Question: How do you know when there is a singer knocking at your door?
Answer: When you open the door, they still don’t know when to come in.
OK it’s not that funny and in the interest of political correctness, I modified it a bit (it’s usually a “chick” singer) but it generally gets at least a smile because most musicians have experienced playing behind a singer who had trouble making good decisions regarding where and when exactly to begin singing.
It is my hope here to write an essay describing some of the conventional forms of songs and the many options you for timing your entrances in your vocal performance. I hope to keep it shorter than my piece on picking a key and I hope it might give a few of you singers some insight into the choices available and some information on their relative advantages and disadvantages.
You already know most of this stuff. Bear with me as I run through it quickly.
Those of you with a rudimentary knowledge of music theory can skim through the basic stuff.
Those of you who are already comfortable in knowing when to come in, may skip the entire piece. Most of us already understand a lot of this stuff intuitively. It is a part of our culture and we have all been immersed in it all our lives.
Music is made up of rhythm, melody, harmony and form.
You already understand rhythm. It’s the pulse, the marking of the passage of time. Music is always going somewhere. This is the pace of that movement. It’s visceral. You feel it. It can be slow or fast or anything in between. It can vary (by speeding up or slowing down) but it is always there. In order to be able describe this process and to notate music, we have divided these pieces of space/time to a low (but not the lowest because we often subdivide these things into smaller divisions of 2s or 3s) common denominator.
We call these divisions in time “beats”.
We have organized these beats into re-occurring groups called “measures”.
These measures get organized into sections and phrases and movements and songs and symphonies. We like our music creative but we like structure too.
Then we organize beats into measures in 2s (a march). Sometimes in 3s (a waltz). Usually in 4s. Very rarely in 5s, sometimes in 6s (this is just a modification of 2s and 3s). rarely 7s, 11s, 13s or whatever prime number you like.
82% of the time (I just made that statistic up), you are dealing with a 32 bar song, divided into 4 distinct sections with 4 beats in a measure and 8 measures in a section.
Soak that up.
Pick a song. Any song.
In most cases, It will have this form:
1. an 8 bar phrase.
2. a second 8 bar phrase (much like the first one)
3. A third eight bar phrase quite different from the first two (this is called the “bridge”)
4. and a 4th 8 bar phrase very much like the first two but composed in a way which suggests an ending.
We call this form “A, A, B, A”.
The three “A” sections are all similar (although usually not identical). The “B” section (the bridge) is quite different.
Here is an example that you will all be familiar with.
Consider the tune “Misty”. The the melody of the sections beginning
“Look at me…”
“Walk my way…”
and “On my own…
are all very similar, while the bridge “You can say that you’re leading me on….” is quite different.
This is our most common form. (Take the A Train, The Star Spangled Banner. I Wish You Love) Trust me. 82 %.
There are other forms. Never on a Sunday might be considered AABBAA.
Some have a structure of “A, B, A, C” (Bill Bailey, The More I See You, Go Away Little Girl)
Then there is the Blues, which is usually in a twelve bar form (Stormy Monday) but can be an eight (St. James Infirmary), sixteen (Railroad Porter Blues) or a few other forms so rare that they don’t rate a mention. I even know of one blues with an eleven and a half bar form (“I’ve Got Everything I Need…Almost” by the Blues Brothers…the “Almost” is the 2 missing beats necessary to have made a standard 12 bar blues).
I know I am losing some of you here, so let me get back to the bigger concept.
All songs have a form. Most of you already understand that and feel the form intuitively. You know when it starts and when it’s over. You know when to pause between the phrase that you’re on and the one coming up just like you know when to breath.
OK. With that as a background, let’s return to the subject (“When to come in”)
The first time through, come in when you’re ready (but be ready when you do come in and don’t make us wait forever). That might be immediately as the music begins or a bit later after the band sets it up.
If you want your accompanist(s) to set up the tempo, feel and key, just ask them. Most players will be able to establish either
1. a “vamp” (which is sort of a musical holding pattern)
2. a nicely crafted introduction (which will lead you to a specific entrance point).
There are advantages to both.
If you want the band to vamp until you’re ready, the advantage is that you get to pick your point of entrance on the fly. You can use that time before you start singing to talk to your audience and introduce yourself and the song or just to get a feel for the canvas you are about to paint on. The band can vamp for as long as you want (but please don’t abuse this privilege or you will lose both the band’s and the audience’s attention). Maintain a strong level of musical communication with the band, they will follow you and lead you at the same time. Obviously, this works both ways. You listen and react, they listen and react. It’s a cooperative art form and that’s a huge part of why it’s beautiful and fun.
If you choose to put yourself in the hands of the musicians you’re working with, the advantage is that you will get a higher level of their art and hopefully, a more creative and musical end result. Obviously the down side is that you surrender some creative control (presumably to players who are likely to know what you need) and you have to pay some attention to where they are going in order to not miss the entrance they are crafting for you
If you have something particular in mind, it is always fine to ask for it. Musical introductions are generally four or eight bars long but can be much longer. A competent accompanist will be able to deliver almost anything you ask for.
OK, so, sing the whole song all the way through.
Now, you have some more choices.
1. You can stop right there. There are lots of songs that work best one time through and out (Old Man River comes to mind).
2. You can go back to the beginning and sing the song again. If you choose this option, you should try to do something at least a little different with it the second time around. Different words, different delivery, different tempo, different key….something/anything different. Otherwise you are repeating yourself and your audience will lose some of it’s interest. We are making great music but we are also engaged in show business.
3. You can have the band play part or all of the song and then come back in to finish up or sing it through all the way one last time. This is the most commonly chosen option, so let’s spend a little more time with it.
For short songs or fast songs that go by pretty quick, consider having the band take a whole one. Your concern is your audiences attention span and how many times you can go through the song and still maintain their interest. Most tunes that go by fairly quickly, you can do at least three times through without losing too much of your audience.
For ballads, or other longer songs, twice is usually enough. If you choose this option, then deciding when to come back in becomes your most important issue.
Most of the time (82%), you will want to come back in on the bridge (which will be the third 8 bar phrase) but depending on the form of the song, you might want to come back in on any one of the 8 bar sections that make up the song. As long as it is done with confidence, almost any re-entry will work just fine. The key is to be aware of where you are in the song at all times. Sing it in your head. Stay with it. Keep your focus on the song and have a plan before you start.
Another common option is to have the band play the entire song and then, have the vocalist come back in starting at the bridge. This works really well. Consider it for your medium length tunes
You also have the option (if you choose to take it) of having the band “vamp” at any point. Again, this is like a holding pattern. The accompanist (s) continue to play something that maintains the rhythmic and harmonic groove while stopping the advance of the melody. You can use this time to set the next part up or acknowledge the band (as opposed to the usual awkward practice of doing this while they are playing and soliciting applause which will drown them out) or just give your audience a momentary break. This doesn’t work that well on ballads but it’s fine for up-tempo songs. Just make sure that the musicians playing with you know what you want. This is best achieved by using eye contact and hand signals.
OK. Here are some of the common universal hand signals.
1. Index finger pointing to the sky or touching your head:
Go back to the top of the song (play the “head”).
2. Hand arched so that fingers and thumb are together and horizontal:
Go to the bridge.
3. Traditional “thumbs up”:
Modulate up a step or a half step to the next highest (reasonable) key.
Additional information for advanced students only:
If you wish us to modulate to a particular key, indicate that key using the “sharps up, flats down” method. Number of sharps in the desired key is indicated by pointing that many fingers up. For flats, point them down. For example, if you are in F (one flat, one finger pointing down) and want to modulate up a whole step to G (one sharp), point one finger up (but do be careful which finger). This works with everybody except New York musicians who, inexplicably, reverse the directions (flats up, sharps down)
4. Fist in the air:
I am ending it now.
5. Index finger describing a circle:
This is the end, but I am stretching the ending out some. Repeat the last phrase and follow me.
6. Show 3 fingers (describing a circle)
repeat the last phrase 3 times.
6. Wave your hand in a rhythmic way:
I am conducting. Follow me. We are slowing down (or speeding up).
You don’t have to make these gestures in any exaggerated way. We are already watching you. We are waiting for you to tell us where you are going. Our job and our desire is to make your performance work as best we can. We are accompanying you. The more we understand about where you are going, the better we can do this.
At the same time, we are also leading you with our take on where we think you are going. Pay attention.
It’s good to have a plan before you start but it’s also OK to not have one and just follow the music where it leads you. However, keep in mind, the music can’t lead you if you aren’t listening and you can’t listen attentively if you are reading, so do your best to memorize your lyrics. This is easier than you think. It’s best done by repetition. Sing the song to yourself without the lyrics in front of you enough and you will find that after time, you won’t need them written out anymore. They will be in your head and you can use that part of your brain which was occupied by the task of reading them for something more creative like interpreting the words and the melody in a way that makes them your own (and figuring out When To Come In).
Keep making great music