Creative Programming

As musicians, we wear many hats: performer, student, teacher, collaborator, music director, producer…Perhaps you also wear some of these: blogger, promoter, accountant, website developer, recording artist. Maybe you have been fortunate enough to be the Artistic Director at some point, the one responsible for programming the music at an event? 

I say fortunate because so many times artists perform out of obligation to record labels, producers, and teachers who determine the content of their programs. I think it is such fun to figure out exactly what I want to play on a program and then create a story around it. 

When I was a young pianist, recitals were often programmed with the beginner performers at the top and advanced performers closing out. In situations where the performers were more evenly matched, or in solo recitals, the music would often be programmed chronologically (i.e. Bach to Ives). Perhaps this was the standard for many other musicians too, as I still see concerts like this. Sometimes this kind of order makes sense, but it can also be a little boring. 

How about a program of music by women composers or people of color? I have seen these sorts of concerts too, and they can definitely provide fodder for creative inspiration. However, might we take it a bit further and consider how the pieces of music within these programs relate to each other? If we take a theme like “Music by Certain Kinds of People,” and throw a bunch of music into it because it all fits that category, we could be missing out on discovering important connections between people, eras, and styles of music. 

Of course, we also need to consider our audience and what might be interesting to them, taking care not to choose all slow pieces or all unfamiliar pieces, etc. 

If you are in the position of choosing music for a performance and arranging its order, maybe you could think of it like you are telling a story: 

  1. What kind of story do you want to tell? Start with a piece you love or want to highlight, and build your program off of that. Do you want to showcase virtuosity, express deep emotion, make a personal or political statement, or inspire/excite/comfort an audience? 
  2. How do your musical selections relate to each other? Is there a relationship between musical or literary ideas? Are the composers contemporaries? Have the composers studied from the same teacher/lived in the same part of the country/grappled with the same ideas/used similar musical motifs? Or perhaps you want to show contrasting ideas! 
  3. What piece will begin your program? What kind of mood do you want to create? What musical or extra-musical idea are you introducing? 
  4. How does your arrangement of pieces flow? Have you considered what key a piece ends in and what key the next piece starts in? This is a worship service trick: To create flow within a set of songs, try to keep common key relationships, like I-V or relative major/minor. This is a subtlety that may go unnoticed, especially if there is talking or applause between pieces; but if you are programming a set of lieder, for instance, you may not want more than a few second between songs, and you will want to avoid an abrupt key change. 
  5. How will you end? What impression do you want to leave your audience with? What song would you most like them to remember as you conclude the concert? 

There is no “right” way to program, but you can easily avoid a hum-drum, boring program by putting a bit of thought into it. Be intentional about the music you choose, and then do a little research to find connections between musical ideas, lyrics, motifs, geographical regions, and composers. It will enhance your understanding of the music you are performing and create a delightful experience for your listeners! 


Some of my favorite programs may help you get started: 

Battle of the Sexes: Piano and vocal music by Franz and Fanny Schubert, the Boulanger sisters, Leonard Bernstein, and Felix Mendelssohn 

Songs from Home: A piano recital in a friend’s home with narration including songs from my childhood, songs that highlight my musical development, and songs that reflect my Euro-American heritage. Composers include Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Ola Gjeilo, and George Gershwin. 

Bernstein and Friends: Piano, vocal, and cello music by Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Dvorak. 

Latin Dances: Music from various parts of Latin America contrasting classical and jazz traditions. Pieces are grouped by country and alternate between solo piano and jazz ensemble.

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