Author: Campbell, Bruce

What was that middle part again?

I remember a seminar I attended on doing presentations for groups of people. They said your presentation should consist of three parts: Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.

They said a strong finish and ending are important, because those are what forms the attendees’ opinion of the event. Oh, the middle part was still important – it’s where the main information about the presentation was, but the listener’s overall impression was formed by the beginning and solidified by the ending.

I attended a band workshop once, (hosted by the Grascals), and they talked about how a set list is constructed. They said the set should take the audience on a journey, and a strong opening was important, because it helped set the audience expectation of the journey, and that strong a finish was vital because it completed the journey.

Somebody asked what should a band do if they get the “two more songs” notice from the stage manager when you’re only halfway through your setlist. Should the band just play the next two songs on their list? The Grascals said the band should jump to the last two songs on your setlist to deliver the planned ending to the journey.

I have found this philosophy works in a myriad of other contexts within music, like a set of nesting Russian dolls. Consider this – if a setlist should have a proper introduction, a journey and a finish, then so should a song, right? Think about it – the most effective songs work exactly that way. There are exceptions of course, but by and large, a great song will impress you out of the gate, make you think and delight you as it develops, then impress you all over again at the end.

On a more micro scale, the same philosophy applies to the instrumental breaks in a song as well. Listen to your favorite song, and the best instrumental breaks seem to jump out (often prefaced by some anticipatory fills), dazzle, then finish in a dramatic way just before giving way to the next vocal stanza.

Some musicians (and public speakers) seem to understand this by instinct. They may not specifically dissect their setlists, album song orders, song arrangements and solos to hew to this three part formula. But I know for sure the best bands take care of these details, either explicitly or implicitly, to ensure that their music delivers the punch that makes them sparkle. Art shouldn’t be tied to formula of course, and there will always be exceptions – things that go against the norm can be very effective sometimes.

Are your band’s setlists constructed in a way to have a unifying purpose, to provide your audience a satisfying experience? Will it delight them early, surprise and thrill them along the way, affect their emotions, and will end in a way that applause is instinctive and spontaneous?

Similarly, will each song achieve the same? And within the songs, will the arrangement accomplish the same? Do the parts of the song have impact, or do they burble up and only take flight after a four bar rampup?

If you’re in a band, this is worth some thought, across all the levels. The typical festival set is under an hour. That’s not much time to create, establish and bolster a positive impression. A good set is more than a collection of songs, and a good song is more than a collection of notes...

Posted:  8/4/2010

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