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Create a Concert Program: A Step by Step Guide

Are you interested in planning a performance but aren’t sure what to play? In this post I’ll give you a step by step guide to planning your first concert program, using music you already know!

But before we get into that, take a look at these preparation steps to make sure everything’s in order:

Preparation Step 1: Determine Your Deadline

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Before putting together your program, it’s a good idea to know how much time you have to learn the music! Of course you can just decide you’ll schedule your performance whenever you end up getting your program ready, but in my experience it’s much more effective to have the deadline scheduled ahead of time. This way you’re much more likely to actually reach that goal in a timely manner!

Note: If committing to a predetermined performance date makes you nervous, consider making that first performance something low-pressure. I’m a huge fan of playing music at retirement communities and also think they are great places for student recitals because the audience is usually very welcoming as well as forgiving.

Of course you can also schedule the performance for family or friends, but often there’s a lot less accountability for these types of events. Mom will usually understand if you decide to cancel the concert because you’re not ready!

Preparation Step 2: Determine Your Set Length

An hourglass with clocks nearby
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Something else you need to know before you begin compiling your program is how long you want to play for. If this is your first performance, I recommend keeping it short, like 30 minutes. You could also get some friends or colleagues to join you for a multi-person concert where each of you gets 10 or 20 minutes if 30 feels like too much.

If you do plan to play at a retirement community, they’re perfectly happy with a 30-minute set. Perhaps some even prefer it that way, as they may not want to sit for that long anyway!

Compiling The Program in 3 Steps

Now that you have the two important factors of when and for how long, you’re ready to start putting together your program!

Step 1. Start With What You Know

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I always encourage maximizing the benefit of work you’ve already done in the past. I don’t think it’s “cheating” if you reuse pieces you’ve already learned. In fact, I think it’s fantastic for your musicianship to revisit the same pieces again and again throughout your development.

Every time you re-learn that piece, you’ll be a different player than you were before and be capable of doing different things with the music than you could before. You can almost always find something to learn from it that you previously couldn’t. It’s both satisfying and convenient!

In this step, I want you to create a list of all the pieces you have learned in the past. When I first started performing monthly programs I gathered every score I could find for everything I had ever played. Some of those went back to when I was in 6th grade!

Narrow It Down

Once you’ve gathered all your old scores, pick (and perhaps play) through them and determine which pieces you’re actually interested in re-learning. We all have pieces we learned in the past that we don’t totally love now. Don’t waste your time on those! There’s plenty of good music in the world so you might as well spend your time playing music you enjoy!

Now’s the time to take your performance deadline into account. You need to get a pretty good idea of how quickly you could get these pieces ready, and whether that will be in time for your upcoming performance. I have some methods on how to practice efficiently that will help you with this.

Time It

Once you’ve picked out all the pieces that you want to play and that you can learn by your deadline, time these pieces. Don’t worry if you can’t yet play the pieces at tempo. You can either just time yourself reading through it at tempo in your head, or if that’s too difficult simply take the time off of a Youtube video of the same piece. Just remember that another performer’s tempo might not be the same as yours, so adjust the time accordingly.

You should now have an idea of how much time you can play so far in your program. If that’s as much as or more than your planned set time, congratulations! You’ve got all the music you need and can skip right to Step 3 where you’ll decide on the order! If it’s not enough to fill the set time, you’ll have to add some new repertoire.

Step 2. Pick New Pieces to Add

Sheet music
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Before searching for new pieces to add to your program, it’s important to have a good idea of what will go well with the music you already have. This way you’ll end up with a cohesive program that makes sense to the listener. I like to go as far as to come up with a specific theme ahead of time for each of my programs, which I’ll talk about more in my post on creating an ongoing program rotation.

Pick a Feeling

For now let’s not worry too much about specific themes because what’s important is using the music you already have. If they all fit within a theme, that’s great! But if they don’t, instead just consider the overall feeling of what you have so far, and decide whether you want to stick to that or mix it up.

For example, if everything you have so far is fast and exciting, you can either find something else fast to match, or add some slower pieces to balance it out. Of course, this also depends on how much music you already have and how much new music you need to learn. If you only need to add one piece it might be best to try to stick with the style or feel of the other pieces.

Know Your Level and Capabilities

Another point to consider before beginning your search is what level the new piece(s) will need to be. There’s no shame in picking something easy to fill out your program. There will always be time later to add more difficult works, and there’s a lot to get out of working on pieces that are technically below your ability level.

Begin Your Search

Now you can start looking for music! Depending on what you’re playing, this part can be quite overwhelming because there’s so much music out there. That’s why it’s important to narrow down what you’re looking for before you begin. This way you should know right away whether a piece fits your criteria.

One way to start is by searching for works by composers similar to the ones you already have in your program. For example, if you’re playing something by Beethoven, look up his contemporaries. Then search for works for your instrument by these composers. I usually use Youtube extensively for this research so I can quickly hear several pieces until I find the right one.

If you’re playing works that are public domain, you can almost always find the score on IMSLP. This is an amazing resource for classical musicians which I use all the time!

If you’re still having trouble getting started, consider some of the music I suggest in my article about sight-reading.

Don’t Overlook What You Already Have

Of course, another research method would be playing through music books that you already have but haven’t yet studied. As a somewhat compulsive music book collector I have loads of music books I haven’t had time to play through. It’s always fun to get one out and see what I can find, and it’s of course great to keep those sight-reading skills up to speed as well!

Step 3. Put It All Together

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Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay

Now that you’ve collected the music for everything in your program, the last step is deciding on an order. I work fairly intuitively with this step, trusting what I feel would flow best and testing it out.

Remember you don’t have to know the order right away! Sometimes you need to practice a piece for awhile before you know where it really belongs.

It’s generally a good idea to try to spread the different moods throughout the program. For example, if you have four slow pieces and 7 fast pieces, try to disperse the slow ones somewhat evenly throughout the set. I usually like to start and end on an uplifting note if at all possible, especially at retirement communities.

If you have any well-known works in your program it’s a good idea to take extra care with where these go in the set. Do you want to start with it and grab your audience’s attention? Or will they get excited about hearing a piece they know only to be disappointed that they don’t recognize any of the others? Perhaps tucking it in the middle can be good if you’re worried your audience might start to drift off or think of other things and you want to bring their attention back to the performance. Ending with a famous work can also be great because with any luck they’ll be singing it for the rest of the day!

Now Start Practicing!

Now that you have your program all planned, it’s time to start practicing! Good luck!

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Heidi has been involved in music in one way or another for most of her life. She studied music composition in college, has taught piano, voice, composition, ear training, and guitar, and has worked as a piano tuner and technician. Before the pandemic she loved playing concerts at retirement communities, bringing the joy of music to those populations. She is currently working on learning more about the connection between music and healing.

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