Setting Up Context for an Ensemble

Are you tired yet of chapters that start by practicing setting up a key, meter, and tempo? Sorry. Here’s one more. These are just so important! Key is particularly important to set up for vocal ensembles, though helping to internalize the key can also help instrumentalists make music more accurately and musically. Meter and tempo are always crucial for an ensemble, whether you are a conductor or a member of a chamber group.

We’ll start with meter and tempo since these are so universally important. The methods for setting these up differ from ensemble to ensemble: for example, jazz band leaders often start with “a-one, a-two, a-one-two-three-four”; orchestra, band, and choir conductors often give a single preparation beat with their arm/hand; and chamber ensembles often give a preparatory beat with an in-breath and slight raising of the upper body. It’s worth practicing all of these since they’re all different but effective ways of communicating.

There are a few methods that will make any of these methods of communication more effective:

  • Make sure your internal image of what you want is clear before you communicate it to others. This should take into account whatever effect you want the music to have (“frantic,” “relaxed,” “walking speed,” etc.). Be sure you can feel not just the beats but also the divisions and cycles/measures, and that you can hear the beginning of the music in your head to make sure it sounds “right” at your chosen speed.
  • Think about what point(s) of reference your ensemble may need. In many cases, simply giving the beat will be enough, but if there are a lot of complicated or fast rhythms at the beginning, it may be important to communicate the beat division as well.
  • Finally, consider your fellow musicians’ reaction times. You’re not just setting up the tempo, but also helping them start together! If your preparatory cue is short (usually just a single beat), make sure that the time from the cue till the musicians should start playing is clear. It may be helpful to think of your cue not as a clock’s “tick,” which doesn’t tell you when the next tick will be, but rather as the tossing of a ball for which the effect of gravity determines when it will arrive at its destination. You might even make a gesture with your upper body, arm, or head that imitates the shape of a tossed ball’s (shortened) trajectory through the air to help your ensemble see exactly when their entrance will arrive.

Now it’s time for key! If you want your ensemble to lock into the key right from the beginning, remember that half steps typically help us lock in to the collection, and tonicizing gestures help us hear the tonic as tonic. If we don’t want to rely on an accompanying instrument, it may help to teach the ensemble how to hear the context of their starting note by adapting the formulas we used in the chapter on tonic/collection and solfège as appropriate and teaching them to the musicians.

Activity: Synchronized reading

Goal: Develop the ability to synchronize musicians with appropriate starting cues.

Before you start: You’ll need at least one other person or a small group, and a poem—ideally one with a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Identify one group member as the leader.


  1. The leader looks over the poem and begins imagining it recited at a specific tempo.
  2. Once solid in how it should sound, the leader decides what gesture they will use to prepare the group to recite it together. (Our goal is for everyone to read the poem together at the exact same speed.) You are encouraged to use gestures associated with music, such as those described in the text above.
  3. The leader makes the preparatory gesture, and everyone reads the first few lines of the poem together.
  4. Evaluate: how together was the ensemble, both in time and in affect/character? Was there anything about the preparatory gesture that could have better prepared everyone for the intended tempo and character?


Activity: Set up context for an ensemble

Goal: Develop the habit of orienting an ensemble before you begin to rehearse or perform.

Before you start: You’ll need some notated ensemble music, ideally with 3–4 parts. Many sight-reading anthologies have multiple-part excerpts, though you may need to scan through the anthology or read a dedicated index in the back to find them; alternatively, if you have access to a choral music library or chamber music library, you can check out scores from there. You’ll also need a small ensemble to work with. We encourage you and your ensemble to use your voices, since this requires an understanding of context, but you can also work with instruments.


  1. Each person takes charge over a certain excerpt or piece of music and looks it over, noting the opening key and meter. They should consider the opening melodies in light of that context, in particular how the rhythms relate to the beats and tempo and what scale degrees each part is singing, and create a plan to orient their ensemble to that context.
  2. Each person takes turns leading the ensemble. First, carry out your plan to help your ensemble orient to key and meter, then have them sight-read through the first phrase.
  3. Evaluate: did it seem like your musicians knew what they were doing? How helpful was it to orient them to how they relate to their context?


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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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