[Editors Note: This is a guest blog post written by Mason Hoberg. Mason is a freelance writer who covers music-related topics and is a regular contributor to Equipboard.]
One of the hardest parts about being a musician is that unless you come from a genre that’s acceptable in academia, (essentially just classical or opera), no one ever really teaches you the finer elements of stagecraft. Most musicians have to learn things like building a set list, using a microphone, or setting up a stage by trial and error.
Like any other craft there is a lot of variation in how you can approach the more technical apects, but there’s still a few things that you should know in order to put on as good of a show as you possibly can. This article is going to give you all the information that you need to perform one of the most important parts of being a good musician – building a great set list:
Your first focus when building a set list is to make sure that you don’t perform in chunks or divide your set list too predictably when it comes to tempo. You shouldn’t have four slow songs followed by four fast songs. All that happens when you do that is that you cut the effect of every song in your set. Your fast songs don’t seem as intense, and your slow songs seem boring and drawn out.
This still holds true if you play a genre like metal or rap also, because “fast” and “slow” are relative terms. I’m not saying that if you’re in a super speed metal band you’ve got to break out the acoustic guitars every show. Just be aware of the dynamics of the songs in your set relative to one another, and play them in an order that avoids monotony.
There are a few different schools of thought on how to use tempo, but really there’s only one principle you need to follow; don’t focus on the song, focus on the show. Ideally, your fastest songs should directly precede or follow your slowest ones. Mid-tempo songs should go between one extreme or the other, but never in the same way repeatedly. For example, don’t build a set that’s fast song, mid-tempo song, slow song, repeated ad nauseam.
Know Your Keys
Just like tempo, you want to make sure that you don’t play every song in the same key. However, this isn’t quite as strict because playing in the same key for a few songs in a row isn’t quite as noticeable as playing at the same tempo. When it comes to keys, just use your best judgement.
A good rule of thumb is that if two songs in the same key could potentially be mistaken for one another there should probably be a few songs between them, if not several.
Know The Length Of All Your Songs
Knowing the length of your songs is super important because you’re never going to play a show without a set time slot. You’re generally going to have one to two hours at the most, and you’re going to want to make the most of them.
Two days before I do a show (I never sing or play the day before a show, I prefer to spend that day getting lots of rest and drinking a ton of water) I run through my whole set and time out every song. Then I open up Polaris Office and type out my set list, putting the keys and time right next to the song.
It’s important that you do this before every show, because as you practice your songs they’re gradually going to change a bit from performance to performance. It might only be a difference of 10 or 15 seconds, but if you’re playing a two hour show those tiny differences in song length will start to add up.
Also, make sure that you give yourself 10 minutes of space in your alloted time slot whenever you do a show. This covers the time that you’ll spend retuning (which you should do every four or five songs) and the time that your frontman will spend interacting with the audience. If you’re worried you won’t use up the whole ten minutes throughout the course of your show, put an extra song on your setlist that you can use to fill up that gap
90% Of The Audience’s Impression Comes From The First And Last Song
The harsh reality of being a musician is that the impression you make on your audience is made up of a million small moments. The most important of which is how they feel after hearing your first song, and how they feel when they feel at the end of your show.
The reason for this is that it’s the only time you can really guarantee their attention. Everyone’s mind starts to wander throughout the course of a show. Maybe the guy in the first row gets distracted by the cute bartender. Or the hipster girl’s attention starts to wander five songs in and she decides she’d rather be flicking through Instagram. While that’s not ideal, it’s not all that big of a deal. So long as they can hear you, (which they probably will), you’re still good.
However, when you play your first song they’ll watch you because they’re curious. And when you play your last song they’ll watch you because they expect some sort of finale. So make sure that you bring out your best stuff towards the beginning and end of your show.
Leave the stuff you’re not quite as confident about to the middle, because your audience is only really going to remember the parts of your show where they were most engaged.
Like many parts of being a musician, building a great set list isn’t really complicated so much as it’s just something that requires some forethought. Remember to capitalize on the periods of your set that will have the most engagement, be aware of the length of each of your songs, and remember to avoid monotony by recognizing the tempos of every song on your set list. Most importantly, have fun. Not every musician is going to hit it big, but every musician can have a great time performing.
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