Thoughts On Programming

Putting together a concert or set list is as much an art as performing the music in the first place. If you’ve never programmed a concert or chosen a set list for a band to perform, the first time you do this can be a challenging experience. However, if you approach it with the right attitude it can be a fun and creative venture. While there are many approaches to how to select music for a performance (or album project), here are some of the basic rules of thumb that I personally use to select a program or set list.

Consider the Concert or Set as a Whole Entity

It’s tempting to sometimes look for neat pieces to perform and simply throw them together, but sometimes this makes for a performance that is too redundant. As you start thinking about which compositions to include you want to think about whether there is enough variety to be interesting without getting disjointed.

One thing that helps me to organize a concert or set list is to think about certain key points in the performance that I’ll want to program something specific. For example, here is a generic outline for a set or concert including 8 compositions (well, 9 actually, but that’s with an encore) that might go about an hour.

  1. Opener – Something exciting and accessible for the audience to get everyone settled in and in the mood for the performance. I almost always like to segue directly into at least the next piece (and sometimes the next two pieces) without pausing for announcements.
  2. Lower the intensity – Frequently I’ll put in something slow and lyrical here, but sometimes I’ll instead program something just less intense than the opener and save the lyrical piece for third. For example, in a big band set I might program a bossa nova here and then follow with a ballad third. Other times I’ll program a ballad here and save the bossa nova for third.
  3. Keep the intensity simmering – See #2 above. It’s worth changing styles here and having some ebb and flow to the second and third pieces, but don’t get too exciting here. Save it for later and it will have more of an impact.
  4. Something weighty – If you’re going to program something that is not as accessible as the rest of the set or concert, this is a good place to do it. Don’t do it too late or else your audience will be less attentive.
  5. Something accessible and fun – After challenging your audience you want to reward them with something easy to listen to. In a big band set, for example, I might program a funk or rock chart here. For a concert band or brass band performance I like to put something pops oriented in here.
  6. Lower the intensity a bit again – After #5 calm things down a bit with something that will help you build to the peak that is your final piece.
  7. Build intensity – Not too much, save it for the closer. Something that is lighter in style or familiar to your audience is good.
  8. Closer – A final piece that ends with a bang. Something familiar to your audience can be good here, but sometimes I prefer to program something that the ensemble really enjoys playing more than worrying about the audience.
  9. Encore – I like having encores in my concerts and final set. If there’s a particular piece that your audience is waiting for, this is a great time to program it.

With an outline like the above in mind, I’ll start going through the music library and find pieces that can fit these different roles and start placing them in order to see how I imagine it will sound. That’s not to say that you need to stick to this guide absolutely. As you find pieces that you want to perform you’ll discover different ways that you can play around with this programming concept. For example, the Stan Kenton Live at Redlands University concert starts with a ballad, rather than a barn burner (check out the introductory clip of Kenton explaining this decision on that link). Your main concern really shouldn’t be plugging in music, but that you’re pacing the performance in an interesting and enjoyable way.

Consider Your Audience

I’ve already alluded to this above, but you will want to think about your target audience and what they want to hear. That’s not to say that you need to “sell out” and only program music that is familiar or popular. Some audiences are particularly hip and some performances cater specifically to an educated audience while others are going to have a mix of people, maybe leaning towards patrons who are attending on a whim. For example, consider the difference between a concert at a contemporary music festival and an outdoor concert just before a fireworks display on Independence Day. You can’t program one like the other without disappointing and alienating your audience.

Consider Your Ensemble

As your thinking about what pieces you want to perform you need to think about the capabilities of your ensemble. Do you have a section in the group that is particularly strong or have some outstanding soloists you can feature? Do you have a weaker section or a budding soloist that you can challenge a bit for improvement without getting too difficult (particularly important if you’re working with a student ensemble)? How difficult will brass parts be? Will your brass players have chops at the end of the performance? If the closer is particularly rangy for the brass consider programming a piece or two just before that are easy on the brass players so they can rest a bit and get ready to blow hard on the final piece. Be sure to program something purely for ensemble enjoyment, regardless of how you think it will go over with the audience. I feel that when the band really is having a good time it rubs off on the audience, even if the piece might go over their heads, as long as you don’t overdo this.

Program Something For Everyone

I like a wide variety of music and prefer to program a lot of different types of pieces in my concerts and sets. Along with considering your audience, stick in some pieces that will appeal to the high-brows and find something that the Philistines will enjoy too. Again, make sure that your ensemble is having fun and being challenged as well so that their energy feeds the audience’s.

Consider Length of the Concert or Set

When I’m putting together a set list for a big band, for example, I keep each set to about 8-10 charts because I know that that will take about 45-60 minutes to perform (obviously you have to adjust if you know something is particularly long or short). Programming for a concert band performance, in contrast, is a little more tricky because pieces can have different lengths. I will usually write down the approximate length of time each piece takes to perform and add them up, allowing for time between numbers. If you’re going to make announcements during the performance consider how long it will take to get through them.

Personally, I think the maximum length of a performance without an intermission should be 75 minutes. Any longer than this and you should split up your program into roughly half and stick in an intermission. If I’m programming a concert with an intermission I try to go 2 hours maximum (including intermission), and closer to 90-105 minutes if possible.

Club gigs are a bit different as you usually have a set amount of time to fill. A typical approach is to play for about 45-50 minutes and then take about 15-20 minutes for a set break. If you’re filling a two hour night, for example, you can play for 50 minutes, take a 20 minute break, and then come back for a final 50 minutes, give or take.


Learning how to pace a concert or set list is a skill much like learning to compose or arrange a piece of music. It’s actually pretty easy to practice this by putting together a playlist for your MP3 player. In fact, if I’ve got recordings of all the pieces I’m thinking of programming I’ll sometimes do this to see how the performance will feel after listening to it all the way through. You’ll get a great idea of how the flow of the music fits together and sometimes catch some odd things about your program that you might not have noticed otherwise. For example, is the last chord of one piece the same as the first chord of the next? Are the tempos of two consecutive pieces too close for variety? Do two consecutive pieces feature the exact same soloist? When you discover things like this it doesn’t mean you need to change your order, but it might inform how your introduce the pieces during the performance or whether you’ll segue directly into the next number without any introductions.

Closing Thoughts

A lot of this is pretty intuitive for many people and I know many directors who have their own philosophy of how they program concerts. There are many different ways to think about music selection and sometimes special events require a different approach. If you have a guest soloist, for example, you’ll need to program around the soloist. A themed concert celebrating a particular composer or event can be a fun way to build a program too. Study programs and albums you really enjoy and see how the flow of pieces fit together and borrow what you can from those.

Do you have any additional thoughts or disagreements? Please share your ideas in the comments here.

Master Class with Guitarist Frank Vignola

Frank Vignola Master ClassLast Friday, February 15, 2013, guitarist Frank Vignola came to Western Carolina University to perform. I was unable to attend the concert, but I did get to his master class earlier that day. He and his musical partner, guitarist Vinny Raniolo, spent a bit over an hour talking about jazz improvisation, the music business, practicing, and also performing a bit for those in attendance. I took some notes during the master class and here are some random things that Frank and Vinny discussed, in no particular order, and some additional thoughts by me.

Frank commented that he has spent more time working on getting his music heard (finding gigs, promoting his recordings, etc.) than he has actually spent playing guitar. He pointed out that when he was first getting started that this was more difficult than today, and he urged the students to use available technology (YouTube, social networking, etc.) to help them with this side of their careers. Many opportunities for performing exist in places like hospitals, nursing homes, libraries, and coffee houses and such venues shouldn’t be overlooked by musicians just getting started. Every gig you play, Frank noted, is promotion for your next one. In response to a question about how to find a manager, Frank mentioned that up until recently he did all his own managing. He felt this was for the better as he understood his needs exactly and that some venues were more interested in speaking directly with the artist than to an agent or manager. That said, Frank said he does currently use a manager and booking agent for European tours and also one for North America, but only recently has he become busy enough to need this.

Frank feels that making a connection with his audience is very important. He finds that doing things like announcing the songs and talking a bit about them makes for a big difference in the enjoyment the audience gets out of hearing his music, particularly when it’s an original composition or tune that isn’t very recognizable. He and Vinny actually went so far as to demonstrate how they step out on stage and bow to acknowledge the applause. Smiling and looking up towards the audience is also important, he argued. Frank mentioned a few jazz greats who he felt were particularly good and audience interaction, as well as noting that Miles Davis was an obvious exception who was able to get away with performing with his back to the audience.

Practicing improvisation was a big part of the master class. Frank emphasized learning a lot of tunes, and in many different styles, and not just jazz standards but also rock, classical, and country tunes (he also offered that this is also simply good business sense). Frank said, “Learn 100 songs and you’ll have no problem improvising.” He recommended that students just getting started on improvisation begin by using the melody as a launching point and simply embellish the melody with things like vibrato, bends, and altering rhythms. Gradually step up to adding things like arpeggios and blues scale embellishments.

While working with some of the students Frank seemed to emphasize not only working without a lead sheet, but also using your ears as much as possible. He had invited students to join him and Vinny on the concert later that night on the tune Take the A Train, and rehearsed a bit with the students at the end of the master class. One student was struggling a bit and she pulled out a fake book to read the changes. Frank insisted she close the book and instead helped her by prompting her on the chords while playing. After a couple of choruses or so through the form she no longer seemed to need the sheet music, and I suspect she probably learned the tune faster this way than she would have if she kept reading out off the lead sheet.

Speaking of reading music, Frank encouraged the (mostly guitar) students to really work on their sight reading skills. He suggested spending time every day sight reading something new. He acknowledge that TAB notation has it’s uses (learning how a player might have played a particular line, for example), but feels it is much more beneficial for guitarists to avoid too much TAB and instead focus on learning how to read a standard lead sheet notation of melody with chord symbols.

Frank did spend some time speaking on issues specific to guitar players, but I found some of this interesting and relevant to trombone playing. For example, he recommended that guitarists spend time working out how to play the same licks and scales starting in different hand positions, starting on different fingers, different strings, and even playing only on a single string. While trombonists don’t have as many options for slide positions and guitarists do with all the combinations Frank made note of, I’ve found practicing patterns utilizing different slide position combinations very useful for general slide facility as sometimes a line ends up in a slide position that makes and alternate slide pattern fit better than the more typical one. Frank also discussed some of the different methods of picking. He mentioned that he prefers all down strokes whenever possible and alternates for very fast passages. That said, he stated he liked to play with an up stroke for chord melodies as this approach will have the melody note (usually the top note in the voicing) sound first and bring out the melody a bit more this way.

All in all, I found Frank Vignola’s and Vinny Raniolo’s master class to be both informative and enjoyable, even as a non-guitarist. They both played great, were positive yet honest, and had interesting and helpful thoughts to offer. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to make their performance, but heard that it was well attended by an enthusiastic audience and I’m pleased that students at WCU were able to have the experience of sitting in with two extremely fine musicians in performance.

If you’re not already familiar with Frank’s and Vinny’s playing, check them out in this YouTube video.

All Songs Considered On Owning Music

Emily White, an intern for NPR’s All Songs Consider, has sparked some controversy with her blog post I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With.

I am an avid music listener, concertgoer, and college radio DJ. My world is music-centric. I’ve only bought 15 CDs in my lifetime. Yet, my entire iTunes library exceeds 11,000 songs.

Like White, I tend to get my music as downloads these days, rather than physical CDs. Unlike White, I actually purchase that music. She seems to miss one of the points about purchasing music and thinks that when you download it through file sharing, that’s bad, but copying a physical CD you don’t own is just fine.

During my first semester at college, my music library more than tripled. I spent hours sitting on the floor of my college radio station, ripping music onto my laptop. The walls were lined with hundreds of albums sent by promo companies and labels to our station over the years.

David Lowery has a very thorough response.  The online debate continues at All Songs Considered.

Does the International Trombone Association Exclude Women?

I’ve enjoyed going to the International Trombone Festival the couple of times I’ve made it, however I had no plans to fly to Paris for this year’s.  Now I have another reason to not go, as the organizers neglected to invite any women to participate as featured performers or composers.  Abbie Conant, who is unfortunately no stranger to gender discrimination, posted on her Facebook page that she wasn’t planning on attending either:

Why not? Because there are 42 men invited as soloists and 0 women. And all 7 composers are also men. Total: 49 to 0! This is insulting to all women trombonists, all women musicians, and all enlightened men.

She also posted on her web site the following statistics of featured soloists from the last few ITFs. Continue reading Does the International Trombone Association Exclude Women?

Ben Folds on Being a Musical Artist

I’ve enjoyed Ben Folds’ music for a while.  While I enjoy his piano playing and singing, I personally find his song writing to be particularly interesting.  I think he’s developed pretty original original style.

Recently I found an essay Folds wrote and posted on his Facebook page.  His post has a lot of great advice for aspiring artists on topics of finding your own voice, hard work, dealing with criticism, and developing technique.  He starts off by quoting Neal Young:

“Take my advice – Don’t Listen To Me” – Neil Young

Whether or not your a fan of Ben Folds it’s a good read for any creative artist.  I recommend you check out the full post.

Getting (and Keeping) a Gig

Like many musicians, I’m not really all that interested in the business side of music.  I mostly want to create music and prefer to let other people handle the details of booking, managing the budgets, and stuff like that.  Unfortunately, real like doesn’t always let me work this way so I’m constantly trying to learn more about how the business works and improve the way I promote and manage my own music and the groups I work with.

Heather McDonald has written a series of articles dealing with the music business and one of them concerns how to get a gig, and also importantly, how to get asked back.  She lists several important things to keep in mind when you’re promoting your band. Continue reading Getting (and Keeping) a Gig

On Playing For Free

This weekend I’m out judging the Western North Carolina Region Music Performance Assessment Festival.  While I’m busy listening to high school and middle school jazz bands here’s a quick link to an interesting post written by Oxford based musician and writer Elisabeth Hobbs, called Do You Work For Free?

Hobbs’ inspiration was the suggestion that professional musicians should be willing to perform for free at the upcoming Olympic Games.  She writes:

The Evening Standard started the debate with a leader item suggesting we should be proud to showcase our talents on the world stage. Social media is alight with anger. Perhaps, as one colleague said, we could suggest that the plumbers who will keep the stadium systems operational might be pleased to showcase their own sanitation expertise to the world?

This is, of course, part of a larger problem about performing for free.  On the one hand, as musicians we realize that we need to promote our work to develop a following and this sometimes means performing for less than what we may deserve.  On the other hand, when we play for free we end up shooting ourselves in the foot as club owners and other venues begin to expect this is typical.

You can check out more of what Hobbs has to write about this topic on her blog post.

Ben Cameron on The True Power of the Performing Arts

Ben Cameron is the Program Director of the Dorris Duke Charitable Foundation and supervises grant programs for the performing arts.  In  his recent TED Talk Cameron discussed the role that technology has played in how we consume performing arts today and also who participates in them.  He sees a paradigm shift that blurs the line between professionals and amateurs, with less of a separation between performers and audience.

Frankly, what we’re seeing now in this environment is a massive time, when the entire world is changing as we move from a time when audience numbers are plummeting. But the number of arts participants, people who write poetry, who sing songs, who perform in church choirs, is exploding beyond our wildest imaginations. This group, others have called the “pro ams,” amateur artists doing work at a professional level. You see them on YouTube, in dance competitions, film festivals and more. They are radically expanding our notions of the potential of an aesthetic vocabulary,while they are challenging and undermining the cultural autonomy of our traditional institutions. Ultimately, we now live in a world defined not by consumption, but by participation.

Here’s the video.

Thoughts On Branding Practice Methods and Why It Does More Harm Than Good

One of my pet peeves these days is how often teachers and players brand their recommendations.  My interest in brass embouchures has led me to look closely at a lot of different method books and internet resources that offer good examples of branding in brass pedagogy – Pivot System, Balanced Embouchure, Superchops, Song & Wind, you get the idea.  Sometimes there isn’t a specific term used, but rather these methods are identified with a particular teacher (Claude Gordon, Carmine Caruso, Bill Adam, etc.).  On the one hand, it’s nice to be able to easily separate these methods with a short phrase or name that lets a reader familiar with these approaches know exactly what you’re talking about, but when I look at the big picture I think that the idea of partitioning off these ideas does more harm than good.

It’s certainly true that many of these different methods are mutually exclusive.  For example, Donald Reinhardt (Pivot System) instructed his trumpet students to never practice pedal tones while Claude Gordon’s method relies quite heavily on them.  In discussing these ideas it can be helpful to look at the contrast, but in separating them into brands it leads to an argument from authority, rather than a logical discussion.  We should be considering facts, not  individuals.  If we want to discuss pedal tone practice for trumpet players it’s best to simply discuss pedal tone practice, not argue which teacher was right.

One of my favorite online brass forums to read is the Trumpet Herald Forum, which has different sections devoted to different brands of playing.  While it is nice to be able to look for information about a particular approach and get what I hope is an accurate depiction, the effect this tends to have is to stifle any conversation about why an author or teacher recommended something and instead inhibits criticisms or modifications that may be valuable to consider.  As a regular reader of a few other brass forums and blogs too, I’m always a little amused at how many people go out of their way to inform the reader that they studied with teacher X for a certain number of years.  The implication is that we should pay close attention to what this person has to say because of that association, not because what they say is rational and fits the facts as we know them.  Sometimes these public debates seem to be more devoted to a cult of personality than a discussion of how and why a particular instructor taught.

The trend to “certify” teachers pass on a particular method is this cult of personality run amok.   Continue reading Thoughts On Branding Practice Methods and Why It Does More Harm Than Good

Marketing Your Music

I was browsing The Trombone Forum and came across a gem of a post by an old friend from DePaul University, Tom Matta.

Social Media = Marketing

Everything that a performer, composer, arranger (et al) does today can impact what happens to him or her tomorrow. That can come from a performance, a new piece of music, a recording – anywhere.

That big band arrangement you wrote that you thought nobody heard?
…Someone heard it, and they want a copy.
…….That same guy wants 10 more.
……….Someone heard that band, and they would like to commission you to write something new.
……………Oh, you play too? Wanna play in my band and write me some charts?
………………..Do you ever write for strings? So and so has a pops orchestra with a singer….

That silly polka band you went on the road with thru several midwestern states?
….The bass player has connections to Pamphlet B bus/truck tours…
……….The accordion player plays in a very popular Baltic band that needs a player just like you to go to Europe this summer…
……………Someone at the Elks lodge runs the local jazz festival, and learned that you have an acclaimed septet….

The CD you composed, produced, and released sold only 10 copies, but —-
….one copy ended up in the hands of a college kid that shared it with 40 others…
…….10 of those college kids ended up buying your CD from iTunes….
……….3 of those kids stopped by the club the last time you were in Denver to check out your band…
………….1 of those kids convinced his professor to hire you for a masterclass and clinic weekend at the college….

My point?


Get good.
Get busy.
Get the word out.

Like Tom, I’ve found that often times the performances you do for little or no money ends up leading to bigger and better things.  If you demonstrate your professionalism while sitting in with a community orchestra, people will notice and the next time it might be the paying professional group.  If you compose and arrange music for local ensembles for free, your music gets heard and can lead to other groups wanted to purchase those pieces or commission their own.

While I’m at it, I want to plug Tom as a fantastic bass trombonist and one of the finest jazz composer/arrangers I’ve come across.  We played and hung out together while we were students at DePaul.  They liked Tom’s teaching as a grad assistant so much they ended up hiring him, first as an adjunct and soon as the Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies there.  Go check out his music.