HomeBlogsDekeSharon's blogPitch Pipe Finesse

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It occurred to me onstage last weekend that nothing has been written about the best way to  give pitches on stage, or if there has been, I haven’t read it, and the suggestions likely don’t take into consideration the latest technology. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on the best way to give pitches on stage:

First of all, abandon your old masterkey. Yes, they have a romantic charm, and sure, they’re fine in rehearsal, but they clog and break (annoying) and the pitch drops and bends as they get over: it’s basically a circular harmonica, and we’re all well aware of the sound of a bent harmonica note due to varying air flow. Plus, nothing breaks the flow of a show quite like a masterkey, as it takes something like 15 seconds to haul it out, give the pitch, make sure everyone has it, and tuck it away. Amateur.

Instead, I recommend the Pocketones pitchpipe. It looks like an oversized flat, grey peanut (hence my daughter’s nickname for it, along with “the noiser”), and comes in C-C and F-F pitches. Doesn’t matter which you choose, but make sure you choose one and stick with it (I recommend C-C if only because I’m guessing they’ll be easier to find, just as the C-C masterkeys are), for a reason that will soon become obvious.

Once you get one, learn how to use it so you can do it blindfolded. Seriously. Because you want to be able to give the pitch without looking at it. The pitches are divided in two rows of six. With a little practice, you’ll be able to play any pitch just by feel. Not unlike braille, as the pitches are just a series of bumps.

 The old version didn’t have an on-off switch on the back, but this taught me a valuable process - always keep the volume dialed to zero. Why? Because you want to be able to control the volume without looking at it just as you can control the pitch.

These little grey peanuts can play a pitch rather loudly, which is a great thing, but you don’t always want the pitch blaring such that the audience can hear it. In fact, ideally they’ll never hear it, and you’ll become an expert at playing a little game that no one will ever appreciate: getting the volume just loud enough so your cohorts can hear it (those that need to) without the audience hearing a thing.

This is done in a few ways:

* If you’re the only person who needs the pitch, cradle the pitch pipe in your hand, bring it up to your ear, play the pitch, then delicately wheel the volume dial up with your thumb until you hear it, returning the volume to zero when you’re done.

* If one of your singers (say, the bass) needs the pitch, just point the pitch at/toward his head, and make sure he nods when he gets the pitch, You might think this is obvious to the audience, but if one of your members is delivering an intro, they’ll never see it.

* If your entire group needs the pitch, your best bet is either to play it during the applause from the previous song (if it’s a direct segue) or during a moment of laughter or other audience noise during the introduction. Again, volume dialing is key; play the pitch (without looking, of course) and then dial up the sound as loud as needed for as long as needed. Keep your finger on that dial, because if the applause or laughter dies off you want to be able to keep the sound just under a level they’ll hear.

Of course it’s an imprecise game, but you’ll find you’ll get quite good at it rather quickly. If the audience notices you every once in a while, that’s OK, as the rest of the time you have a far more seamless set than was ever possible with your masterkey (or tuning fork, which I’m astounded that some groups still use).

If you find the audince is too loud and you don’t want the energy to die down and want to start your next song on top of the applause, simply play the pitch to yourself then sing it off mic (turning your head both ways if you’re in the middle of the group).

You can store it in a front pocket (if they’re loose), but I prefer my back right pocket - easier to slip it in and out unnoticed (I’m right handed).

Always have a spare, and I recommend giving ‘em to other members provided they always bring them to shows (in case you forget yours). Switch it off when you’re not using it, although the pitch automatically stops after ten or so seconds (it’s more a matter of saving yourself the embarrasment of an F# blaring from your butt at the afterparty).

They last years, and are indestructable as far as I can tell. I’ve never broken one. I’m always giving them away. I’ve given mine to groups on five continents at this point. Call me Johnny Pitchpipeseed.

They’re only around $10, and you can find them several places online, including a-cappella.com.

Alas, no, I don’t have a sponsorship from the Pocketones people, much as this article might appear as though I do (I have asked. They never returned my call). I do love the little things, and would be happy to officially sing their praises. Sorry for the pun.

I used to love the Franz Quartz Pitchpipe (the effective prototype) but those are no longer made, and the thick-deck-of-cards case resembles a 1960’s East German vacuum cleaner when compared to these sleek little nuggets.

It may seem like a small thing, but this pitch pipe procedure can really add to the professionalism of your show. Pacing is important.

One last thought: if you are using in-ear monitors, you can have your sound engineer play the pitch before each song... provided he has a set list, and knows your music, and doesn’t make mistakes, and has a set list from which you never vary. This was the case for Groove 66 (at Disneyland) and it worked well, although the audience did, from time to time, probably wonder why one of the members of the group would shout out “hit me!” or “Give it to me!” ala James Brown, mid-set (it was our cue to have him play the pitch again).

I don’t think it’s worth it. I recommend you can take matters into your own hands.


Pocket Tones and IEM's

Great thoughts, Deke!

DoubleShot! is switching to pocket tones over the next few weeks for shows we do acoustic or without in-ear monitors. There's nothing worse than going to give the pitch for the next song from your masterkey immediately followed by a look of panic because the reed just stopped working or is clogged from lint in your pocket! I can't tell you how many times I have had to give the "blow of death" into the thing praying to unclog it. 

If you have an extra-musical sound guy and in-ears, he can even provide the full chord or all of the starting pitches for your members. 

Tried and true!

I switched to a Pocketone about 3 years ago and never looked back.  In fact, my group laughs, but I never leave home without - it resides in the same category as my house key and ID!)  I do have the older version that doesn't have an off button, so I'm usually a source of amusement when it goes off in my purse in the elevator or somewhere else in appropriate.

For the ladies out there that might not have enough room in the pockets of their skinny jeans to store it during the show, I've rigged mine to a retractable reel ID clip (see similar model here: http://www.amazon.com/Mini-Retractable-Key-ID-Badge-Belt-Chain-Holder/dp...).  I clip it to the pocket and it hangs conveniently at my fingertips during the show.


Sitting here chuckling at the thought of an F# blaring from one's butt...

Obviously you can see the level of discourse in my little corner of the world today.

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