Ask A Cabaret Question Wednesday At McElrath Cabaret–How Do You Pick The Correct Key For Your Cabaret Song? Join the Conversation!

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A great vocal duo who, according to James Gavin in Intimate Nights, “developed a jazz-influenced style of club singing, characterized by bop-inspired harmonies and improvisations, scat fills, and difficult unison lines sung with perfect precision.  They introduced a vast catalog of vocalized jazz instrumentals andshed new light on even the most familiar Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart standards . . . . Unlike most jazz singers they exude a flair for performing that has made them as pleasurable to watch as to listen to” (151-152).   Here is Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, known as Jackie and Roy.   Enjoy!


Wednesday is the day of the week when we at McElrath Cabaret will post a cabaret question for the consideration of our readers.


The questions will have something to do with cabaret, in all its many aspects. The question may take the form of a poll, to which we encourage you to respond, or it may be a question posed to the cabaret community, to which you can leave your response in the comments section at the bottom of the page.


We encourage you to send us any cabaret question that you have that you would like us to pose to the group! You can leave a question in the comments section below, or you can email it to us at kjandathenacabaret [at] Just fill in the [at] with the @ symbol—we need to foil the spam bots, don’cha know.


Today’s question is this: How do you pick the correct key for your cabaret song?


If you have done a lot of singing, this may seem a pretty basic question, but for those who are starting out in cabaret performance, it is a crucial point to a successful rendition.


Obviously, it goes without saying that you need to select a key for a song in which you can hit all the notes comfortably.  That is a basic starting point.


It is always important to look at the sheet music for the song and find out what was the original key in which it was written.  The composer may have heard something special in that key that was lost in another key, so if you can sing the song in the original key, it is good to do so.  However, if you are an alto, like me, don’t feel bad about changing the key so that it fits your vocal range, because nothing is worse than being out in the audience listening to a singer who is obviously reaching the bottom or top points of their vocal register and wondering if they are going to make it or not.  You don’t want the audience focusing on a potential vocal train wreck; instead, you want your voice to sound at its best so that the audience can focus on the lyrics of the song, because ultimately, in cabaret you are telling a story through song.


It is always a good idea, when you are first working with a new song, to try the song out in several different keys.  If you play piano yourself, go for it, or you may need to work with your music director or vocal coach for help with this.  It is very instructive to do this with your songs, because you will discover that there is one key for this particular song that helps your voice hit its sweet spot, where you can be warm on the low notes and bold and strong on the high notes as required by the lyric.  If you have ever bought a guitar, its a little like going into a music store and playing the same song on several different guitars, to hear the differences in sound.  As you sing, you and your musical mentors are listening to the sounds you are producing, and you will need to decide where they sound the best and can be comfortably produced reliably.  If you happen to get sick before your show, you want a key that you can sing even if you are not in perfect vocal health, because it happens sometimes.  This means that your chosen key will probably avoid the lowest most and upper-most pitches, and instead focus in on your middle pitches that your voice can produce.  Depending upon your vocal range, this will be a little bit different for everyone.

Also bear in mind that you want to pick your keys for your songs early in the rehearsal process, because you will need to have charts written for your arrangements in these keys, and this takes both money and time if you are having to pay for these services.  It is also good to be aware that some keys are easier for horn players than others, based on the pitch of their respective instruments.  Your perfect vocal key may cause them to have to play in several sharps, which is awkward on certain horns.  Word to the wise–if you are working with horns in your backup, work closely with your music director in selecting the keys, because this person will (or should) also be aware of the ranges of the instrumentation that you will use, and can help coordinate everything so that everyone ends up in a workable key.


So how do you pick the correct key for your cabaret songs?  I truly look forward to your joining the conversation with your comments, and any help or suggestions you have on this topic! We value each of our readers very much, and hope to entertain you and give you a place to come and learn more about cabaret.


Till next time, 


ps–The Cabaret Soiree Link Party is still going strong–you can visit anytime to click on the links and see what others have posted, or you can share your own recent cabaret blog or cabaret website link from now through Thursday.  Link is below.


Weekly Post Lineup At McElrath Cabaret:

Mondays:  Cabaret Soiree Cabaret Blog Link Party

Tuesdays:  Cabaret Tip Tuesday

Wednesdays:  Ask A Cabaret Question

Thursdays:  Featured Cabaret Blog, Website, Performer

Fridays:  Cabaret Through Time

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About Athena at McElrath Cabaret

Athena McElrath is an entertainer with a love for theatre and singing. She enjoys delving in the area of historical cabaret, researching the singers and clubs that were in business from before 1920 to the present, in New York and beyond.
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One Response to Ask A Cabaret Question Wednesday At McElrath Cabaret–How Do You Pick The Correct Key For Your Cabaret Song? Join the Conversation!

  1. Pingback: Cabaret Through Time Fridays At McElrath Cabaret: Jackie and Roy–Join Us! | McElrath Cabaret Blog