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We have a big band number (in 3/4 time), where the chart has the "1st" bar (an anacrusis) written as a one beat rest, for the drums to play a break there. Is it better to count in with 1-2, or 1-2-3-1-2? It's a slow number (Natural Woman), so the former hardly gives enough time for a feel of the pulse, but the latter seems too long.

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  • What about 3-1-2? Oct 8, 2023 at 9:05
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    Give the band the count-in they need and want. If they need a long count-in to play in time but only want a short count-in, then you should discuss it with them.
    – PiedPiper
    Oct 8, 2023 at 9:26
  • There are various approaches to this kind of problem, but there is no 'correct' answer, and which solution is best in each particular case is a matter of opinion. Every band is different.
    – PiedPiper
    Oct 8, 2023 at 19:05

3 Answers 3

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Who does the count? The drummer would be best-placed for this. All it should need is 'nod, nod, fill'.

I'd be worried with any band that needed two bars to grasp the timing.
Bear in mind, a tight big band with a conductor will get the upbeat only. (Think Whiplash;)

I've used tactics from the lead mic like - left arm out, right arm out, both arms up, to signal a count without looking like I'm conducting. I hate yelling across a stage & I hate drummers clicking sticks. I like it to always look like the band are mind-readers. I worked in one band where transitions were already rehearsed, so there were no counts, everybody just felt it.

Another, slightly cheesy, trick would be to use the title as the count, as it's announced to the audience. Do it à tempo.

I remember one band, many many years ago. We used to do Cockney Rebel's Make Me Smile (Come up & See Me), which has a repeating chorus at the end that has a one-bar break each time. We would use a snare on the 4 to signal we were going round again "Ooooooh, ooh la la la" etc but each time the break would get longer. Eventually, the band would all wander off the mics, look like they were going to grab a drink of their beer, whatever, then the drummer would hit the snare & everybody had to dive across the stage to reach their mics & also play the 1 in time. This gag could be repeated quite a number of times if the audience were really getting the joke & enjoying the song.

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  • In a big band, there's the conductor, who does the job. Unsuitable for the drummer, he's at the very back of the band, so no-one would see him clearly. I quite like the stick-click, but it's not feasible when there's a conductor, really!
    – Tim
    Oct 8, 2023 at 10:42
  • Did you see 'Whiplash' - that's how much notice you get from the conductor;) tbh, I've only ever worked in one big band, & that was decades ago. As I recall, he would give us more than Fletcher, but certainly not two bars. A friend of mine was Buddy Rich's last ever pianist & arranger. He used to complain vociferously that Rich expected everybody to simply be a mind reader.
    – Tetsujin
    Oct 8, 2023 at 10:55
  • I suppose we could compare with a 100 piece orchestra, which usually only gets the up-beat! Certainly not a whole bar. No, missed Whiplash.
    – Tim
    Oct 8, 2023 at 11:17
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    I'd go so far as to say Whiplash is the only movie to ever get the 'feel' of being in a band right - even if there's still a fair amount of artistic license taken. I usually hate movies about music. The Buddy Rich ref above is partly because the kid in the movie wants to be as good as Rich & the conductor [Fletcher] is about as pleasant as Rich ;)
    – Tetsujin
    Oct 8, 2023 at 11:20
  • @Tim is the conductor speaking the count, gesturing, or both? Is there only one drummer playing on the anacrusis or multiple people?
    – phoog
    Oct 8, 2023 at 14:10
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That’s the problem, you have a conductor! (Just kidding, not totally…)

I’ve played with many big bands and few have conductors. Lead alto is in charge of cutoffs and untimed chords and if something needs conducting for part of a song usually the pianist will handle it. With the bands that do have a conductor they will establish enough of a beat or tempo to let everyone know what it is. Some will silently show the pulse of the song with an index finger for several beats before counting, either verbally or by silently conducting, which I think is the best method. If they do that first then a 1-2… is more than enough.

If there is no conductor usually the drummers are in charge of counting off. It is not necessary to see them, they usually click the sticks at tempo a few times then do a verbal count off. It’s pretty foolproof and is the same concept as what I mentioned with the conductor, only sonically. This is also sufficient for a one bar count off in a slow 3/4 as long as everyone knows what to expect, since in jazz it is more common to use a 2 bar count off in 3/4 time.

It is important for the band to know beforehand how a tune will be started in order to avoid a train wreck out of the gate. This should be penciled into players’ parts, i.e. “two bar count off” or in the case of say, 4/4 with a 2 beat anacrusis, “6 beat count off” or “1,2,3,4,1,2”. When in doubt the conductor or counter should just call out what they are going to do.

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    Thanks for your (usual) insightful answer. I'm on keys for this band - at the back of the stage. I can understand that for a 5/6/7 piece, keys can be placed where the rest can see, but not with an 18-25pce band! Also, I have enough on my plate (music stand) for the sometimes 8/9/10 sheets of charts, so I'd hate to have the whole score there to follow and conduct. Drums, along with bass and guitar and keys, are always at the back, so it's fair and square up to the conductor to lead. Last big band had the drummer as conductor, seated up front, so was like you say, a good situation. Not here...+1
    – Tim
    Oct 8, 2023 at 16:40
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    @Tim There’s nothing wrong with having a conductor in a large situation. There’s also nothing wrong with a conductor silently showing the beat before the agreed upon count off, it just makes the tune start right in the pocket. Oct 8, 2023 at 16:50
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1,2 should be sufficient. But mark in the parts what you're GOING to count, and stick to it!

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