World Choir Games Flanders 2021

Which single note do you give your choir to start a song?

  • [this is a version of a post which first appeared on my blog From the Front of the Choir]


    Last time (Tuning up – where do start notes come from?) I talked about my aim of being able to give out a single note to my choir, instead of having to give a note to each separate part. Now I want to look at which note you might actually give out that will be the greatest help.


    You’re ready to start the next song in the concert. You know how to find notes (using a pitch pipe, tuning fork, piano or whatever suits). The choir eagerly awaits you.


    Musical note







    But which note do you give out? The tonic note (don’t panic, I’ll explain this later)? The first note of the melody? The first note that the sopranos sing (because your girlfriend is a soprano)?


    This is an age-old question and there is no right or easy answer.


    sopranos please

    One school of thought is to give the sopranos’ note since they usually have the melody so it will be a recognisable pitch to the rest of the choir.


    But often the sopranos don’t have the melody, and who says the melody should dictate the piece so forcefully any way?


    And in lots of the songs that we do, especially those from Eastern Europe, it’s hard to tell which part IS the tune!


    give it to us! – the basses

    Or you could give the first note of the bass part using the principle that the bass is (usually) the root of the chord (which makes up the harmonies).


    Even if the chord is not the tonic of the piece, the rest of the choir should be able to pick up their note OK.


    But it can be confusing if the song starts on a ‘weird’ chord (which many of ours do!).


    it’s a tonic

    Most often, people suggest giving out the tonic note of the piece.


    (For those of you reading this who don’t know too much music theory – me included! – this is for you. The key signature of a piece tells you which scale the piece is based on. The ‘tonic note’ is the first note of that scale. So if a piece is in C major, the tonic is the note ‘C’. If the piece is in Eb minor, then the tonic is ‘Eb’.)


    Many times a song will start out on the tonic, either sung in unison or harmonised. If it’s harmonised, then it usually begins with the chord based on the tonic (e.g. C major chord if the piece is in C major) and the bass part will sing the tonic too. In these cases life is easy and giving the tonic out will help everybody.


    But sometimes a song will start on a note other than the tonic.


    Many times it will be a simple ‘pick up’ note which then goes straight onto the tonic, but at other times the first few notes may not have any relationship to the tonic at all.


    practice makes perfect

    Whichever approach you decide to take, you will need to practice.


    Never, ever expect it to work in performance unless you’ve practiced it many, many times. It might even be that you use a different approach for each song.

    Practice whatever you are going to do many times with the choir. Build up confidence and remove any doubt or insecurity. The last thing you want is the piece to start with half the choir not knowing what note to sing!


    Another thing you will need to practice is the choir getting the note from your pitch pipe/ piano/ tuning fork. With training you may be able to just play the note and the choir will be able to pick it up. Or you may decide to listen to the note quietly yourself and then sing a gentle ‘oo’ to the choir.


    Once they’ve got the note, they will need to ‘audiate’ it silently, within their head. There’s nothing worse than a random selection of choir members attempting (and often failing!) to quietly hum the note you’ve given out.


    what’s your experience?

    As a choir member, what helps you the most: being sung to or having the note played? Can your choir start off from just one note? If so, which one does your conductor give you? And choir leaders, are you able to give out just one note or do you give all the parts their note? I’d love to hear your experiences, so do please leave a comment. Thanks.


    Chris Rowbury:

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