Programming a Concert

We all know that we can listen to music in lots of different ways. It can happen by accident, randomly in a shop, in a café (like I am now) or in the car on the radio. It can happen through meticulous preparation, like when we curate our own playlists of music online that we’ve sifted down from the millions of tracks at our fingertips. And, of course, we can still buy physical recordings by our favourite artists (and don’t forget that ours can be ordered online here, ahem), where track listings suggest an order for us to enjoy their music. But perhaps the most prescribed way that we can listen to music is still in the context of a concert. Usually – at least in the case of most traditional classical music concerts – we sit in one seat for the whole performance, with the same vantage point of what’s going on on stage. There tend to be very few visual changes (rarely anything more than lighting), and if there are changes in smell, it’s likely that they’re unwanted. Each of us in the audience has to hear the music the order it’s presented from the stage. We can’t move around, we can’t skip to the next track, and we can’t press mute. The performers are entirely responsible for how much we enjoy their concert. What’s one of the best ways of getting as many people as possible to get as much as possible out of your concert? With good programming. With that in mind, here are my five top tips for programming a great concert:

  1. Always give your audience at least something they expect 

    If you’re coming to see a vocal ensemble like ours, say, and are therefore expecting a predominance of song in your concert, you might be disappointed if you’re presented with two hours of continuous, unaccompanied sitar music instead. Not because you don’t like the sitar, but because it’s not what you came for. People take comfort in what they know. Make sure you give them some of that. It will strengthen your brand (more on that another time), but it will also provide a reliable framework in which you can introduce some new material. And on that note…

  1. At the same time, don’t let all your repertoire be predictable 

    At the same time as building up a signature style and a known body of music that your audiences will come to know you for, you also want to give people the promise of something new and unexpected. If you just repeat exactly the same set-list every time, there’s no incentive for them to give you repeat custom. They can just buy the DVD and that’s that. Unless you’re giving a concert where the repertoire is totally prescribed (like a Messiah or St John Passion, for instance), add in new music that people won’t have heard you sing before. If that kind of originality and innovation is what they come to expect from you, then they’ll keep coming back to hear what’s new.

  1. Remember that everyone in your audience will have different preferences 

    If like us, you’re a group that performs varied repertoire, remember that most people will have their favourite pieces, composers and genres – and that every audience member will be different. Your challenge is to keep every listener engaged the whole way through the concert. Let me give you an example. Lucy loves music from the Renaissance, but is bored by jazz and loathes folk music. Jack, on the other hand, adores jazz music, but doesn’t care for mainstream classical rep at all. Both come to your concert, expecting you to sing the styles of music they like. If you perform only Renaissance music in the first half, Lucy will be happy, but Jack might leave in the interval, bored and unaware that the second half is dedicated to jazz. And if this were the case, Lucy, who loved the first half, might switch off in the second half, unable to sustain concentration through whole half of jazz, and you’ve therefore lost her (and her enthusiasm) by the end of the concert. Now, I know that it’s impossible to guarantee that you’ll please everyone during a concert with exactly the right amount of music they like, but by switching things up regularly, you’re more likely to keep everyone’s interest. In this case of this example concert, you might start with a set of Renaissance music, then use a piece of startling contemporary music as a palette cleanser, and then move on to a set of jazz, then sing a piece from the Romantic era, and finish the first half with some folk music. You’ve covered a lot of ground, and juxtaposing styles in this unexpected way is more likely to make people sit up and listen than if you embark on proceedings in a predictable, chronological order. The question is, how do you present this kind of variety in a way that’s not confusing or unsettling?

  1. Create a journey through your programme that’s bound together by a coherent message or story 

    There’s lots of wonderful music for us to perform in our world. You’re better than lumping lots of unrelated music together in your programme simply because you like it. Choose a subject or a belief and build your programme around it. You can (and should) be led by a couple of pieces that you really want to perform. But having strong thematic links throughout the programme allows you to be braver in the music you place side by side. Say you want to create a programme of music from around the world. Rather than simply having successive groups of pieces by a small number of composers, why not trace a geographical journey instead? Shanties, Lieder, folksongs can all sit side by side in a way that’s totally logical. And it’s much more likely to be original too.

  1. Remember the all-important balance between tension and breathing-space

    During the course of a concert, you have the chance to get your audience lost in the music. Try to maintain periods of tension or intensity, maintaining musical and visual continuity (particularly between pieces) so that the music can take over, rather than people being distracted by standing positions changing on stage, or performers messily turning over pages or fixing their hair.By the same token, we can only concentrate adequately for certain lengths of time before we start to switch off. People need time to cough, to blow their nose, to take a sip of their drink. By allowing them to do this, they’ll be able to concentrate better when you start performing again. These moments are also the perfect time for you to talk to your audience. Guide them through your thoughts and your programme choices. It will help them to understand exactly why you’ve chosen to put your concert together as you have, and consequently help them to receive the programme as well as you’d hoped. It’s also real: we talk. We aren’t robots on stage. We’re artists with real thoughts and feelings. Share them. It will help your audience to engage with you as people as well as musicians. And that will build the strongest relationship between you and your audiences.

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