The 5 Musical Etiquette Rules Lead Singers Need to Know

The 5 Musical Etiquette Rules Lead Singers Need to KnowThe leader’s job is to describe what they want for the groove, time feel and other arranging considerations –says Bob Stoloff.

Here are 5 of the most important things singers should know before stepping up to the band-leading plate.

Consider these the primary rules of musicianship etiquette for leading a band:


Use a pitch pipe to determine your first note instead of asking one of the players

1. Know your key: If you plan to rehearse or perform a song without written music, you’ll want to tell the folks in charge of harmony (keyboard, vibes, guitar, bass, etc.) what tonality to play in. I also recommend using a pitch pipe (unless you have perfect pitch) to determine your first note instead of asking one of the players. Singers need to appear as self-sufficient as possible!

2. Be able to count-off your song: This includes tempo, feel and knowing how many measures you will be counting before the song actually begins. This information is crucial and must be communicated successfully to the players who expect you to know and divulge this information with clarity. Take note: never snap your fingers on beats one and three when counting off a swing feel!

3. Learn all the standard introductions and endings: There are many ways to start and end songs and singers are responsible for knowing how to notate and/or verbally describe both conventional and original intros and endings using appropriate musical terminology. Examples of standard intros include pedal-tone, vamp, turnaround and rubato. Typical endings include tag, vamp til cue, repeat & fade, ritardando, cut-off and for jazz tunes, stock endings by Duke Ellington and Count Basie.


Observe how conductors of orchestras and big bands communicate using their bodies

4. Learn How to Cue the Band: Cues are extremely important and they are usually conducted using hand signals or communicated with eye contact and/or head nods, particularly when performing rubato. Other important cues include motions for cut-offs, fermatas, repeats, changes in tempo, meter or rhythmic feel, stop-time, breaks (or “kicks”), trading phrases and key modulations. Helpful hint: watch conductors of orchestras and big bands and observe how these leaders communicate using their bodies.

5. Be Able to Describe the Form of the Song: Whether you use a written lead sheet or communicate verbally, your rhythm section (plus any auxiliary players in the band) need to know the form of the tune you have selected. This is known as “talking down the chart” and must be described in detail as you would a roadmap. Details include the intro, where the melody and verse begin and end, all repeats & tags, first and second endings, coda formulas, interludes, rubato sections, tempo changes and pretty much all your musical format considerations. Written arrangements must include all these indications with the addition of highlighted rehearsal letters, measure numbers and a roadmap graph of the form which might look something like this for example:


Final Words

Vocalists have been trying to keep up with instrumentalists for years. They have the unfortunate reputation for being second-rate musicians who are unable to lead a band for the purposes of recording, rehearsing or just jamming.

While the expectations of bandleaders are already high (and rightly so), a singer who does not hold a musical instrument in his/her hands is under further scrutiny by the instrumentalists who will be following their director’s musical whims.


This is especially true of rhythm sections as it is their relentless job to preserve the group’s rhythmic and harmonic integrity.

The leader’s job is to describe what they want for the groove, time feel and other arranging considerations.

This is a huge responsibility and vocalists who lead bands must be able to communicate using appropriate terminology to describe all components of the music they want to perform.

Singers need to develop a high level of musicianship, learn the vocabulary of instrumentalists and make a conscientious effort to avoid using vernacular expressions that require translation.

My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry

Mikalyn Hay Mikalyn Hay - All About That Bass

You have a very affable demeanor on stage that is very inviting, keep working on keyboard skills so you can connect with the audience more and watch your fingers less. I would like to also watch your performance without playing the piano-this will boost your confidence and improve you stage presence so that when you do a self-accompanied tune it will be a special event, perhaps one of the featured highpoints of your concert presentation.


Bob Stoloff is a world-renowned guest conductor, workshop clinician and ensemble performance adjudicator. His unique and comprehensive approaches to teaching include traditional scat singing, group improvisation, “Instru-Vocal” articulation and body percussion. Bob’s books and information about his Vocal Jazz Academy in Europe can be found at

  • Bill Minor

    Try leading when you have both of kids – your 28 year old and 24 year old playing with you!
    Quite a G-GAP!!!!
    I don’t want there to be, but it’s just inevitable. I taught both to play, I’ve been playing and performing since 1978 – was smack dab in the middle of the “Athens Music Scene” performing almost across the street from “Tyrone’s” where REM started.
    Back to the point; I have found it so difficult to not get frustrated – I’ve got a bass player – an African-American guy who is my age – been playing for 35 years – could be on tour with practically any band out there – he’s incredible – I’m trying to involve my kids in the act and it’s just not working! Or the way I thought it might!
    Didn’t know if any one else has had a similar situation? I know I should be really grateful that both my kids want to play with me – it makes me feel terrible but it’s gotten really emotionally complicated…not to mention musically!!
    Thanks for letting me vent – let me know if any of you have had a similar experience
    Guilt Ridden in Garden Hills/Buckhead/Atlanta!

  • That was awesome! Here you can have your singing reviewed!