Monday, February 06, 2017

How to give and receive starting notes 1: giving notes out

There are many ways that starting notes for a song can be given out. There are also plenty of ways that starting notes can be confusing or misheard!

chromatic pitch pipe

Here are some useful tips for making sure you start off on the right note. In Part 1 I consider how starting notes are given out.

This is Part 1 of a series of three posts. In Part 2 I’ll look at how starting notes are received by the singers. In Part 3 I’ll look at all the ways in which giving and receiving starting notes can go wrong.

how to give out a starting note

There are lots of different ways by which a starting note can be given out, but they come down to two basic methods:
  • using the voice
  • using an instrument (or recording)
There are pros and cons with each method, but ultimately it comes down to personal choice. However, we’ll see in Part 3 that some singers respond better to some methods.

using the voice

Your choir leader will sing one or more starting notes for you, but they have to find that note in the first place. There are several ways of doing this.

It’s very rare, but some choir leaders have what is known as absolute pitch and can pluck the correct note out of the ether.

What is more common (unfortunately) is for somebody to think they have absolute pitch and just guess the note – which often turns out to be too low or too high.

Most of us use simple devices to make sure we get the note right. A “blowy thing” (otherwise known as chromatic pitch pipes) is very common – see main image. it’s a small circular device that has all 12 notes in the chromatic scale listed. You just choose which one you want and blow into the relevant hole. A similar option is a small instrument like a melodica or recorder or a tiny portable keyboard. The smaller the better!

A bit trickier is to use a tuning fork. The disadvantage of this is that it has just one note so you have to work out from there which note you need to sing. Personally it’s not something I can do, and I have seen some choir leaders struggle to get it right in performance.

I used to beat myself up that I don’t have absolute pitch and can’t use a tuning fork, but it turns out that many famous choral directors have the same difficulty. Just use the method that works for you and is the most accurate and reliable.

using an instrument

The second method is to play the starting note on an instrument such as a piano or electric keyboard. One advantage for this is that the starting chord can be played and not just single notes.

This works brilliantly if you have an accompanist for your choir, but otherwise it relies on a suitable instrument being available at the concert venue.

which note to give?

This partly depends on how experienced your choir is and whether they sing with instrumental backing or note. It also depends on how you’ve trained them up.

The most common way (if a song is not in unison) is to give each harmony part its own starting note. The danger with this is that by the time you’ve given the last part their note, the first part will have forgotten theirs!

Another way is to play the opening chord to the whole choir. Each part then picks out the relevant starting note. The advantages of this are that everyone hears their note at the same time and can hear how they relate to each other. This won’t work well for a beginner choir.

The third way is to give out the root note or chord from the key signature of the song. This may not be the same as the opening chord of the arrangement, but will help singers to relate to the overall feeling of the song. This works best with experienced choirs.

If you use backing tracks then the choir will get their starting notes from the instrumental intro.

next week

In Part 2 I’ll look at how singers can receive their starting notes accurately.

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Chris Rowbury



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