Programs are like Twinkies. They should be rich, fulfilling, last a limited time, and survive a nuclear explosion (that last one may not be true…).
It’s concert season. The ICCA’s and ICHSA’s are over (congrats to the Socal Vocals and Vocal Rush). Guest groups are being called to appear as your opening act. Flyers are being plastered all over campus (and being ripped down by jerks…).
I recently completed a graduate assignment that forced me to dissect the philosophy of writing a concert program. What songs are you going to present for your concert? What order will the songs be in? Should you reveal your set list in a printed program? What does the audience think about the overall flow of your concert? Is your concert too long?
Though my assignment was not specific to the genre of a cappella, the ideas can easily be applied to a cappella set lists. Taking great care to mold your program can boost your group’s credibility and produce effective shows that audience members will want to return to.
1) Song List
Your group naturally has a long list of songs ready to perform. But ask yourself this question: Do the songs flow together? Is there a general connecting theme? Do you have multiple genres, eras, and styles represented? Or, were your songs chosen at random based upon what the majority of the group wishes to do? It’s the latter…isn’t it?
Obviously, there’s nothing you can do a week before your spring concert. But when your group locks themselves in the room, ready for another 4 hour song selection debate, posit this question- What if the songs were diverse enough to sample different genres of music, different eras of rock history, and still flowed together into a unifying theme? What would your set list look like then?
Choral directors take great care to unify their selections. As many songs that there are available for a cappella groups to arrange, there is double the number of choral octavos available for choirs to purchase. That’s why choral directors must limit their options. A choral program that seems all too random does not sit well with the audience. A choral program that only features contemporary music is limiting the education of the students and the ears of the audience. “If you draw information from only one source, it becomes rigid and stale.” Uncle Iro from Avatar: The Last Airbender (Yes… I still watch cartoons.)
2) Concert Order
My assignment was as much about the order of songs as it was the content. Though this diagram uses a 7-8 song program as its template, you can adjust it to fit any number of songs.
Song 1- Your opening number should be exciting, but short. The audience needs to be warmed up before you can hit them with the heavy stuff, but warm ups should never least as long as the epic numbers. Also keep in mind that your group will still not be up to full singing strength, because more than likely they didn’t warm up themselves, and nerves take a strain on the body. It’s like showing someone a Twinkie and telling them how good it is.
Song 2 and 3- You’ve got your audience on the edge of their seats. Now hit them with your “radio hits.” Songs 2 and 3 are the ones that audiences most remember, mainly because by song 7, they’ve stopped paying full attention. The biggest mistake made is placing a weak song directly after your opening number. It’s like allowing someone to eat a Twinkie, and then pulling the Twinkie away after the first bite. Not cool.
Songs 4 and 5- By now, you’ve probably sung some high energy stuff. Let’s dim the lights, and take it down a notch. Ballads would go well here. Savor the Twinkie…don’t just gobble it up in one bite.
Songs 6 and 7- Your epic masterpieces. Whatever big, shocking, or triumphant piece you have, 6 and 7 are the place to put it. In fact, one of the most common tricks of a choral director is to pick the epic piece first, and then choosing songs to program around it, so the build up is appropriate like setting up bowling pins, and then the epic song knocks them down. Or, in keeping with the Twinkie theme…lining up Twinkies in a row, and then gobbling them up like Pac-man.
Song 8- The closer. Your closer should be big, loud, and high energy. The audience will know this is your last song, and so they will want to clap along. At this point, unless you have an encore (which you should always have prepared just in case), your group can expel the last remaining amounts of energy. Lots of dancing, lots of singing- don’t hold anything back. Put everything on the table. Empty the box of Twinkies…then go run on the treadmill for 5 hours…
Encore- Yes, You should ALWAYS have an encore ready, even if you don’t always sing it. Don’t assume you are going to be asked for an encore, and don’t sing an encore when the audience thinks the concert is over and doesn’t want to hear anymore. But plan for every eventuality. If the audience asks for an encore, and you don’t have one, your group will look foolish and unprepared. Always have a second box of Twinkies waiting.
3) To program or not to program…that is the question…
The pros of programs:
- You have a physical record of who was in your group, when your concert was, and what songs you performed
- The audience knows exactly how long your concert is
- Programs can thank people who helped your group succeed
The cons of programs:
- A cappella groups often don’t want to give away their set list
- Programs cost money and are time consuming
- Contemporary a cappella is typically not a genre that presents programs
- A cappella groups often change their set lists at the last moment
- Rock concerts don’t have programs
How do you want your concert to be perceived? If your group is going for a professional atmosphere, then programs are probably the way to go. If your group wants to be free of the professional stigma and treated more like a rock concert, then programs are not the way to go.
Keep in mind…even boxes of Twinkies have information you can read.
4) Program Length
Our nation is a nation of short attention spans. Audiences expected to be entertained, not held prisoner by a 20 song set list. Consider the following rules when programming music:
-Unless the song is your epic masterpiece, a cappella selections should be 2-4 minutes long. Many arrangements cut a lot of the original music, making the instrumental bridges much shorter. Consider the song length of groups on the Sing-Off. NBC would never allow any group to be longer than 2 minutes.
-A cappella concerts should be 90 minutes in length, max. The only permittable shows to exceed 90 minutes in length- musicals or plays.
-Cut down your talking time. If you are going to talk, it needs to be concise, short, and have a purpose.
Just like eating a Twinkie, the memory of your concert should last forever and be as rich, fattening and enjoyable as every other concert.
Just writing this has made me feel guilty. I’m going to work out…