6 Tips in Constructing an Effective Concert Program

Not too long ago, I wrote a blog post where I shared some general thoughts on recital programming. Be sure to check it out before reading this post as I expand on several concepts from there. My underlining premise was that performing artists need to find ways to connect with the audience. Without patrons filling the seats of concert halls, our occupations will cease to exist. I proposed that one of the many ways to address this issue is to think about how we construct our program so that it entices people to attend our concerts. To this end, here are six things to consider:

*Note: these thoughts are geared towards classical pianists who have completed their studies at the university. Many of these ideas can be generally applied by most musicians.

Define your overall artistic direction

Like most businesses, figure out how you want the public at large to perceive you as an artist. Are you interested in making your performances accessible for everyone by sending out the message that classical music is for everyone? Or do you hold the mindset of a traditionalist to keep things as the status quo? Whatever it may be—both positions have its pros and cons. What music do you want to specialize? What kind of emotional response do you want to elicit from your performances? How will you achieve that through program selection? The list goes on and on, but I feel that performing artists must consider these types of questions thoroughly as it will influence the type of repertory that they will play.

 

Consider your audience

Whatever artistic direction you decide, performing musicians must construct programs that are appealing to the audience. Unless you are presenting a large number of concerts each year, I am a big proponent for not repeating the same program in multiple venues because there will be a different target audience each time. I understand many musicians reuse programs for the sake of convenience, but I suggest creating slight variants and tailoring it to each individual case.

 

For example, you might consider performing more fan-favorite, blockbusters, instant-appeal type of works in a smaller town/recital series, where they might not have as rich of a classical music culture in comparison to a more metropolitan city. Performing at outreach concerts or “family-friendly” events are additional examples to consider. If you are ever unsure what to play for these types of events, just attend a concert by your local city’s pops orchestra to give you an idea.

Themed programming can be innovative and effective

Themed concerts, programs comprised of works that are connected by a singular idea or composer, can be a creative way to make one stand out. Through my own experiences, not all thematic programs work well.

I remember once attending a concert of all-Brahms piano trios. Even though I am an avid admirer of his music, the concert was far too long, and it became tiresome to listen to music of a similar style. 

Some successful examples of recent past include concerts that highlighted religious references, social issues, and interdisciplinary collaborations (i.e. visual art). In other words, our performances must relate with the audience. People who especially have very little classical music background need to be able to empathize with the music that we are playing. Themed programming might accomplish that.  

 

“Variety is the spice of life.” –William Cowper, “The Task”

Constructing a varied program is critical to audience appeal. Unless you are going with thematic programming, consider creating a balanced mix of different types of composers, nationalities, size of works, and historical eras.

Think of it this way: the audience relies on the performer’s expertise to curate an appealing and varied program for them. I treat this relationship like a chef at a fine restaurant with his or her diners. There might be times when the chef may recommend you to pair a certain dish with a particular wine; or to try out a three or five-course prix fixe meal. In these situations, you are relying on the chef’s culinary expertise to satisfy your tasting palettes. Eckart Preu, conductor, said it best:

"Programs are a bit like prix-fixe menus in a restaurant: We can’t serve music à la carte . . . so our menu has to be quite diverse and – tasty.”
 

Absolute vs. program music

      

Another thing to consider is to balance your program with an appropriate number of absolute works (no external or additional references) and program music (pieces that have a specific story attached). From my personal experiences, audiences relate more effectively to the latter: these works are generally shorter and are easier to comprehend.

 

Capitalize your strengths

I view performers as analogous to people who work in the sales industry. We must always put our best product forward, so only program works that showcase your strengths. If you feel that you are unable to “sell” a work in a convincing way, even though it might be a potentially good fit for the audience, consider finding a different piece. 

 

Be adventurous

Performing musicians need to constantly evaluate themselves and ask the tough question: why should people come to hear me when they have a plethora of options to watch from YouTube at home? What can I offer in my live performances that one cannot enjoy elsewhere? The aforementioned tips address this in part. Some additional things to consider:

  • Program order: works do not need to be programmed in chronological order. Often times, I open the second half of my concerts with Baroque music.

  • Do not limit yourself to the “start soft” and “end with a bang” cliché: I think we are all too familiar with this trend. Sometimes, opening with an attention-grabbing work can be quite effective. Recently, I have been ending with Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton mill Blues in my concerts. The piece ends quietly, but overall, I have found it to be an incredibly effective program ender. I wrote about this work here in case if you are interested.

  • Experiment beyond the scope of conventional programming: be creative! Challenge yourself and audience members to push their boundaries of musical tastes. Do not be afraid to include a few lesser-known works.

  • Less is more: you know the old adage: always leave them wanting more. I think that definitely applies in this case! Unless your presenter has given you specific details about the length of the concert, try to limit the playing time to 55-60 minutes with a short intermission (seventy minutes maximum). I have been experimenting with this lately and have found good results so far.

I hope you found this enjoyable! Feel free to leave comments below. I would love to hear from you!

© 2019 by Frank Huang

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