I'm in an informal and fluctuating ensemble that gets together every year to do some holiday songs. We don't have a formal leader, and we're all pretty inexperienced with playing with others. Sometime in December we gather together, along with friends and family and sing the list as a mob.

One thing that the band struggles with is starting together. I've been in rock bands, and we pretty much always started on the one after a count off of four. However, holiday music is all over the place in that respect.

I think we should do this:

Count off a full measure.

Count off the beginning of the first measure.

Start on the anacrusis itself.

So, for example, using that famous holiday song "Happy Birthday To You," we would go like this (using a spoken count off):

Leader: one two three one two


Band (playing melody, not singing lyrics): Hap -- py birth -- day to you, Hap --...

Also, I'm assuming that the most basic percussion approach is for them to play whatever they would normally during the anacrusis. So, "Happy Birthday" again: During a normal measure, the kit might play:

Kick snare snare | kick snare snare | etc.

And at the beginning the drummer does this:

Leader: one two three one two


Drums: snare | kick snare snare | kick snare snare | etc.

Doing things this way seems to throw the band off. However, to me, it's the only logical, reasonable way to start when a song has a pick up measure. The counter argument is often that it should start on the one, no matter what:

Leader: one two three one two three


Band: Hap -- py birth -- day to you, Hap --...

However, this has dire consequences as far as I'm concerned, mainly that it defies convention and throws off folks who would like sing along with the band.

Can anybody provide some guidance here?

Thanks, Greg

6 Answers 6


I would absolutely count it exactly as you describe: one full measure then the pickup measure.

In terms of what to play, that's a great question - especially on the drums. The pitched instruments have to play the right notes and chords or else the singers will be thrown off.

Typically, the drummer would play whatever they would play on that beat, but other options can work well. I could see a kick on three with maybe an open hat hit and then kick and closed hat on the one. Or the drums could come in right before the rest of the band during the pickup, so in this case the drums could start with a second beat snare hit and then everyone comes in on beat three of the pickup. Or, the drummer could do high-hat chicks during the whole count, at least for rehearsals.

One more idea, blatantly stolen from church choir accompaniment: The band actually plays the end of the happy birthday song with no singing, and then everyone comes in and starts singing the beginning. So the band (maybe with one instrument on the melody) plays the end of "Happy Birthday to you!" using the chords and melody for the very end of the song, and then the pickup is no longer a pickup as much as it's like coming around to the top again. If the song will be song partly by a crowd or audience, this is a great way to make sure everyone has a sense of key and timing for when they all start singing.

  • I've actually written intros for many of the songs, but I've been using the first few bars, not the last ones. That's a great idea!
    – Greg Gomez
    Sep 30, 2015 at 20:20
  • 1
    @GregGomez If you haven't spent a lot of time listening to a church organist, one way to hear this trick is when a brass band or something like that plays The Star-Spangled Banner, they almost always start by playing the end "...and the home of the brave" with no singing, and then everybody starts in on "Oh say can you see..." Sep 30, 2015 at 20:30
  • 2
    This is an excellent suggestion. Not only does it establish the rhythm and the tempo, it also establishes the key -- a vital aspect of informal singing. Sep 30, 2015 at 20:36
  • @ToddWilcox Right. I got it in my head to start with the first few measures to do exactly what chasly suggests: establish tempo, meter and key. I'm the first to admit it: when I get an idea, I often stick to it no matter how much cajoling, reason or outright violence I experience to get me to see reason. Time also helps. Thanks!
    – Greg Gomez
    Sep 30, 2015 at 21:06
  • Such an obvious idea - play the last bit of a verse! I used it all the time with choirs, but years later, forgot about it. +1.
    – Tim
    Oct 1, 2015 at 6:58

There are already some good answers here, but I wanted to add a couple points and give a generalization.

In all styles of music, you want to do two things when counting off an anacrusis:

  1. Keep the pickup rhythm in the context of the meter
  2. Cue

Really, this applies to all countoffs, not just those with anacruses.

The length of the countoff and the way this information is presented will vary greatly according to whatever is appropriate for the style of music, but these two principles should stay constant.

The word "pickup" is synonymous with anacrusis, and "prep" refers to the beat right before the entrance.

Metric Context

From your question, I think you understand this part -- if the music starts on beat 3 of a 3/4 bar, you're going to count beats 1 and 2. I'm sure we've all heard people try to count off Happy Birthday with a "One - two - three - four - HAA-PPY BIRTH..." This is obviously a disaster, so just remember that you want to align your count-off with the first downbeat that occurs in the music. In the orchestral context, a conductor may only give a single preparatory beat, but even this will be in context -- the baton will be moving in the proper direction for the prep beat in the context of the measure.

One really interesting advanced case is when starting in the middle of a piece of music (in rehearsal) where the music has changing time signatures. For example, if a bar of 7/8 is followed by a bar of 3/4, and the conductor wants to start the ensemble on the 3/4 bar. The conductor's prep needs to be in metric context of the music, and so the countoff will be in 7/8. This ensures that when the ensemble is starting on the 3/4 bar, they are executing or following the same change from 7/8 to 3/4 that they would have to if they were playing the piece in full.


Cues exist in all kinds of music. Sometimes they are purely visual, as with a conductor, or verbal, as with many pop and jazz groups, and nearly all kinds of music use breath, either exclusively or in combination with one of the other kinds of cues.

The breath component can be a little bit below the surface, or not-so-obvious, but you'll see it most used in classical chamber music. Some conductors may not use breath at all, but others may find their conducting improved once they start paying attention to it.

But anyhow, the point of a cue is effectively to communicate "we're starting now". If you're in 4/4 with an anacrusis on beat 4, you might count "one - two - three - four - one - two - three", but the way you count that second beat three (inflection), and/or your body language while doing so, can communicate that the pickup is coming next. Likewise, the way you count the first dead bar should be relatively monotonous, so as not to introduce something that could be mistaken for a cue.

Conductors have a whole array of visual language to use for cues, and jazz musicians leading big bands might do all kinds of grunts or bumps, depending on the music. Lastly, some types of music (rock, for example) have countoffs that just so idiomatic to the genre, or otherwise rehearsed, that screaming "ONETWOOTHREEFOURONETWOTHREEFOUR" gives the musicians all the information they need.

  • Always struck me as funny that four musos in a band need 2 bars count in, whereas 100 piece orchestra just needs an up beat from a baton...
    – Tim
    Sep 30, 2015 at 22:50

It may very well be easier for your band to count the whole of bar 0. That is to say approach it more like this...

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and less like this.

enter image description here

This may very well aid in the proper rhythmical interpretation of the upbeat.

  • I'm having trouble understanding what your suggestion is. Didn't OP say he was counting bar 0?
    – NReilingh
    Sep 30, 2015 at 18:32

You're right, they're not! With any anacrucis, whether 3 or 4 in the bar, there will be an incomplete count to bring in the song melody. It's so important for everyone playing that they are all aware of where 'ONE' is. With Happy B'day the singing starts on beat 3, so it's logical to have to count one, two, so the vocals start on 3. With any anacrucis in 4 time, there will have to be a count of the empty part of the bar, often 1,2,3 - but sometimes only a quaver or crotchet to count. In this case, normally an extra bar prior to the sung part will be counted. I watched a choirmistress at a festival once who counted her choir in - 1,2,3,4 - but the piece was in 3 time!! Totally wrong! And, no, it didn't start on beat 2 of the next bar!

Doing it another way - try "Ready, steady, go!" No, that doesn't work well either.

  • My personal favorite: One, two, three, four, five, six, se-ven! Sep 30, 2015 at 19:29

It doesn't matter what count-in you use as long as it's marked in everyone's part and you stick to it. "1,2,3,1,1,2" or "1,2" or whatever. A very good thing for drums to play on a pickup is nothing. Particularly a vocal pickup. Don't 'fill' on top of someone else's fill.


Counting off a full dead measure and then another partial one is way overkill, and it will confuse people who have experience working with professional conductors. Meaning, you'll find people accidentally coming in a bar early.

Ideally, you should only need a single prep beat. Working with your example, I would like to just conduct a single "2" and have people come in on the pickup immediately. To help make it clear that the beat is "2", I would start with my baton (or hand) already in the position that results from conducting "1" of a 3/4 time, which is inward. Then "2" is an outward gesture.

If you feel the need to give more beats than this, then the absolute most you should give is from "1". But start with the baton (or hand) raised so that the "1" is just a fall, not a prep into "1".

  • 2
    It was clear from the question that these are amateur musicians playing in a band; not following a conductor. You're of course correct that this is how you as a conductor would start off professionals, but realize that there is more to it than just the number of the prep beat -- counting a full dead bar should not trip up people because the real prep will have all kinds of other information (like breath, or inflection -- or a visual cue) that won't be included in the dead bar. It's also far more common in jazz and more pop-oriented musics to have longer countoffs, with length varying by tempo.
    – NReilingh
    Sep 30, 2015 at 18:30
  • This will work for folks steeped in music, who use it lots. For Joe Public, it only confuses the issue, and won't get him to start singing at the appropriate moment. And also, probably not in key!
    – Tim
    Oct 2, 2015 at 8:09

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