Reading an audience and choosing songs.

Sligo Jazz Project – August 2007. The end of week concert. I was a student on the course and was getting ready to go on stage with my ensemble. We had been working hard on our standards all week and had selected Willow Weep for Me (a ballad – to feature our vocalist) and an uptempo version of Giant Steps (to let the instrumentalists have a blow) as the two we would go with for the performance.

We had decided previously that we would open with the slow number and finish with the fast one. I was worried about Giant Steps however – I could play the chords but didn’t know how I was going to solo over them and it was playing on my mind.


Walking up to the stage, our tutor, Mike Nielsen, asked me about the order in which we were going to play them. I told him, and he immediately said ‘Switch them’. The previous group had just finished (I hadn’t even noticed what they were playing due to my anxiety) and had closed their set with a vocal ballad. Mike reckoned that the audience wouldn’t like two ballads in a row and advised us to start with Giant Steps.

Of course he was right. How a piece of music will be heard by your audience depends in part on what has gone before. And you need to consider them and what you think they want to hear. We had only two possible orders for our set and we chose the wrong one.

Structuring an entire gig is a different story. The old-school method is not to use a setlist. Like Christy Moore does. He reads his audience from start to finish, and must have an exceptionally well-organised catalogue of his many songs in his head because he wouldn’t be where he is today if he kept choosing the wrong songs. This is a rare skill however, and not everyone can do it, or plays the type of gigs in which it might work.

A setlist is a necessity in many gigs, where other musicians, sound and lighting cues or dancers for example may need to know the order in advance.

When it isn’t a necessity however, there are options.

Many pub gigs in Sligo are structured in the way of the ’round system’. For example, if there are three musicians on the gig, often they will take it in turns to lead, while the other two will accompany. There is great learning in this. You always have to be thinking ahead – considering not only what the audience want to hear, but also what the pieces are that you want to play, and the order in which to play them. It changes in real time too, as your choice will often change depending on what the musician before you does. It also means you are in charge of the piece – responsible for the arrangement and delivery of the piece.

One thing you want to avoid is the big gap while you think of a song. There is no surer way to lose your audience than this. Think ahead. Learn on the go. Consider your audience. Have a mental or physical list of your songs if you need it. This skill will stand to you, and your audience will appreciate your music more as a result.



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