Five Steps to “Talk Down Your Chart”

Five Steps to “Talk Down Your Chart”


Q: Why is the singer waiting out on the porch?

A: Because (s)he can’t find her keys and (s)he doesn’t know when to come in!

Don’t let this old joke apply to you! Master the five essentials of key, time, tempo, feel and form so that you can feel confident and in control on stage with an accompanist or band.

1. Key Signature.  The key signature is located on the top left of your lead sheet or sheet music.  Use the “Circle of Fifths” to identify the key.  If it is a standard tune, sometimes you may not need a lead sheet, so you should have a list of songs and the keys you sing them in.

2. Time Signature.  The time signature is located next to the key. The most common time signatures are: 4/4, 3/4, 6/8 or 6/12.  The top number = how many beats per measure, and the bottom number = the value of a quarter note.  Practice tapping or clapping beats per measure so that you can “count in” the tune.

3. Tempo.  This is how fast or slow you want the song to be played.  Try to imagine singing the song in your head and then convey that to the players either by counting in or singing a phrase or two of the song.  Using physical cues such as clapping or just moving to the beat is helpful, too.

4. Feel. The feel refers to the style and rhythmic feel.  Examples are: swing, rock, jazz ballad, pop ballad, Bossa, Samba, waltz, etc.  Listen to a lot of different music on Itunes, Pandora, YouTube or a similar site and start to identify the different styles.

5. Form.  The form is the road map of the song, so it’s important that you and your accompanist or band are following the same one! If you are using sheet music (particularly for pop or musical theater) it is likely that everything is written out for you, ie: introduction, repeats, endings etc. However, if you are using a simple lead sheet (particularly for jazz); it is likely that you will have to talk it over with the player(s) and let them know what you want.

If things don’t go exactly according to plan, you can always communicate with the musicians during the performance, using hand gestures.   Here are some examples:

  • Take a solo: point at the soloist
  • Go back to the top: point at your head
  • Go back to the bridge: point to the bridge of your nose or make a bridge with your hand
  • Tag the ending three times: hold up three fingers
  • The end: hold up your fist

You can use gestures to ask the band to slow down or speed up.  It’s fine to make up your own – anything goes, as long as you can get your point across!


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