the violnist turn her back on the pianist and practice strating a Beethoven sonata with no signlas whatsoever. It can be very surprising.



December 21, 2011 at 01:41 AM · Wow, Buri... This one sounds complicated, but I'm definitely intrigued! Can you point me to some examples of how to do these left-hand signals while playing?

December 21, 2011 at 02:37 AM · The absolute best way to play together is to be in agreement with the other players what you intend to do. You agree on the length of stroke. You agree on the vibrato. Sometimes the cello requires a little different stroke than the violins because of the instrument, but the goal is, of course, the same sound.

It sounds all very simple, play everything the same. But it really isn't at all. Everyone's technique is slightly different and at the amateur level you're really having to work around the fact that all players are not the same ability, and may have holes in their technique in different places.

This is why it's possible for two people to not look at each other at all and play completely together. Because they have it all worked out what they want to do.

But if you're flying by the seat of your pants, or don't have the time (or aren't good enough yet) to work everything out ahead of time, then it is helpful to give cues. And the best cues to me seem to be the ones with the scroll. I've tried watching hands and it just doesn't seem to work.

My group doesn't get together frequently enough to really figure out exactly what we want to do. But we have on occasion worked out certain passages where we are pretty much in agreement - and it seems to work. But I also don't sense that everyone in my group wants to apply that much discipline. That's what we'd have to do to play so in sync that we could eliminate cues.

Watch the Borodin quartet play Beethoven 59 #1 on youtube.

They give no cues yet are completely together. It's totally amazing, they have everything completely worked out.

December 21, 2011 at 03:27 AM · Greetings,

you don`t do signals with the left hand, you play with it as normal. One simply watches how oithers left hand fingers are moving at a given moment.



The other kind of hand signals are resrved for my cat

December 21, 2011 at 07:27 AM · A chamber music coach here (of the Cavani quartet) just recently had us play without our bows entire passages and see if we could play together without the aural cues. Just as Buri says!

We were told not to bang or exaggerate our movements, but the cellist has to bang the fingerboard a little so it was fairly easy to stay together.......

December 21, 2011 at 08:42 AM · Buri,

The quartet I play with makes it a regular part of our practice routine to play back to back and not face each other. It forces all of us to REALLY listen to each other, and not just notes, but breaths as well.

After a few false starts, we get the hang of it and then everything starts to click into place, even the unexpected stuff.

December 21, 2011 at 11:58 AM · This seems to have developed into a discussion on how to play together as a quartet. I don't think that was what the original poster was asking. He was talking about signals for unexpected things, or spontaneous decisions that cannot be decided in advance. You might have a rough idea how much music is needed for the bride to reach the alter, but the only way to be exact is for someone to watch the bride and signal the others when to stop. Practising playing back to back doesn't solve this problem.

Or, supposing you're playing a piece when people get up and start to dance. You normally miss out the repeat, but because it is going down well you decide to include the repeat, and you need to signal this to the rest of the quartet. Again, practising playing back to back won't help in this circumstance

December 21, 2011 at 04:00 PM · A few practical questions with regards to watching the left hand.

- Whose left hand does one watch?

- What do you do if there's a stand in the way? This proved to a problem with my group since I have some manhassat stands (which take up a fair amount of space). Or the music will take up a certain amount of space too.

- Was the point of the exercise playing without the bow to watch the left hand? Or to play without aural cues?

I would still maintain that scrolls, not foot signals, head signals, not right hand, is the way to actually cue. But ideally, you know the music well enough, and have agreements with the other quartet members, so that cueing is not required.

If you're playing a wedding or gig, everyone needs to look up and it needs to agreed upon ahead of time that someone, usually the first violinist, will cue the end of the piece.

December 21, 2011 at 04:45 PM · Thanks, Chris...I was about to mention that.

So what it all boils down to is this: planned eye contact. We need to identify "stopping points" in the music where everyone looks at me for a cue to find out whether to keep playing.

December 22, 2011 at 12:27 AM · Terry, my guess is that it depends on the passage. The Cavani Quartet likes to mark in "rhythm buddies" where you have the same rhythm. They also do pair practice (e strings, c strings, diagonals) so you can all play together, not just follow somebody.

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