Here are some useful tips for making sure you start off on the right note. In Part 3 I look at all the ways in which giving and receiving starting notes can go wrong.
This is Part 3 of a series of three posts. In Part 1 I considered how starting notes are given out. In Part 2 I looked at how starting notes are received by the singers.
No matter how well a starting note is given out or how focused a singer is on receiving it accurately, things can go badly wrong.
Here are 14 examples of how things can go wrong and possible solutions to make things go right.
1. choir leader not good at pitchingYour choir leader might sing the starting note to you without realising that they’re not that accurate with their pitching.
solution: the only way your choir leader will find out is if you tell them! Give them some (gentle) feedback in the spirit of “how can we make the choir better?”
2. guessing the note from a tuning forkYes, it’s a clever trick to be able to have something that gives out just one note (e.g. a tuning fork) and then being able to work out the starting notes from there, but often in the heat of performance, you may not get it right.
solution: practice at home, but not just in isolation. Move from a song in one key to another in a completely different key and see if you’re still able to do it accurately. If not, use something different like a keyboard or pitch pipes.
3. guessing the other notes in the starting chordI’ve been guilty of this myself! The root note of the chord is played and then your choir leader works out the other notes in the starting chord, except they’re wrong.
solution: this should be self-evident when the song starts and sounds completely wrong. Simply stop and start the song again, even if it’s in the middle of an important concert. The audience will realise you’re all human and visibly relax.
4. singers can’t hear their noteThere could be too much talking in the choir or the note might just be given out too softly, but in either case the singer doesn’t pick it up.
solution: if for whatever reason you don’t get your starting note properly, simply ask your choir leader to give it out again. If this happens regularly, then there may be a more general problem (e.g. you might have a hearing problem; the choir might be talking too much; the choir leader is not loud enough).
5. not explaining what notes are being giving outThis can be the result of nerves or insufficient explanation in rehearsal, but in either case the choir leader knows what they’re doing except they haven’t bothered to explain to the choir.
solution: don’t suddenly change the way you give starting notes out. Make sure that in rehearsal you’ve explained which notes you’re giving out and drill it several times to make sure the choir has fully understood.
6. singers not experienced enough to use root noteAn example of a mismatch between expectation and reality. The choir leader gives out the root note of the starting chord, but the singers can’t figure out their notes in that chord on their own.
solution: it might be a great aim to be able to do this, but if your choir aren’t yet up to it, you need to focus more on training in your rehearsals. It’s not necessary to be able to do this, many famous choir leaders give out every starting note.
7. pitching from different voicesSome singers, for some reason, might not be able to accurately reproduce a note when sung by a particular individual, but have no problem when someone else sings it.
solution: if you know that you can’t get your note from your choir leader, then pick someone in your section (whose voice you can pitch from) who can then quietly sing the note to you.
8. some singers pitch from instruments better than voices and vice versaI’ve often come across singers who can pitch perfectly well from a piano, say, but not from another voice. It works the other way round too.
solution: if this is you, then make your choir leader aware. They may then present the starting notes in two ways: by singing them and by playing them.
9. singers not paying attentionIt’s easily done: you’re looking for your friends in the audience when you realise that your starting note has been given but you missed it.
solution: pay attention! It takes more energy than you think to really focus before a song starts. However, it will happen to us all at least once: we zone out and we’ve missed our starting note. Either get it from someone else in your section or raise your hand and ask the choir leader to give it out again. Far better to do that than for the choir to set off with only half the singers knowing what their starting note is!
10. forgetting your note when others are given outIf several starting notes are given out (one for each part, say) and yours is the first to be given, quite often it gets washed out of your brain whilst listening to the other notes.
solution: choir leaders can make sure they give all the starting notes out several times and not necessarily in the same order. You can tell by singers’ faces if they’ve really got it or not. Sound the starting chord to make doubly sure. If, as a singer, you’re still not sure, get the note from someone else in your section or ask your choir leader to give the note again.
11. choir leader not being consistent (plucking notes out of the air)This is often a matter of over-confidence on the choir leader’s part. Thinking they are more accomplished than they actually are, they insist on guessing the starting note without recourse to any kind of instrument.
solution: the proof will be in the singing: if the notes are plucked out of thin air and are too high or too low, then the song will crash and burn at some point. If your choir leader is oblivious to how unhelpful this is, then gently draw their attention to it. As a choir leader there is nothing to be ashamed of having to use an instrument or pitch pipe – many of the top professionals do this because they don’t have perfect pitch.
12. pitching from the opposite genderThis is most problematic when you have a mixed tenor section. It’s often the case that two different notes need to be given: one at pitch, and the other an octave away from that. If a woman pitches a note to a man, usually the man will make an automatic adjustment and sing an octave below her. Similarly, if a man pitches to a woman, she will usually automatically sing an octave higher. However, some singers do get confused (especially when there are male and female singers in the same section) especially if your choir leader can sing at pitch.
solution: you will be able to sort this out in rehearsal. Gradually singers will get used to their choir leader and know which starting note helps the best. See How male singers can successfully pitch from a woman (and how women can pitch from a man).
13. singers not being able to reproduce a note accuratelyThis can happen when a singer joins a choir, but has very little singing experience. They can end up guessing what note to make since it takes a while to be able to reproduce notes accurately.
solution: you just need to be patient. Singing is a skill like anything else and it takes time before you become more accurate. If you find that the majority of your choir are more experienced than you, then you could join a more beginner choir or ask your choir leader for some one-to-one sessions. See How to sing in tune – matching pitch.
14. you find your starting note from another part, but can’t get it rightSometimes not every harmony part starts at the beginning of the song. In some arrangements a song starts in unison then splits into parts, in others, one part starts then the others are added later.
solution: the work needs to be done in rehearsal. If you find you’re still not able to find the note and a concert is looming, then feedback to your choir leader who will work on the difficult sections.
more problems?Well, that’s probably enough to be getting on with! I hope you find some of these useful. The most important thing to remember is that we’re all human and will make mistakes. Just be kind (to your singers and to yourself) until all songs start off smoothly.
See also Finding (and keeping) your starting note and Start as you mean to carry on.
And do let me know if there are other circumstances where starting notes go wrong or if you have other solutions to some of the problems I’ve written about. I’d love to hear from you!