Cueing at the Alphabet Soup Kitchen

Cueing: the noble art of giving musicians the faintest clue about what's going on.

Cueing: the noble art of giving musicians tantalising clues about what the hell’s going on. Finished your magnum opus? Congratulations, now the hard work really begins. For one thing, this should have bar numbers…

Yup, that’s spelled correctly. Cueing. I’m not talking about the delightful British pastime of standing in line for something and drawing a perverse comfort from covertly bitching about how ugly and stupid the people ahead of you are. Nope. Cueing musical parts.

It’s more an issue in extended classical pieces than in jazz, but some of the principles still apply.


In a nutshell, you can’t just dish out a French horn part that has a bit marked with 87 empty bars and then expect them to come in cold on the and-four after two section changes. Especially if all the parts are like that, because then the blind will be leading the blind. Your musicians are not robots – give them at least a map of the structure to follow.

It’s a bit like giving directions thus: “yeah, carry on for half a mile, third left past the house where my friend Harry (who you’ve never met) lives, then over the bridge and turn right just before you get to the church that you won’t be able to see yet because it’s over the next hill. You’ll know the turning, because when you come to a big tree you’ve already missed it…”

Essentially, if they keep getting lost, the first person you should blame is yourself.

I’ve lost great chunks of my life (and some hair and one girlfriend) to cueing orchestral parts. There’s an art (actually maybe more a craft) to it, but it basically involves imagining yourself sitting in each orchestral desk. Actually, you should write and arrange with this perspective in mind in the first place.

What’s the prominent part, who’s closest to you, who are you playing with, what’s most relevant to the pitch and rhythms you’ve got to hit, etc. No point giving a viola cue to the


…trombones, when everyone else in between is thundering away in riotous polytonal pomp. And don’t blame your cor anglais double for not being ready because you didn’t give them enough notice to put down one instrument and pick up another.

String players are agile creatures, but don’t expect them to turn a page and apply mutes with two bars notice at vigorous tempo. You might as well just write the instruction: “throw parts around, drop bows or poke each other in the eye and lose all respect for the piece.” Oh, by the way: page turns – very important.

Adagio ollogrammico...

Andante ologrammico, take it from bardate 9,622.73…

As so often, Star Trek was ahead of the curve here. There was an episode of Voyager where the hologram doctor becomes a celebrity opera singer among an alien race who are technologically advanced, but have never heard music before.

The adulation goes his head (well he’s a singer), but he’s eventually horrified when they start programming music that is ugly, meaningless and impossible to perform for anything but a computer. I like to think this episode was inspired by a late-night beer with the series’ composers.

I also look forward to the day when scoring programs include a feature that simulates the intonation and time problems, fuzzy lip clams and general noise and bewilderment that occur when you fill up an orchestral score with the physically impossible and/or don’t cue the parts properly. (While we’re at it, why not introduce sliders into sample libraries for Amateur-Pro, Pissed-Sober and Cold-Rehearsed. There could also be a rotary knob for how much they hate or like the conductor…)

Ah, but the boundaries of technology are there to be pushed by composers, surely? Do it, by all means. Why not. Just don’t write stuff that physically can’t be played then put it in front of real people. But I’ve drifted off course a little. Let’s get back to the Alpha Quadrant.

Yeah... I suppose he's a good conductor - if you put him in a copper hat and stuck him up in a belltower in a thunderstorm...

Yeah… I suppose he’s a good conductor – if you put him in a copper hat and stuck him up in a bell tower in a thunderstorm…

Cueing doesn’t so much aid rehearsal as make rehearsal humanly possible. Tap tap tap. From bar 136… If the parts aren’t structured, numbered and cued properly, half of them will be wondering whether that’s 23 or 97 bars into their tacet.

You may know your piece so well you dream it – 4 up to 80 others may be the best musicians on the planet, but they’ve never seen or heard it before. And they have limited information in front of them. The information you gave them…

The knock-on for this in jazz terms is fairly simple. Putting the melody part on rhythm section charts might be helpful if the tune or arrangement is unfamiliar. If you have a two-part head arrangement, give a double part to both people. They’ll play it better together.

Jazz numbers overwhelmingly tend to be AABA, ABA, AABC, blues, blues with a bridge (bridges with a blues?), etc. Even with big complex arrangements, things can still be broken down into chunks.

Mark them! Even on a lead sheet. Even if you don’t bother with letter sections, at least use a double bar line to indicate the start of a new section. Especially if the new section doesn’t start on a new line. Structure may be elaborate and intricate, but it’s still there.

Confuse your audience if you absolutely must, but don’t confuse your band.
Why give things a chance to go wrong?


Something like: “play D between choruses and as an outro” is fine, but alphabet soup isn’t the answer.

I’ve done rehearsals where the instruction has been something like: “play AABF, GG, back to AA, then to C, repeat at half time, then an interlude on OMG, back to AB, this time in 6/8, then repeat D til cue and finish on WTF…”

At which point weary eyebrows tend to get raised, pencils dropped and the band starts thinking “what the L”, then defaults to FU… C’mon, that’s not an arrangement, that’s a bloody anagram.

Parts in sellotaped concertinas cascading over the floor are very rarely necessary. There’s always a simpler and clearer way of expressing your intention. Basically just imagine you’d never heard the thing before and consider what you’d need to be put in front of you.

As ever, your thoughts are welcome below.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in c) Musicianship, e) Rants & Ramblings, g) Classically Inclined

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