Starting in the Middle 2: A How-To Guide

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Last week I was encouraging the world to develop the capacity to start singing at any point in the music, not just the obvious section boundaries, and promised some practical hints on how to work on this. So, here they are.

The first port of call is the music itself. Part of the director’s preparation for introducing new repertoire needs to be to identify potential start points, and to categorise them as more or less obvious or challenging. The three musical dimensions that most affect this classification are harmony, rhythm and phrase structure. (Arguably the third is a product of the other two, but it is a useful analytical dimension in its own right.)

The obvious section boundaries will usually see these three working together. It’s easy to come in at the start of the verse because all musical elements are signalling the sense of ‘beginning-ness’. It’s harder to pick up from the second phrase because, whilst the phrase structure might signal it as a new beginning, it will likely have moved away from home harmonically. It’s harder still to pick up mid-phrase because both are in flux, though easier if the parts are rhythmically unified than if they are staggered.

So, the four qualities that the singers will want to hang their hats on as they develop this skill are:

  • Starts of phrases
  • All parts starting at the same time
  • Tonic harmony
  • Unambiguous rhythmic context (e.g. clear down-beat)

The goal is to wean them off needing all at once. So, if you’re challenging them to start on a chord other than the tonic, do so at a place where they won’t worry about rhythm. (And give them the notes in the first instance – they can start figuring out their own once they’ve got the hang of coming in on harmonically unstable chords.) If they’re to learn how to start in places where they all come in separately, that’s best attempted in harmonically stable places in the first instance.

As with all rehearsing, the trick is to use trial and error to set challenges that are just beyond what people can currently do, but near enough to be worth reaching for. If they manage it perfectly first time, you need to increase the challenge, if they haven’t managed on two attempts, it’s time to relent and go back a bit to an easier spot.

Another trick, if you routinely rehearse from memory, is to let people use the sheet music while you’re doing the nitty-gritty work. Starting mid-flow is a somewhat separate cognitive challenge from holding music in memory, so it’s helpful to take the pressure off one to allow quality attention on the other.

Having said that, if you work from memory, you’ll also need to find a common language for signalling your way round the song when you come off copy. When you’re holding the sheet music, you can identify your start point as, say, ‘top of page 3’ or ‘bar 57’. But people remember music by other means than bar numbers. Lyrics are often useful markers, but (especially in repetitive music), structural markers are useful too.

So, in the example of ‘Happy Together’ I used in my post on Song Maps, you might pin-point Verse 1, ‘I should call you up’, or Chorus 2, ‘When you’re with me’. Both of these, incidentally, are mid-points in their sections, starting subsidiary phrase on tonic chords, so suitable challenges for a group just starting to wean themselves off long run-ins. Note, however, that both of these require harmony parts to know what the melody line is doing in order to identify the lyrics.

And once people are getting the hang of starting just before the bits you want to rehearse, you can start playing my first piano teacher’s game of lucky dip.

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