The Outsized Benefits of Playing with Small Groups

by Paul Babcock

In early December, I took in a performance by an outstanding guitar quartet here at MacPhail Center for Music. There’s a lot to admire about this high school-aged group, who’ll soon appear on NPR’s “From the Top.” But I was particularly struck by their sky-high level of nonverbal communication.

The players had sheet music in front of them, but their eyes were on each other. With facial expressions and movements, they carried on a musical conversation that drove the pace and character of each piece. Four perspectives of unique musicianship merged into one exquisite, cohesive whole—a gorgeous gift to the audience.

Anyone who’s performed in a small group knows this kind of synergy doesn’t come out of the blue. You get four or five individuals together to play a piece; technically, they might be playing perfectly in unison, but they aren’t communicating anything until they start working on the finer elements of expression.

I think of the metaphor of a painting, where some objects are in the foreground, and others are in the background. It’s up to the group of performers to uncover the details of that painting and bring them out. One player begins in the forefront and remains there for a portion of the time. Then something changes, new players step up, and the music gradually comes to life beyond those initial brush strokes. New characters and colors emerge.

To do that, a conversation needs to occur: Who is softer? Who is louder? What do we need to change and when? All these interpretations need to be discussed among the group.

Imagine the conflict resolution that must take place to pull this off. It’s well documented in The Beatles. John and Paul constantly bickered about who made these decisions, while George famously fought for his ideas to be heard. Even Ringo, who was generally OK with anything, felt the need to occasionally remove himself from the infighting. Isn’t this like what happens in work situations? Or sometimes in families too?

As MacPhail’s guitar quartet tackled the intricate, syncopated rhythms of “Tico Tico,” they passed the melody around the group like basketball players passing a ball. Each took a turn at it, making their own choices in its presentation. I could only imagine the shared work they’d put in to nail down the timing, execution, and musicianship—all to express an agreed-upon theme collectively. And I couldn’t help but envision the skills these high school students were developing for an office conference room, or even a group project for a science class at school.

I’ve seen this dynamic at work regardless of the ensemble, from rock to jazz to chamber music. In fact, one of the best examples I’ve witnessed is at MacPhail’s Madeline Island Chamber Music program, a six-week, immersive summer program off the Wisconsin shoreline of Lake Superior. For an intense period, a group of high school through post-graduate students are coached and nurtured by some of the best chamber musicians in the country, all led by the renowned artistic director Jonathan Swartz. Within a few weeks, they are performing at the highest of levels.

But beyond the boost to their musicianship, this place is an absolute incubator for life skills like problem-solving and communication. The students arrive on the 11-acre campus knowing they’ll be placed in a string quartet (48 students – 12 quartets). They’ve prepared their individual music parts, but they don’t know their quartet mates. On the first day, they’re thrown into rehearsals and are expected to get to know each other while playing the music they’ve learned.

These musicians are often used to performing with an orchestra, where a group of strings strive to carry out a conductor’s vision. Here, they’re conductorless—and suddenly grappling with questions they’ve never had to consider. Is one among us going to lead the rest? Can we all agree on a vision? Personalities come into play, of course. Sometimes a leader will emerge right away and smoothly lead the group forward. But when that doesn’t happen, it can be even better. There’s not one dominant voice, but each person gets a say, and a collective vision is established.

Conflict is inevitable—a valuable lesson in itself—and they’re constantly sorting out what to do and not to do when it arrives. Each student is learning more about operating successfully with a team of colleagues, and ultimately, they are developing as people and growing into their own personalities.

Sure, this personal maturation process already comes with the territory in the preteen through early adulthood years. But that’s all the more reason for music students to play in small groups whenever possible. This is the time to figure out how to work with others!

Paul Babcock playing drums

Paul Babcock

Paul Babcock is the President/COO of MacPhail Center for Music.

He has over 35 years of experience teaching percussion/drum set. He enjoys working with students of all backgrounds to discover their passion for music and percussion and see how far they can go on this exciting journey.

Paul developed the MacPhail percussion ensemble Rimshots!, which has performed across the United States and abroad.

He holds a Bachelor’s of Arts in Music Performance & Business Administration from Monmouth College (Illinois), and a Master’s in Music Performance from University of Minnesota.

Many great group performance opportunity are coming up this summer, check out:

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Published on Date: Feb 2, 2024
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