Cabaret Tip Tuesday At McElrath Cabaret: KJ’s Tip: Music Theory For Cabaret Singers?–Join Us!

Welcome to McElrath Cabaret!  We hope you enjoy our cabaret blog.

Here is jazz singer, pianist, flautist and harpist Corky Hale, here playing the harp on “There’s An Island In The West Indies” from her album Modern Harp.  She performed at last year’s New York Cabaret Convention, and has backed many famous singers including Billie Holliday, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra and others.  You can learn more about Corky Hale through her Wikipedia entry, where I learned that she, at least at the time of the Wikipedia entry writing, was married to Mike Stoller of Leiber and Stoller fame.  She has her own website, where you can hear more of her wonderful songs, and several songs are on You Tube–Enjoy!


Welcome to Cabaret Tip Tuesday at McElrath Cabaret, where we offer cabaret performance tips to help you put together a great performance at your next show!


Today I’m thinking about becoming a better cabaret singer, so my tip for you today is this:  Learn some music theory.


If it sounds good, it is good.” – Professor Peter Schickele

There’s an old joke among instrumentalists: Why would the band singer make a really bad burglar? Because she (or he) can’t find the key and doesn’t know there to come in!


Now, if this sounds like you – or even if you just  feel intimidated when singing with a combo – there’s a cure for it, which lies in the old adage, “Knowledge is Power.” Learn something about music theory.


I can hear the groans already from those of you who may have suffered through first-year theory classes in college, with all that roman numeral analysis and chorale writing with its interminable and seemingly arbitrary rules. But here’s the thing they don’t teach you:


Music theory is nothing more than a codification of what your ear already knows to be correct. 


Go back and read that statement a few more times. If nature has already blessed you with a good ear and you have any amount of musical experience, chances are good that even if you don’t have a lot of formal musical training, you know instinctively what sounds right and what sounds wrong.


Here’s the problem with the way music theory is traditionally taught: it relies a great deal upon understanding what one sees on a written page rather than what hears. It’s a concept one of my former professors aptly named “Augenmusik,” or “Eye Music.” Then, this professor introduced us to a system known as “Schenkerian Analysis.”


I did a post on Heinrich Schenker and his system on my own personal blog awhile back. In the meantime, here is the short version: in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Schenker developed a system of musical analysis that placed the notes of a melody in a hierarchy.


In plain English, some notes are more important than others. All other notes either lead toward or lead away from those primary pitches.


There’s an old saw: “If you don’t know where you’re going, chances are you’ll never get there.” Conversely, once you know where you’re going, getting there is a snap. As you gain experience and learn more of the Great American Songbook, you’ll develop a good instinct for recognizing the important pitches in a melody.


There’s another important component – and that’s the ability to sight sing.


Having worked as a musical director for several stage productions and having led vocal groups in the past, I can tell you that there’s nothing more frustrating and time-consuming than having to plunk out melodies on the keyboard and hoping your singers will be able to remember it (to be fair, they usually do – after several repetitions).


Being able to sight-sing is a real time saver for everyone concerned. The key to developing sight-singing skills lies in recognizing intervals. Fortunately, I’ve come up with a little system of my own, based on  well-known melodies from Broadway and Hollywood, (pieces you as a budding or experienced cabaret singer should know in any event), as well as other sources, to assist novice singers in learning to recognize intervals:


  • Octave: Somewhere Over The Rainbow
  • Major 7th: Anyone Can Whistle  (B section opening from “It’s all – so simple”)
  • Minor 7th: There’s a Place For Us
  • Major 6th: My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean
  • Minor 6th: A Day In The Life of a Fool (Black Orpheus)
  • Perfect 5th: Star Wars Theme
  • Tritone: Maria
  • Perfect 4th: Here Comes The Bride
  • Major 3rd: In The Mood (Glenn Miller intro)
  • Minor 3rd: Alone Together
  • Major 2nd: Doe, a Deer
  • Minor 2nd: More Than You Know


Except for the major 7th example, all of these are based on the first two notes of the song, which should make it easier to internalize them into your aural memory. (There’s also a relatively obscure – but beautiful – bossa nova tune by Lee Morgan entitled Ceora that actually does begin with the interval of a major 7th. You can find several recordings of it on YouTube.)  Here is a book you can use for sight-singing music for practice:  Music For Sight Singing by Robert W. Ottman.


Hope these Tuesday cabaret tips help–let us know what other topics you’d like to see us cover here, and we’ll do our best to work through them!


Do you agree with me that the singer should learn some music theory and sight singing, or do you have a different take on it?  As a singer, what would you add to this conversation?  Leave us a note about it in the comments below—we always love to hear from our readers!


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We appreciate your support!

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 KJ at McElrath Cabaret

KJ McElrath is a piano player and singer who relishes performing works by Porter, the Gershwins, Harry Warren, Yip Harburg and the other writing denziens from the heyday of Hollywood, Broadway and Tin Pan Alley.
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4 Responses to Cabaret Tip Tuesday At McElrath Cabaret: KJ’s Tip: Music Theory For Cabaret Singers?–Join Us!

  1. Jon88 says:

    A wee oops: The first two notes of “In the Mood” are a minor third. And your “Twinkle Twinkle” perfect fifth is a bit of a cheat with that doubled first note!

  2. Pingback: Ask A Cabaret Question Wednesday At McElrath Cabaret–Whom Do You Consider to Be The Greatest American Lyricist – And Why? Join the Conversation! | McElrath Cabaret Blog