Factors to Consider in Programming a Concert
This is one of those posts that started out as notes for a particular group of people, but which I then realised will be useful beyond that cohort. In this case, it started out as a summary of a discussion amongst participants on the Association of British Choral Directors’ Initial Course in Newcastle. They had all prepared programmes for a short choral concert, annotated with the reasons for their choices. The discussion analysed the range of factors different people had taken into account
Everyone, unsurprisingly, commented on the musical character of the pieces - style, character, soundworld, - the things that an audience will experience directly. The discussion centred around the different ways people had grouped pieces together using these considerations. Some people themed by links between composers, others by common genre, others by common ideas in the texts.
In all cases, though, the considerations were of balancing unity and variety: the pieces needed to have something in common so it made sense to bring them together, but they also needed contrast so the event didn’t feel too ‘samey’. Themed programmes achieved this by unifying one dimension, allowing variety in others.
There was also the question of narrative structure - the sequence of pieces making a satisfying journey or emotional arc. One piece of advice I offered was to think very carefully before finishing on a sad piece. By all means take your listeners into the more painful areas of human experience, but it is kind to put them back together emotionally before sending them back out into the world.
All these factors affect the choir, of course, since the rehearsal and performance processes are musical experiences for them too. But there are also a host of practical factors that the audience don’t need to think about that determine the success of particular choices with any particular choir.
First among these is the difficulty of the music, in the context of the size, composition and stage of development of the choir. We talked about balancing challenges, how it is good to stretch the singers, to give them something to strive for, but how both their confidence and the success of the concert rely on them also having some material well within their grasp. Rehearsal time available will also be part of this mix, as will their current stamina levels.
We also touched on the choir’s preferences: will they enjoy singing this? In retrospect I feel we could have spent longer unpicking this, working out what determines this. There are some obvious factors - pieces which are a ‘jolly good sing’ - but it’s not just the easy and familiar that excite our singers. Sometimes it is the pieces which were the biggest challenges to learn that become the firmest favourites; sometimes it is the very unusualness of a piece that excites a choir.
One specific factor, though, was balance of interest across the parts - not necessarily just within a particular piece, but across the programme as a whole. This is something that, as an arranger, I call ‘sharing the candy’.
We also had a pile of miscellaneous factors, mostly practical rather than artistic, to consider. Cost of music and choir budget was the most intensely pragmatic of these. Performance occasion and performance space are more artistic in the way they shape our judgements, but also require some quite very practical decisions.
We also talked about various performance decisions we might want to take into account. Will there be appropriate opportunities for audience participation, and how would we build that in? Does the space allow for varying the staging?
What was interesting about the session was how everyone was juggling some of these factors, but people tended to be either more music-focused or more choir-focused in their approach. The point about sharing the programmes was of course to widen everyone’s range of thinking, as well as to exchange repertoire ideas. But I am now wondering how much the different relative emphases map onto people’s general tendency to be task-focused or people-focused.