The Musical Etiquette Rules Lead Singers Need to Know
Here are 5 of the most important things singers should know before stepping up to the band-leading plate. Consider these the primary rules of musicianship etiquette for leading a band: Use a pitch pipe to determine your first note instead of asking one of the players
1. Know your key: If you plan to rehearse or perform a song without written music, you’ll want to tell the folks in charge of harmony (keyboard, vibes, guitar, bass, etc.) what tonality to play in. We also recommend using a pitch pipe (unless you have perfect pitch) to determine your first note instead of asking one of the players. Singers need to appear as self-sufficient as possible!
2. Be able to count-off your song: This includes tempo, feel and knowing how many measures you will be counting before the song actually begins. This information is crucial and must be communicated successfully to the players who expect you to know and divulge this information with clarity. Take note: never snap your fingers on beats one and three when counting off a swing feel!
3. Learn all the standard introductions and endings: There are many ways to start and end songs and singers are responsible for knowing how to notate and/or verbally describe both conventional and original intros and endings using appropriate musical terminology. Examples of standard intros include pedal-tone, vamp, turnaround and rubato. Typical endings include tag, vamp til cue, repeat & fade, ritardando, cut-off and for jazz tunes, stock endings by Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
4. Learn How to Cue the Band: Cues are extremely important and they are usually conducted using hand signals or communicated with eye contact and/or head nods, particularly when performing rubato. Other important cues include motions for cut-offs, fermatas, repeats, changes in tempo, meter or rhythmic feel, stop-time, breaks (or “kicks”), trading phrases and key modulations. Helpful hint: watch conductors of orchestras and big bands and observe how these leaders communicate using their bodies.
5. Be Able to Describe the Form of the Song: Whether you use a written lead sheet or communicate verbally, your rhythm section (plus any auxiliary players in the band) need to know the form of the tune you have selected. This is known as “talking down the chart” and must be described in detail as you would a roadmap. Details include the intro, where the melody and verse begin and end, all repeats & tags, first and second endings, coda formulas, interludes, rubato sections, tempo changes and pretty much all your musical format considerations. Written arrangements must include all these indications with the addition of highlighted rehearsal letters, measure numbers and a roadmap graph of the form which might look something like this for example:
Vocalists have been trying to keep up with instrumentalists for years. They have the unfortunate reputation for being second-rate musicians who are unable to lead a band for the purposes of recording, rehearsing or just jamming.
While the expectations of bandleaders are already high (and rightly so), a singer who does not hold a musical instrument in his/her hands is under further scrutiny by the instrumentalists who will be following their director’s musical whims.
This is especially true of rhythm sections as it is their relentless job to preserve the group’s rhythmic and harmonic integrity. The leader’s job is to describe what they want for the groove, time feel and other arranging considerations.
This is a huge responsibility and vocalists who lead bands must be able to communicate using appropriate terminology to describe all components of the music they want to perform.
Singers need to develop a high level of musicianship, learn the vocabulary of instrumentalists and make a conscientious effort to avoid using vernacular expressions that require translation.