How to make a set list

January 31, 2009

Making a set list for performance is very similar to ordering songs on an album. You have to take into account the following items:

  • Key signature
  • Tempo
  • Timbre (of voices and intruments)
  • Pacing
  • Energy flow

You generally want to change keys with each song. Everything else in the list should flow from one to the next, however.

Listening to The Beatles’ Revolver recently acted as a great demo of how to create the perfect set list.

  1. Taxman: The first song sets the tone for everything that comes after. It’s usually an up-tempo song, as in this example. The Beatles tell you right away that this album will include social commentary and will have some unusual guitar sounds. Don’t expect She Loves You!
  2. Eleanor Rigby: What at first seems an odd choice (minor key, sad song following the angry Taxman) turns out to be very strong. While we think of this song as a slow song, it’s actually got quite a pulse to it. The strings are in sharp contrast to the guitar of the song before, but the social commentary ties the two together. From an energy standpoint, we’ve gone from rebellious to reflective in a very successful way.
  3. I’m Only Sleeping: The tempo slows a bit more but we’re back in a major key. We also have a pronounced beat, similar to Rigby but slower. In other words, we’ve just made a smooth transition from a social cry to an invocation of mellowness. We’ve also switched vocalists again (Lennon instead of McCartney) and timbre: Lennon uses his most nasal, edgy sound for this sleepy song.
  4. Love You To: And now that we’ve heard enough to fully trust these musicians with our experience, we are suddenly taken to India for George Harrison’s take on Ravi Shankar. We’re also deep enough into the set that we can tolerate a somewhat weak song. It acts primarily as a set-up for more Indian influences to come (these aren’t comments on the revolutionary nature of Harrison’s playing; I’m talking strictly about the piece and its place in the set).

    By the way, this act of trust is very important for audience experience. If you start with a weak or raucous song, you may put your audience at odds with you. I generally shoot for about three pieces of audience-pleasers before going for something a little outside their normal realm of experience. 

  5. Here, There and Everywhere: Wow, that’s a head-twister! How did we get from Harrison’s trance state to McCartney’s traditional ballad? This is something of a jump, but it works due to the diversity of pieces that have gone before it. It’s clear by now that we’re on a journey and might as well sit back and enjoy the ride. And did you notice? Tempo has slowed through each piece on the album so we can be in the right space to hear this lovely song.
  6. Yellow Submarine: Enough already! Suddenly we get the rare sound of Ringo singing to us in this charmingly goofy mid-tempo piece. You can almost hear an announcer say, “We’re going to mix it up a little with our next tune.” And what a tune! How can this and Love You To exist on the same album? By being linked with a slow, traditional ballad to bring us back to a comfy place.
  7. She Said She Said: And we’re back to the guitar sounds of Taxman, but thrown together with harmonies and dreamy overlays to give the piece a touch of otherworldliness. Lennon’s voice is mellower than his earlier sound, which helps add a new dimension to the set. Tempo is a little slower than Yellow Submarine, but that’s overcome by the strong rock-n-roll feel of clashing symbols and wailing guitars. The meter change-ups roll right over us: we trust these guys, remember?
  8. Good Day Sunshine: McCartney’s back with another sunny ballad, but this time it has a bounce to it and a charming piano bit mixed with the more traditional rock elements. While still mid-tempo, and wildly different from the songs previous, there are enough elements in common that the song order is perfect.
  9. And Your Bird Can Sing: We’re firmly back in the realm of traditional rock by this point, with rougher vocals, prominent guitars, and rebellious lyrics. The tempo is faster, which acts as a nice pick-me-up after the mid-tempo pieces we’ve been hearing.
  10. For No One: Here’s McCartney and the piano again, but the timbre is different. Once again, we have the combination of the familiar (piano, vocals, guitars) and the new (French horn?? what’s that doing here?). The piece has several elements in common with Rigby but is distinct and strong on its own. Yet if it had taken the place of Rigby in the set list, we’d lose that strong moral call that the album kicks off with.
  11. Doctor Robert: Clearly, we’ve built up enough trust: it’s time for some changes. We go into country-rock-land with Doctor Robert. The harmonies are familiar Beatles but the twangy influence is outside the ordinary. I find this the weakest song on the album—which makes this a good place to put it. So many good songs have gone before it that we can mentally skip this one and easily forget it. Always bury weak songs between stronger ones.
  12. I Want To Tell You: Familiar piano jangling suddenly cranks into dissonant sound around our beloved Beatles harmonies. This song walks that line between familiar and unfamiliar that The Beatles were masters of. It has a jaunty enough line that you want to listen but it also goes off in these new directions. Again, this is a relatively weak song (see what comes after it) and it’s buried before a breakthrough.
  13. Got To Get You Into My Life: Wow! Trumpet flourish! Could you say any more clearly that it’s time for a new sound? This is great placement, coming right after two weak songs that are heavy on guitar. We once again hear that bouncy rhythm that permeates the songs on this album and McCartney’s smooth vocals, which makes us feel comfy. We tap our toes. We bounce our heads. When suddenly—”Got to get you into my life!” Paul unleashes some raucous vocals that become the hook for the whole piece. It’s a wonderful relief from the dreamy texture of earlier pieces. This song is clear and loud and strong—and really wakes us up!
  14. Tomorrow Never Knows: …which sets us up for psychedelia and the album’s most experimental sounds. Our energy is up from the near-perfect Got To Get You Into My Life, so we’re set up for this up-tempo exploration. Note also that this tune is late in the album. If it had been first, we may have shut off the record player/8-track/CD player (depending on our timeframe) at the first few notes. But we’ve been seduced by Beatle brilliance to give this wacky song a try.

    The only question I have is why this piece is the last on the album. Was it to let fans know that The Beatles were heading in a new direction of more experimental music—in other words, to set fans up for the next album? Or perhaps it was intended as the soundtrack to a pot and acid fest and no one would have to get up and move the record needle (joke!).

In general, you want to close with your most expressive, up-tempo piece. It should be preceded by another medium or up-tempo piece so you help bring the listeners back up from wherever you’ve taken them in the meantime.

Of course, this all depends on the music you’re playing and the expectations of your audience. Just remember that you’re taking them on a journey. Shocks to the system aren’t generally welcome. Yet too much of the same sound will lose them (imagine if all the McCartney pieces were grouped together on this album, for instance).

Think of your set list as a whole, where listeners are taken up and down throughout their time with you. That helps build trust and a better experience. Which all leads to better things for you!

Acupressure for phlegm reduction

January 31, 2009

Now there’s a title to make you sit up & take notice. 

It’s not uncommon for singers to accumulate nasty phlegm in their throats and then have to sing. Janiece Jaffe shared this nifty acupressure trick to help.

The point you want to stimulate is halfway between your shin and your calf, and halfway between your knee and your ankle.

An easy way to find it is to place your right thumb on the little nub on bone on the lower bottom of your right kneecap. Bend forward and place your left thumb on your right ankle bone.

Then extend your fingers to the sides so your left pinkie and your right thumb meet in the middle of your outside lower leg. The pressure point is right in that area.

Start pressing in/near that spot and soon you’ll feel a place that’s tender. Press on it firmly. You should be able to feel the drainage start.

This technique works on both legs. It’s a good substitute if you don’t have citrus or hot water handy!

I’m a Who

January 25, 2009

In a vanity search through Google, I stumbled across my own listing in the 90’s-era “Who’s Who in the Magickal Community.” I miss being that relevant.

Capricorn pride

January 25, 2009

My 14-year-old niece (also a Capricorn) has joined the school drama club after I urged her to do so as part of her training to take over the world. The club recently held auditions for a play. My niece, surprisingly, did not try out for the lead. Instead, she went after a secondary part. Why? “Because it has the most lines.” That’s my girl. 🙂

Aretha Franklin and Marian Anderson

January 24, 2009

Of the many inspirational moments of President Obama’s inauguration Tuesday, for me one of the most touching was Aretha Franklin’s singing “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee.” While most comments have focused on her hat, of all things, I’ve seen little mention of the historical threads that came together on that chill January morning.

Marian Anderson, born in the late 19th century, was a supremely talented contralto. She was the first African-American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera and won many well-deserved plaudits for her talent. She kicked off her career with a ten-year stint touring Europe, due in part to the greater acceptance of African-Americans’ talents at the time.

In 1939, she planned a concert for Constitution Hall, Washington DC’s biggest venue for classical music. The Daughters of the American Revolution, owners of the hall, refused to allow her to sing because she was Black. This was one of a number of stinging incidents of discrimination, but its blatant racism made it a very high-profile case.

The great Eleanor Roosevelt, one of history’s leading forces in her own right, helped organize Anderson’s concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And so it was, on a chilly April day in 1939, as Hitler’s shadow loomed large over European democracies, that Marion Anderson held her concert. The centerpiece? Her rendition of “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee.”

The irony of the lines “Land where my fathers died / Land of the Pilgrim’s pride” was too loaded for people not to see. The whole question of racism and discrimination took on a new urgency, and at different levels of society, than had previously been the case. It is still a stunning sight to see her calmly singing the piece with Lincoln looming behind her.

Fast-forward nearly 70 years to Capitol Hill and the site of the Inauguration, where another African-American woman, veteran of the civil rights struggle, sang the same song. In that moment is wrapped up the efforts of Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr (“I have a dream!”) and countless others.

While Aretha’s voice was not in as fine a form as she would have liked, her mere presence drew the threads of the historical tapestry together. The shadow looming over democracies today comes from within, as the Bush administration quashed civil liberties (though Obama is dismantling some of Bush’s oppressive measures). African-Americans still face discrimination and racism, but nowhere near the frequency and intensity of 70 years ago. There is also a greater understanding of how complex the intersection of ethnicity, class, and gender is in our country. And the hunger of people from all backgrounds to hear the talent of African-American performers integrated our performance spaces long ago!

If I believed in an afterlife, I would say Marian and Eleanor were very happy with Aretha’s performance. Regardless, her presence put to rest a shameful chapter of American history and celebrated how far we’ve come since those vicious days.

Kaia at MLK ’09

January 20, 2009

Tonight we (Kaia) performed at the City’s MLK Day celebration. It was a tricky 9-minute set of 6 pieces of music linked by spoken word. When we met for sound check I completely blanked on all the narration! Quite the panic. Jacob, The Bus-Chum Sound Guy, did a great job as usual. I sent over a diagram for mic setup and we only had a few tiny adjustments to make. He made some suggestions that saved us all time and trouble.

Then I came home and practiced my lines! This time I practiced while waving my hand in front of my face — not only did it simulate a strobe light effect (j/k), it simulated an environment of distraction. After many run-throughs I curled up quietly on the bed and spent some time meditating on the civil rights movement.

I’ve seen so many documentaries and read about that period of U.S. history (primarily the late ’50s and ’60s) that sometimes I feel like I understand it. But I can’t understand it, not fully, no many how many protests I’ve been to or how many ways I get discriminated against. I’m far more privileged than not, and it’s a dishonor to those who joined in the struggle and risked the Klan and military might to think otherwise.

I had a gut feeling that we were going to go on sooner than we anticipated, so I made sure to get there early. I always get very “internal” before a show, pulling into myself and getting very focused. I don’t like to talk and I don’t like a lot of distraction. Having spent enough time in crowded dressing rooms has inured me to that, though! 

The Kaiasistahs were in fine form tonight. We invoked Jane several times (how we miss her!), did some simple warm-ups, and ran the set quickly. Then we did the traditional Kaia cheer (done before every performance) and headed up to the backstage area. We could hear a little of John Whikehart’s (Ivy Tech-Bloomington chancellor) speech. After some quotes from MLK delivered by a cute kid from a local school, we were on. 

How I love the Bus-Chum. It’s a great performance space. It seems so big but it’s actually a very reachable performance space. My beloved high school auditorium was over twice as large but the Bus-Chum has a little of that “gathering in” feel to make performers feel at home.

The set itself went by in about four and a half seconds. I hit every cue and remembered every necessary line — woo-hoo! It started very heavy, with Strange Fruit to start off, followed by four lines from In The Mississippi River. We could really feel the audience start to key into us on that second piece. 

We then moved into two verses from Oh Freedom and got some audience members to clap (MLK audiences are traditionally pretty sedentary but attentive). Eyes On The Prize went over well, keeping the audience with us. I don’t know if anyone there remembered I Love Everybody from last year, but it felt really good to sing at the slower pace and with big smiles.

For my intro to On Our Way To Freedom Land, I got to say how, for all intents and purposes, the Bush administration ends tonight! There was a big emotional response along with some clapping and hollering. It felt so good to say, “Erev Obama — we are on our way to freedom land!” We then blistered through the piece with Jenny and Lorraine wailing like soulful banshees. 

The audience response was very warm and we had a nice three-bow ending before zooming off-stage. We burbled downstairs to the dressing room where we shut the door and did some celebratory woo-hoo-ing. We were all on a major performance high. We’d made only very minor fluffs. I’m amazed that we pulled the whole thing off, completely memorized, after being handed the concept cold only 3 weeks ago. Go, Kaia! When I get frustrated, I need to remind myself of these things so I appreciate what goodness I have!

Amy, Lorraine, and I were able to stay after for the rest of the program. The keynote address by Bishop Woodie White was extremely moving. The most riveting story he shared was when he and two white colleagues tried to enter a Mississippi church during Freedom Summer and they were arrested. The church was his denomination, but he wasn’t allowed to enter because he was black. He and his colleagues were arrested for trespassing and “disturbing worship.” They were held four days before bail money was raised ($2k apiece)! I can’t imagine being a person of color in the South at that time, held in a white jail. I got that shiver that comes from being in the presence of living history.

He also mentioned his college roommate, who was white, Southern, from Mississippi, and had a pronounced accent. Danger, Will Robinson! Only it turned out that this man had been in jail more times than White on behalf of securing freedom for African-Americans. Topping it off was the mention of the scars on his roommate’s face — the result of an attack where the Klan tried to kill him. White talked about how he’d written this man off before he even knew his name, based on the color of his skin and the place he was from. And how wrong he was to do it. The whole story was arresting and a great set piece for describing how we internalize stereotypes and social prejudices.

So tonight my belly is full of a massive ice cream sundae, I’ve watched His Girl Friday to help me ride out the sugar/post-performance high, and I’m very much looking forward to tomorrow’s inauguration. I think the biggest thing to comprehend will be that Bush’s reign of terror is over. I can’t quite believe it. Who knows what he’ll do on his way out the door, but all my hopes are riding on America rising to the challenge of going with the better angels of our nature rather than reacting from fear and anxiety. I feel once again that chill down the back of living history, knowing we stand on the cusp between “chaos or community.” I pray we will choose, as a nation, to embrace hope.

Tips for writing and memorizing

January 17, 2009

I’m in the midst of trying to memorize Kaia’s set for our upcoming appearance at the MLK Day celebration at the Buskirk-Chumley. As usual, the idea for the set came to me while I was in the shower (all the best ideas come when you’re least likely to have a pen and paper around)!

Like last year, the set this year is a mix of spoken word and sung music, but this year everything’s intertwined in snippets. We’re singing two complete songs and snips of 4 others. Connecting them all are lines I wrote, giving context for each piece.

I follow a particular process to get me to the final draft as quickly as possible and then memorize it:

Say it
Record yourself speaking out on each subject. Don’t rein yourself in — let yourself babble. This is the brainstorming phase and you want to generate as many ideas as possible.  

Write it
Listen to the recording and jot down only the most salient points. You’ll probably start with a disjointed list of bullet points, but keep working until you can put the points into sentences. Depending on the length of your “patter,” you may want only two or three sentences.

Try it
Use your cheat sheet of sentences and run through your lines out loud. Do they sound like something you’d read or something you’d say? Pencil in refinements to make it more natural sounding. Get a sense of the rhythm to work out the kinks until it flows easily.

Edit it
Get out the scalpel and ruthlessly chop every extraneous word. Look for ideas that you’re trying desperately to fit in but that are really beyond your point. Cut ’em! Resist the temptation to keep flowery phrasings when a more direct approach will do. It depends on your audience and the music, but if you want to bring people along with you quickly, use language that’s easily comprehensible. 

Add memorization cues
There are a number of ways you can write your piece to help make it easier to memorize. One was is hidden alliteration: “The people in the civil rights struggle were not solely victims. They sang out in defiance.” Note the number of “s” sounds in those two sentences. When spoken, you can emphasize struggle, solely, sang, and defiance. One “s” word becomes a cue for the next, yet the spoken word sounds natural.

The ancient Druids were known for their phenomenal memories. One of their many roles in Celtic societies was to act as a repository of the tribe’s history. This included incredibly long recitations of stories, genealogies, and poems. I’ve successfully used some of their techniques when writing more poetic pieces, such as ending a phrase with a word that begins the next phrase. 

Bran rode out upon the waves,
Waves that shone like Lugh’s bough.

Direct repetition isn’t always possible, so you can use a related word to string one line to the next. Using this technique, Druids could recite thousands of lines for hours with no breaks (save for a drink or three!). 

Run it
Now that you have your script, start running it.  Start by reciting the lines while moving. Physical movement helps memorization. Don’t try to get off-script too soon. Start with the most difficult section first, then add the next section, and so on. You may not always start at the beginning; in fact, repeatedly starting only at the beginning can hamper your efforts to internalize sections that get less practice.

Get off-script
Run the lines until you can begin to go off-script for longer periods of time. If your piece is long or complex, reduce it back to bullet points and work from that as an interim step to going completely off the page. At this point your body will naturally add gestures — let it. 

Polish it
As you gradually move off-script, imagine your audience very clearly. Imagine the stage or other setting you’ll be in. Visualize these as clearly as possible. Follow your body’s gestures. Record yourself again and see if you sound like you’re speaking or reading. If the latter, really pay attention to your delivery and just say it like you mean it. Too often, when speaking in public, we put on a false voice that preaches or drones. Just allow yourself to speak as naturally and as conversationally as possible.

Keep visualizing that audience. Smile to them where appropriate. Let your physical expressions come naturally from the words you’re saying. This is one area of rehearsal that many performers overlook — they rehearse the lines/scene/music very internally, as if the final performance will be in their living room. Your ultimate goal is to connect with your audience, so you need to rehearse that part of your performance as well. The more strongly you imagine the setting you’ll be in, and the more authentically you rehearse, the more polished and powerful your final performance will be.

Go forth!
If you find that you absolutely cannot get every line down and you’re under a crunchy deadline (not that I’m worried about Monday night’s performance), make a cheat sheet of the shortest bullet points you can possibly devise and put it on the stage floor as a memory prompt. Don’t forget to practice with it before you perform.

Now, after your four or five weeks of hard work, get out there and deliver your 6-minute performance. It’ll be killer! 😉