How To Start A Song Right!

pedagogy corner Jan 10, 2020


One thing is for sure: the hardest part of doing anything is getting started.  Music is no different. 

By James Hill, founder of Uketropolis, online ukelele lessons.

How many times have you had trouble getting a song started?  The more players there are, the more challenging it seems to get that first word, note or chord to happen at the right time. So in this short lesson I'll share some tips on how to count-in a song. 

There are two things that make a good count-in: tempo and pickup.  Let's start with tempo.  The speed of your count-in sets the speed of the song.  If I'm counting-in a slow song I'll say "one... two... three... four" but if I'm counting-in a fast song I might say "one, two, three, four."  It might sound obvious but there've been plenty of times when I've heard teachers, jam session leaders and performers (and yes, I've been guilty of it, too) when we count-in a song in one tempo and then start playing in an entirely different tempo!

The speed of your count-in sets the speed of the song.

The best advice I can give you is this: before you start the count-in, sing the most difficult passage of the piece in your mind.  Don't start the song any faster than you can play that part.  It's that simple.  If I'm counting-in Pachelbel's Canon in D, for example, I need to think ahead to the part that goes "dum ditty dum ditty dum, da-da-da-da-da-da-da" (you know the part I'm talking about).  Even though the beginning is much easier to play, I need to start it at that tempo.

Now let's have a look at the second thing on our list: the pickup.  I'm not talking about a Ford pickup truck here, I'm talking about any notes that happen before the first downbeat.  What does that mean?  Well, not every song starts right on the first beat of the first measure.  There's often a little lead-in, as in "happy BIRTH-day to you."  The first place you naturally want to tap your foot is on the word "birthday."  So the word "happy" is a pickup, a lead-in before the first measure.  So, how would you count-in Happy Birthday?  Well, there are three beats in each measure (e.g. "Birth day to") and the word "Happy" takes up one of those beats.  So instead of counting "1, 2, 3, Happy Birthday" I only count "1, 2, Happy Birthday" and that leaves room for the pickup.  Of course, we never start Happy Birthday this way, it's always a chaotic jumble and that's part of the fun of it.  I'm just using this as a familiar example of a melody with a pickup.

Before you start the count-in, sing the most difficult passage of the piece in your mind.  Don't start the song any faster than you can play that part.

Let's look at another one.  "Oh, I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee."  Which words come before the first measure?  If you guessed "Oh, I" then you're right.  You could start this song with the words "Come from Alabama" and you wouldn't need to leave room in your count-in for the pickup.  Like this: "1, 2, 3, 4, Come from Alabama."  But if you want to fit those two extra words in, you have to make room for them in the count-in.  They take up one beat so the count-in would be, "1, 2, 3, Oh, I come from Alabama."  That's how you leave room in the count-in for the pickup notes.

Let's look at one last example.  Sometimes, the pickup is so long it almost feels like a full measure.  One of my favourite songs of all time is It Had to Be You by Isham Jones and Gus Kahn.  I mean, Ginger Rogers sang it, Gene Kelly danced to it, it was featured in Casablanca, Diane Keaton sings it in Annie Hall, plus it was the theme song for When Harry Met Sally.  One of the great songs, for sure.  And doesn't a great song deserve a great count-in?  The pickup here is almost the entire title of the song.  In fact, the hallmark of the song is that long pickup which is often sung by the singer alone with the band coming in on the word "You" which is where the first measure begins.  The words "It had to be" take up three whole beats.  So, to count this in you need to make room for those words in the count-in, meaning your count-in would be reduced to just "ONE"!  Like this: "ONE! It had to be you."  And that doesn't give you a chance to establish your tempo.  It's like saying "GO!"

Doesn't a great song deserve a great count-in?

So, this brings us to one last thing called a "bar for nothing."  A "bar for nothing" is when you count one extra measure just to give everyone more time to tune into your tempo, especially when there's a pickup.  So, adding a "bar for nothing" is a good idea on a piece like It Had to Be You and it would sound like this: "1, 2, 3, 4, 1, It had to be you."  A bar for nothing on Oh Susanna would sound like this: "1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, Oh I come from Alabama."  The bar for nothing is often done in cut-time like this: 1--, 2--, 1, 2, 3. 

Notice that I'm giving a little accent on the final beat of my count-in.  This is like a springboard for my group, a little boost that says "here we go!"  It gives them a little extra energy and assurance that says, "yes, we are starting now!"  In fact, you can even use this last count-in beat to give instructions.  I could say, "1--, 2--, 1, 2, SING!"  Or, if it's an instrumental I could say, "1, 2, PICK!"  or "1, 2, STRUM!"  Or if they need a reminder about the arrangement I could say, "1, 2, INTRO!"  Just don't try to cram too much into that beat otherwise you'll get "1, 2, smile-look-happy-and-don't-forget-the-dynamics-in-the-bridge!"  Obviously, that won't work very well.

So there you have it, a primer on the art of the count-in.  This is an often-overlooked topic that can make or break a performance.  If the hardest part of anything is getting started, I hope this helps you and your students have more fun and and have more success with music this year.  1--, 2--, 1, 2, cut!

James Hill is the founder of Uketropolis and author of many ukulele method books including Ukulele in the Classroom (with J. Chalmers Doane), BOOSTER UKE and The Ukulele Way.

Tags: rhythm, count-in, ukulele in the classroom

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