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October/November 2014

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Peak Performance Part 4 – Set Order

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Peak Performance Part 4 – Set Order

So far in this Building Blocks Peak Performance series we’’ve covered every step of the mechanical, hands-on process of playing at a venue; getting to the gig with your gear, setting up and soundchecking, and band change overs. The next item on our checklist is to perform – except for one tiny little detail that often gets forgotten about until the last minute – what songs are you going to play tonight, and in what order?
Some bands just wing it, but there’’s definitely a science to set order. A great set list manages the energy of the audience, plays with their expectations and then fulfills them. If your playing, repertoire and programming are powerful and convincing, you should build the audience instead of just being a quickly forgotten warm up act.
Using Your History – If the band has only been together a couple of months, you may only have a set’s worth of songs to play, but if you’’ve got some history, then you may have a couple of hour’s worth of material. Cover bands often have pages and pages of songs they can play, in a variety of styles. In any case, your band should always keep a master list of all the songs in your current repertoire, and this list should be kept in your rehearsal space, where you can refer to it when practising towards the next gig. This master list is essentially the bottom line – every set list you make is derived from it. If your sets are sounding repetitive, dull, or predictable, then your master list needs some new numbers on it from which to choose.
Thinking Ahead – While bands often have a specific collection of songs in mind for the next gig, they don’’t always work out a set order, or even write a set list in advance. This is really amateurish, yet how many times have I seen band members huddled in a back corner just before a changeover, desperately scribbling out set lists with a Sharpie? All too often. There’’s really no excuse if you’re serious about your music. The order in which songs are performed should be determined in advance and rehearsed before each gig, so you can really feel how those songs work in sequence. I’’ve discussed the concept of Concert Mode before (see my article Constructive Rehearsals, Part 3: Developing Your Band Skills, NZM Oct/Nov 2011), in which a band rehearses their entire set without interruptions, with the same commitment it takes to perform on stage throughout. This is the best way to see if your set has the energy needed to turn the audience’s dials.
Writing It Down – The easiest way to make an actual list on paper is to have your master list in a digital file, then cut and paste songs to a new document, make sure the font is big, fat, and easy to read from a distance and then print out copies for each band member. That said, more low-tech procedures usually win in the end. Have a few notepads at rehearsal and a handful of extra-large felt-tipped pens. Write out one list, then hang it on the wall so each band member can copy their own.

At the gig, tape the list where you can see it easily while you perform without cluttering up your space. Usually, this means the floor. When I was gigging regularly as a keyboardist I’’d tape mine right on the top keyboard of my multi-rack, because I couldn’’t see the floor (and I was lucky to see the audience at times). After the show, save at least one or two lists for reference, because you may want to re-use the set order if it felt good, or improve on it. You can also give these away to fans, some of whom may treasure them.

Building a Powerful Set – Here’’s where science meets art. There are natural patterns of emotions and attention built into human mental processes. We find it hard to maintain our interest if the same mood or idea goes on for too long. We like being excited and pushing ourselves, but we also like to get some release at times.

Audiences follow these built-in tendencies much more reliably than individuals. Your fans are going to want to rock out, but also have an emotional connection with your music. Think about their reactions when programming a set, and put them in an order that also brings out the best in your playing.

The first rule is always ‘start strong, but not your best song’. You want an opening song that gets the audience jumping out of their seats and onto their feet – bouncy, punchy, and engaging from the first bar. But it should also help the band click together and reconnect musical relationships. Songs that are intensely emotional or complicated aren’t recommended as starters, you may need to lay a bit of groundwork first.

Best case, follow that with another that’’s even stronger than the first. This could be something more driving, more edgy than the first song. Generally speaking, you’’ve got the audience’’s attention now, so you should define who you are as a band. A perfect type of song for this slot would have a bit of chops for each member, and yet groove tightly.

After this you can play with the energy a bit. Try out songs with different messages, attitudes and tempos. Maybe halfway through the set have a really fast or furious song that revs up the audience’’s energy, then follow it with a slower, more intimate number. This gives the audience a chance to catch breath, and please the venue management as occasional slow songs give people a chance to go order another drink.

If you do have a ‘best song’, then it should go next to last on the list – never first or last. You want to show how good you can play, but it’’s a hell of a place to stop, with everyone wanting it to keep going (including the band). Finish with a number that makes people want to come to your next gig, not too long or too intense, but pushing the energy up a bit so you can go out strong.

Things to Avoid – Too many songs in the same key or having the same tempo will make the music all sound the same. If most of your songs are in drop-D tuning, break things up every few songs with something different, even if you have to stop to retune. Several songs in a row with lengthy instrumental breaks and solos makes the music seem more about the soloists than the band. Also avoid back-to-back songs with the same message, or having the same vibe, unless you’re intentionally playing a medley. Finally, be aware of the physical demands on your vocalist. Alternate songs with very high notes or screamo lyrics with more middle-range material, or vocal cords won’t last to the end of the set, especially if the band is on tour with a string of nightly performances.
Internet to the Rescue – Thanks to diehard fans of many great bands, set lists are available from thousands of performances over the past few decades. Do some research after reading this article and look up your own favourite bands. Notice the choices they made. Where are the big hits? Where are the slow songs? How does the band start a set, and even more important, what’s the second song? What are the last two songs, and why do you think they were put in that order?

One important detail I haven’’t mentioned in this process is deciding where to take short breaks to greet the audience, introduce the band, and talk about your music. I’’ll cover all that and more in the next installment of our Peak Performance series: Stage Etiquette.

Thomas Goss is a producer, band coach, and composer/orchestrator with an international clientele that includes Billy Ocean, Melanie C, and Canadian jazz star Nikki Yanofsky. He is Education Composer-In-Residence for Orchestra Wellington, and his online orchestration course is available from macProVideo.