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In opera and musical singers often have to feel the pulse without having an instrument showing it to them. In La donna e mobile there is a waltz accompaniment but many arias or tunes do not have an accompaniment like that. Even in that particular aria there are times when there is no waltz accompaniment. I have tried to sing waltzes without accompaniment myself and it can be a bit tricky.

What do opera and musical singers do in order to feel the pulse of the music?

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    Musicians of all types need to develop an inner sense of pulse/tempo/beat. Are you asking if opera singers develop that sense differently than other musicians? Aug 4 at 13:22
  • Try dancing a waltz as you do it.
    – DKNguyen
    Aug 4 at 18:17
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    If you're asking for yourself, maybe it would help to take ballroom dance classes and/or learn an instrument. The funny thing is that instrumentalists often sing a passage to internalize it better and discover their musical intention. Aug 4 at 19:33
  • They watch the conductor. But it's a strange question. Everybody has to 'feel the pulse' all the time, although in any situation above one performer there is one leader and all others are followers.
    – user207421
    Aug 4 at 23:54

5 Answers 5

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SOMEONE has to feel the pulse! Often the conductor of an orchestra or a piano accompanist. Why shouldn't it be the singer?

Admittedly, musical lore does joke about singers' inability to count (along with the drinking habits of brass players, the stupidity of viola players etc.)

"How do you know it's a soprano knocking at the window?" "Because she can't find the key, the knocking isn't in time and she's trying to come in at the wrong place anyway!"

But, no excuses! A singer is as able to feel the beat as well as any other musician!

In the theatre, there are specific issues if working with partially or completely recorded music on a 'click track'. Maybe the conductor hears the click in headphones and assists the singer with gestures. Or there are other technical approaches to essentially the same thing.

But don't underestimate a singer's ability to hold tempo. When the Whitney Houston version of 'I will always love you' was a staple of karaoke nights and talent contests, the backing track started with a chord (to establish the pitch) and four clicks (to establish the tempo and the starting point), followed by nearly 45 seconds of silence. The ability of un-trained singers to reproduce the emotional opening section then come in with the band dead on time could be uncanny!

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It's the job of the conductor to make sure the singer knows exactly where they are in the music. If the singer has trouble singing in time then the conductor has to follow them.

For musicals there are normally monitor speakers for the stage. Very occasionally in-ear monitoring with a click track is used.

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    This is inaccurate - for solo work, be it voice or instrument, the orchestra follows the soloist. Aug 4 at 13:38
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    @CarlWitthoft that's frequently not the case in amateur and (especially) student performances.
    – phoog
    Aug 4 at 14:18
  • @phoog in which case they should be learning how to interact with the conductor. Aug 4 at 15:41
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    Opera is strange! At the top levels, we sometimes see woefully under-rehearsed performances, the 'star' singers may be globe-trotting, arriving only a few days before the run! We see newspaper reviews that tolerantly mention 'despite occasional problems with ensemble...' On Broadway, if there is an 'occasional problem with ensemble' someone gets fired, or at least there's a panic rehearsal before the next show! Aug 4 at 20:42
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    @aparente001 - OP didn't specify what standard the singers were! Amateurs and pros alike can be found singing opera and musicals.
    – Tim
    Aug 5 at 8:06
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Usually I would use a metronome (yes, singers can use metronomes too) to help me keep in time while singing. https://www.voicelessons.com/blog/tips/tips-to-improve-your-singing-voice/ But what if I'm performing up on stage and can't use a metronome?

While performing piano I count out the beats in my head. But it's a bit more complicated to count in your head while singing at the same time. Usually, I would tap my foot to the beat in subtle way or something, so that I know I'm sure I'm singing in rhythm. This helps me to keep a regular pulse whilst still performing. A lot of musicians/singers that I know use this technique.

Most singers (that I know) use a metronome, clap, tap their foot or march up and down while singing to keep a regular pulse. By doing this regularly (while practising), it should train you to feel the pulse. Of course, on stage, you can make these movements subtler.

This Music S.E. website might also be helpful: I am a singer who has problems with tempo

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singers often have to feel the pulse without having an instrument showing it to them

I don't know what examples you have in mind when you write that, but in general if there's no instrumental pulse then the singer is in charge and everyone else has to follow.

What do opera and musical singers do in order to feel the pulse of the music?

They listen, they watch, and sometimes they lead.

Musical theater accompaniments typically establish the pulse very clearly. Like La donna è mobile, the bass plays the strong beats and the higher instruments play "off" beats or a syncopated pattern. This technique has been common since the 18th century.

Sometimes, an accompaniment might consist of sustained chords with little to no movement to establish a pulse. In these cases, the singer may follow the conductor's gestures, but in more professional contexts, the conductor and the players follow the singer, especially if the singer has shorter notes that do establish the pulse. Frankly, however, this seems to be fairly uncommon. A brief search for examples did not bear any fruit.

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  • I guess they already know how to feel the underlying pulse. Do they have certsin teaining for this at the opera schools? Aug 5 at 15:52
  • When thinking about singer parts in general without a pulse I often think of Hamilton, because I'm trying several karaoke and a lot of cues are just not there. So, in my head, the acconpaniment for La donna è mobile smoothly morphed into that for Your obediant servant.
    – Zachiel
    Aug 7 at 9:39
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You have not specified what standard the vocalists possess, and that will vary greatly - some amateurs will have a wonderful sense of timing, some pros not so good - and vice versa.

So as it stands the question is regarding all opera and all musical singers. The orchestra (or band) may well be hidden down in the pit, not able to see the singer well at all - and mostly will be reading the dots, sometimes for the first time. They will be aware that the conductor knows his job best - conducting, so will be relying on the conductor for timing and cues. Why not? The singer will be doing the job they know best - singing, and may well be blissfully unaware of timing issues.

So, the safest is for the players to follow the conductor, who will follow, and sometimes prompt, the singer. In opera, musicals (and just about any other vocal lead music), the singer always has precedence. If they go wrong, everything will sound wrong, and it's up to the players to make them sound 'right'. If that means speeding up, slowing down, missing a beat, whatever, that's what needs to happen.

You cannot stop in the middle of a performance and tell the singer they're speeding up/slowing down. After, maybe. But in the moment, the band plays on, as we say.

So, singer sings blissfully away, conductor watches them, conducts, and everyone stays together. Is there a better way?

P.S. if there's only a piano for accompaniment, things are so much easier. Harry Connick Jr (I think), has a fabulous you tube , where he gets the audience back in time during a number. Well worth a watch. Please, someone, find it for us.

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  • "They will be aware that the conductor knows his job best - conducting, so will be relying on the conductor for timing and cues": unless they know better! Some conductors are horrible. I've certainly been involved with performances where soloists and orchestras communicated with each other despite the conductor rather than through the conductor. This is more likely on the concert stage, though, rather than a dramatic stage and orchestra pit, both because of the geometry and the likelihood of having a poor conductor.
    – phoog
    Aug 5 at 12:08
  • @phoog - you're right. On occasions, I've been in bands where the vocalist might have skipped a beat, added an extra beat, etc., inadvertently. At the time, all the players corrected the difference without a thought. It was only afterwards, listening to recordings, that I spotted what happened. Nice , playing in bands like that. But playing in reading bands often means (especially for me) that looking at the conductor for cues (or clues!) doesn't happen as many times as maybe it should. Listening is the only solution - other than counting like hell.
    – Tim
    Aug 5 at 13:46
  • I often find that singing is much easier if I have an accompaniment playing the beats. It takes a lot of time to feel the beats and pulse inside of you. Do opera singers do certain exercises for this? I mean, you cannot stomp your feet in order to feel the pulse. Aug 5 at 15:44
  • @harryjansson - it's a lot easier with musicals - often (but not always) once the tempo of a song is established, it continues through to the end. Opera may well differ, with lots of rubato. Which makes 'keeping time' more of an art form. A feel for what is happening is a must - for everyone concerned. But the problem then is not everyone feels the rubato in the same way. Hence the root of the question, I guess.
    – Tim
    Aug 5 at 16:08
  • Here's the Harry Connick link laughingsquid.com/…. Aug 5 at 22:59

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