Monday, May 02, 2016

Finding (and keeping) your starting note

Many singers struggle with finding their starting note. Once they’ve nailed that, they’re off and it’s no problem.

piano keyboard

How can you make sure you’ve got the right starting note and, more importantly, how can you keep hold of it before the song sets off?

Just to make it clear, I’m talking about choirs or vocal ensembles that sing in harmony. The problem is harder if your group sings acappella.

why some singers find it hard to get started

Some singers can pitch easily from a piano, but not a voice. Others find it easier from voice rather than instrument. And within those who pitch easily from voice, some voices are easier to pitch from than others. It’s a minefield!

Then there’s anxiety: if you get anxious about singing or finding your starting note, then you won’t be in the moment and paying full attention so won’t be fully aware when your note is given out.

Finally, it can be hard for a woman to pitch from a male choir leader (and vice versa). This is something I’m going to be writing about next week (in the meantime you can look at Singing the same note – differently!).

keeping the note you’ve been given

OK, so you’ve managed to get the right pitch for your starting note, but by the time all the other parts have been given their notes and the song is about to start, you’ve forgotten yours. What can you do?

  • don’t panic – if you start to worry about keeping your note, you will get anxious and more likely to forget. Same thing if you try to block the other parts out.
  • relax and open up – trust that you will remember your note. As  you listen to the other parts being given their notes, think of it as a starting chord and be aware of where your own note fits into the whole.
  • keep it to yourself – some beginner singers are tempted to quietly hum or sing their starting note so they can hold on to it. Not only can this put the other singers off, but the opposite can easily happen. By singing out loud you’re focusing on yourself and not the starting chord plus you’re being anxious (see don’t panic above). The longer you sing the note, the more likely you are to drift off as you’re not paying attention to the whole. Then when you do start, you’ll probably be flat. If you hold the note silently within you and listen to how it fits in with all the others, you’re good to go when the song starts.
  • sound the opening chord – some choir leaders do this all the time. Or maybe it’s something to do only in rehearsal whilst you’re learning. The idea is that once everyone has been given their note (and is singing it silently within), then the whole group sings the opening chord out loud to make sure it’s tuned perfectly. There’s a short pause, then the song sets off. If your musical director doesn’t do this, ask them if you can try it at one rehearsal to see if it helps.

your part might not come in at the start

The advice above works well when all harmony parts start at the same time. But what if your part doesn’t come in at the start of the song?

There will usually be some kind of reference point. Often the last note sung by another part just before you come in will be the same as yours. Either work that out on your own, or ask your choir leader to point it out to you.

Sometimes that note may be an octave away from where you start, but that’s still helpful.

What is more difficult is when nobody sings your exact note, but you have to figure out a particular interval between another part’s note and your starting note. It may well be easy to do that in isolation, but in the middle of a song it can be quite a problem.

This can be the sign of it not being a good song arrangement (a good song arrangement is one that makes things easier for the singers, not the arranger, audience or choir leader). Your options are to just practice, practice, practice, or make sure you use a better arrangement next time.

men pitching from women, and women pitching from men

This can be a real problem, especially if there are men and women in the same part (e.g. the tenor section of many community choirs). I’ll be writing about it next week. Stay tuned!

other useful stuff

I do hope these ideas have helped. Do let me know if you have a starting note problem that I’ve not covered here, or if you have another solution that works well for you.

You might also find these other posts useful:

Learn how to sing in tune – matching pitch

How do I know if I’m singing in tune?

Start as you mean to carry on (giving out starting notes)

Singing the same note – differently! (men and women pitching and ‘octaves’)

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Chris Rowbury



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