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So, You Want To Be A Singer? by Diva Joan Cartwright, Chapter 5

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So, You Want To Be A Singer? by Diva Joan Cartwright


Once you've rehearsed, make four or five set lists of the tunes you will perform on gigs. Keep the program interesting by alternating between ballads, blues, sambas and up-tempo (swing or rhythm & blues) songs.

Lead sheets may be two kinds:

1) complete with melody, chords and lyrics; or

2) just the chord changes for the piano, bass and horns.

The tempo may change according to how you would like to sing the song. For instance, you may decide to sing a swing song in a samba tempo to make it a little different. You will write this at the top of the chart in the left hand corner or just call the tempo samba before counting it off.

Put your lead sheets in a book in alphabetical order. Have copies of each song for the pianist, bassist and any horns you may be working with. Most singers do not understand that trumpets and saxophones play in different keys than pianos and basses, but they are usually responsible for transposing their music to their specific key.

If you have a gig scheduled, put the sheet music in the order of performance before you go on stage, so you are not sorting through the music during the show. This is where the set list comes in handy. The piano player will know just what song to set up for you, as the performance progresses. Always ask the piano player to give you an introduction to each song so you avoid singing in the wrong key.

A set list can be three, four, five or six songs. They can have a theme [see AstroJazz] or they can be about a certain subject like the season (Spring, Autumn) or holiday (Valentine's Day, Christmas). Be sure to put the key of each song on the list, so there's no confusion about what key you are singing in. Remember, rehearsal is the time to determine the right keys for you to sing in. After working with a pianist for some time, she or he can generally tell you which key is best for you. When you make the list, try not to do two songs in the same key.

You can make your list as follows:

  • Song #1 Ab Up tempo swing
  • Song #2 G Slow Blues
  • Song #3 C Samba
  • Song #4 F Ballad
  • Song #5 Bb Bounce

VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: When working in a foreign country like Italy or Spain, you may call a song in Ab, but the musicians think you mean Eb because they pronounce E as A. This can be disastrous for the singer, because Ab is five whole steps below Eb or four whole steps above Ab.

Musicians use sign language for keys. Usually, they use the signs for keys with flats, so there is NO discrepancy. They may also use the signs for E and A, so as not to confuse the musicians who speak French, Italian or Spanish. [see p. 12]

  • The sign for the key of F would be one pointer finger downward, meaning one flat (
  • The sign for the key of Bb is two fingers down
  • The sign for the key of Eb is three fingers down and
  • Ab is four fingers down
  • The key of G would be one finger up, meaning one sharp. But you can say G without any misunderstanding.
  • E would be four fingers up for four sharps
  • A would be three fingers up for three sharps

When I was working a lot with many different musicians, I kept a list of 25 songs I sing in the original key the song was written in. This is a good list to keep as you begin to rehearse with musicians. They really appreciate it when singers sing in the original key because they don't have to spend time transposing the song on paper, in their head and on the instrument.

Transposition is a good skill to develop. It pays to know how to transpose songs from one key to the next. This can be part of your music theory lessons. It takes practice, but it's easy, once you get the hang of it. For example, to take a song from Bb to C is just transposing all the chords up one whole step. From Bb to F is up a fifth. From F to Bb is up a fourth. From Eb to C and Bb to G is down a minor third. Knowing how to transpose will make your life with musicians much easier and they will respect you for having this skill.

It's up to you to make the show interesting and keep it flowing. Without the set list, you may get confused and waste valuable time, thereby losing your audience's attention. You can put them to sleep, if you sing two ballads in a row. Likewise, you may get them overly agitated if you sing too many swing tunes one right after the other. Pace yourself so you and the band don't get tired before the set is over. Remember, the musicians probably played one, two or even three numbers before you came onstage. Don't go over the set time. Take your breaks. Usual set time is 45 minutes onstage and 15 minutes off.


  1. Purchase the book in its entirety: So, You Want To Be A Singer? by Joan Cartwright
  2. More books by Joan Cartwright
  3. Official website of Joan Cartwright
  4. Joan's online radio show: MUSICWOMAN
  5. Women in Jazz South Florida, Inc.


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