How To Start A Cappella Pieces

J.D. Frizzella cappella Leave a Comment

There are myriad ways to start your a cappella group’s performance of a given song:

  • Pitch pipe (air driven)
  • Pitch pipe (electronic)
  • App on a cell phone
  • An actual piano
  • Tuning fork
  • A member with perfect pitch sings

Usually a group will tape a set list to the floor or side of the wedge monitors to keep track of songs and starting pitches in combination with one of these methods.  While I have used all of these at some point in the past, I think I’ve found the ideal solution: cue tracks.

What are cue tracks?  Short audio files that provide a pitch and tempo reference and then count off the piece.  Here’s an example of “I Am” we used in 2018:

You’ll notice that there is a one measure introduction on piano with VP, followed by a single starting note underneath a count off.  I also leave the last count open for a breath. I find that this is better than counting a full 4 beats if a piece is in 4/4.  Whatever the time signature is, I leave the last count off for a breath.  If a piece starts with a pickup note, I’ll leave a beat out before the count of that pickup (often adding a full measure of count before that if the tempo is fast).  This is what I did for “In the Name of Love”:

Sometimes I’ll use a click track or soft VP instead of actual counting.  This is usually a judgement call based on the style and dynamic of the opening.  On “This is Me” from the National A Cappella Convention encore with Vocalight last spring, I used the actual sung demo plus click:

We play these pitches into our in ear monitors using my phone or computer using Qlab.  Don’t have a Mac or Qlab?  Use Garage Band or iTunes or any audio player.  I like Qlab because I can nicely arrange all the cues and it stays in order ready to go.

Don’t have in ear monitors?  Play the cues into the wedge monitors.  It’s still more seamless and professional than someone trying to remember the pitch, play it, then count off.

Another advantage of using cue tracks is that it keeps your singers in the proper tempo for each song.  Keeping the right tempo in your head on demand is hard when you have many songs in a long set.

Some people might say this is cheating.  Well, if it’s cheating, then literally every single professional musician touring today cheats, including Pentatonix, The Swingles, Home Free, and Voice Play.  Many of these groups actually have click and MIDI going into their IEMs throughout the entire song to ensure that they stay spot on day in and day out.

What do you think?  Is there something I can do to make these cue tracks better?  Have you used them?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

All arrangements by Robert Dietz.

About the Author

J.D. Frizzell

Dr. J.D. Frizzell is an award-winning educator, director, composer, arranger, author, and entrepreneur. He is the Director of Fine Arts at Briarcrest Christian School in suburban Memphis, TN. Winner of the Integrales Composition Contest, Dr. Frizzell has best selling works with dozens of publishing companies. His vocal ensembles have performed at state, regional, and national conferences and have collaborated with numerous GRAMMY winning artists.