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I have never been shy about my opinions on the logistics of running a concert. I think they’re tremendously important, and also often overlooked, with the result that many classical music concerts are considerably more tedious than they need to be, a state of affairs that does nobody any favors. Like it or not, presentation matters. Concert presenters who don’t take these details into account come across as disorganized and inadequately prepared. My frustration is amplified, I think, by the amount of time I’ve spent in the theatrical world. As anyone who’s done a play or musical can tell you, the rehearsal process devotes a lot of time to hammering out logistical details like set changes and lighting cues, a hammering out that’s almost never been done for the classical concerts I’ve been a part of. Granted, the logistics for classical concerts are usually less daunting — most string quartet performances don’t call for hundreds of light and sound cues along with various large pieces of scenery flying in and out from above, after all — but that makes it all the more irritating to see them muffed again and again and again.
Some time ago, after listening to me gripe about a concert that was particularly bad at this, a composer friend of mine asked if I wouldn’t be willing to put together some kind of checklist or document that outlines specific things that concert presenters should keep in mind when hashing out the logistics of putting on a show. This is that document.
Before getting to the list itself, it’s important to make clear some priorities and limitations of these guidelines. I take it as a starting point that during a concert, nothing should ever be more interesting than whatever’s happening on stage. And, to be maximally clear, the concert begins when the house lights go down and doesn’t stop until the end of the last bows — the audience doesn’t cease to exist in between pieces, and if you’re concerned with keeping their attention and making a good impression, you have to think about what you’re doing to achieve those goals even when no one on stage is making music. Lighting cues, set changes, coordinating bows — all of these things are part of the performance and need to be planned.
This guide touches on all of those and more, but there’s one thing it completely ignores: the content at the core of the performance. I’m assuming you already know how to choose interesting works and prepare them to the highest level, and further that (if you’re going to talk to the audience) you already know how to do the public speaking thing, both in terms of what to say and how to deliver it. This is solely a guide to the presentation of that content, to the little logistical details that, if they’re done well, most people in the audience probably won’t even notice.
Finally, it should go without saying that different groups will have different logistical needs, and this guide will not be a perfect fit for all performances in all venues. Playing a new electroacoustic piece for some friends in your living room is a different matter than a three–hour, six–ensemble mini-marathon showcase for a local meeting of the American Composers’ Forum, and it is impossible for the same document to be narrowly tailored for both. In putting this list together, my focus has been on presenting organizations that are largely run by people volunteering their time and energy, organizations that present thoughtful, interesting programs but that don’t necessarily have an abundance of funds or a permanent, exclusive performing venue. While some logistical steps are only possible with money, others require only time and thought, and this guide focuses on those. Presenting organizations with different means and scales may well still find things of use in this guide, but much of it may be inapplicable or need considerable alteration. You know your organization and its needs best; tweak this guide accordingly.
- If there are only two performers in your group, you probably don’t need to worry about this. Performers know what appropriate concert attire is and can just show up and look nice. If they match, it’s great! If they contrast, that’s also great! But with three or more people, there’s a risk of two people doing one thing (e.g. all black) and the third doing another (e.g. strong colors), which often winds up looking awkward. Coordinate!
- If you’re organizing a concert with multiple ensembles, what is your approach? If you’re showcasing the diversity of the music in a given place/time/aesthetic school, having each group do their own thing could be fine; if you’re presenting something that’s more of a seamless, unified whole, an overarching dress code could be in order. Either way, be intentional.
- Have these conversations at least a week out so people have time to do laundry or buy things as needed.
- Can you adjust where the lights are pointing? If so, let the players get comfortable on stage and then adjust the lights so they’re all lit (but not blinded!) and can see the sheet music.
- If you can’t adjust the lights, you’ll need to adjust the players. Obviously, a balance needs to be struck between getting everyone optimally lit and keeping the ensemble arranged as they’re most comfortable, but most groups have at least some wiggle room to work with.
- How are lights programmed? Are you limited to an on/off switch, or can you control each bank of lights individually? Can one lighting setup serve every group, or will you need different lights turned on or off at different times?
- Who will run light changes? At the very least, most concerts will need to turn house lights down and stage lights up at the start of the show, and then the reverse at the end of the evening. Who will do this? What will be their cue? Do they know how all the lights work in this particular venue? Bear in mind that many venues do not afford a line of sight between the lighting control panel and the backstage/offstage areas, so you cannot count on the lighting operator being able to see when people are ready to begin.
- What, exactly, will be needed on stage for each group? How many chairs? Stands? Any special equipment?
- What is the order of the groups? What can stay on stage between groups, and what needs to be taken off? If there’s an intermission, can the largest set change be programmed to take place during it? Musical concerns should, of course, always take priority in determining concert order, but if there are two compelling alternatives, pick the one with the easiest logistics.
- Some people really dislike having extra equipment on stage that’s not being used in a given piece, the argument being that it looks cluttered and distracting. I tend to think that taking a bunch of chairs on and off and on and off is obnoxious and adds wasted time, and I like seeing clever setups that allow multiple groups to play without requiring massive changes. Your mileage may vary here — do what seems best to you, but have something to cover the set changes either way (see below).
- Concerts that are heavy on percussion will inevitably have longer set changes, and the same is often true for electronics-heavy concerts as well. Elaborate percussion setups tend to be large and idiosyncratic, necessitating extensive rearrangement between pieces. To compound the issue, percussionists are sometimes (understandably!) hesitant to have non-percussionists rearranging their instruments. Plan accordingly; don’t expect a percussion-heavy concert to have speedy changeovers between pieces.
- Be aware of the situation immediately offstage. Is there enough room for people and equipment going off stage to pass by those waiting to come on? (Most backstage hallways cannot comfortably accommodate a marimba and someone holding a contrabass, for example.) Will those waiting need to wait further back from the stage doors until the earlier group’s exit is complete?
- Where specifically on stage do things need to go? Eyeballing and trusting memory is dangerous; something that looks “approximately right” might still require a musician to move their chair and stand several feet when they come out on stage — not an easy feat if you’re holding a cello at the same time! During the tech dress (see below), let the musicians get comfortable, then put down spike tape to mark where everything is. If you don’t have spike tape or aren’t allowed to put it on the floor, take note of anything you can to reliably recreate the setup as closely as possible mid-concert. If it’s a wood floor, are there irregularities in the grain you can use to orient yourself? Speaker cables that will be taped in place for the duration of the show? Use whatever you have at hand.
- Who, specifically, will move what during which changes? What will they do when (not if) something goes wrong? Make an explicit plan! (This is something that is covered in further detail in the tech rehearsal section below.)
- What will be happening to cover these changes? Will someone address the audience? Set changes are not interesting to watch, and there is a high risk of losing the audience during them. Remember, set changes are a part of your concert, and during your concert, nothing should be more interesting than whatever is happening on stage.
- Who is bowing, and in what order? If it’s a contemporary piece, will the composer be present? When will they be asked to stand? Who will do that asking?
- For multi-group concerts, will there be a final bow for everyone at the end, or will it just be the last group that played?
- Can groups come back out on stage to take a second bow if the applause is sustained enough, or do time constraints prohibit that?
- Is this a première or season finale or other similar special occasion on which someone will be presented with flowers? Who will be buying them, and how will they be reimbursed? Where will the flowers be kept during the performance, and who will be bringing them on stage?
- If there are multiple groups on the program, where where will performers be when they are not performing? Can they see/hear the stage from the green room? How will they know when it is time for them to go on?
- Can noise in the green room be heard from the concert hall? (Check this explicitly!) If so, is there somewhere players can warm up, or do they need to do so silently?
- Classical music dress rehearsals usually incorporate some degree of tech rehearsal as well, but many could stand to address these needs more explicitly.
- Sound checks are important for musicians to get comfortable in the hall; a tech rehearsal is the equivalent for whoever is running tech. This ranges from audio engineers who need to set levels for the recording devices to stagehands who need to practice moving equipment on, off, and around the stage.
- Ideally, you would have an early sound check with the musicians where they can get used to the space, followed by a separate dry tech rehearsal where the stagehands and lighting operators run thru the flow of the concert. This lets you put down spike tape for anything that needs it, and also offers an opportunity to anticipate logistical snarls that will need to be addressed during the tech portion. I’m going to outline a full dry tech process because I think it’s helpful to know what the ideal case is, but I fully recognize that timing constraints will almost always prohibit this level of detailed preparation.
- Set the stage as it will be at the top of the show, i.e. when the audience is filing in for the first time.
- Run the transition from “preshow” to the start of the first piece.
- The simplest case is probably “turn the house lights off, then the musicians walk out, sit down, and get ready to play”, but if there’s a pre-recorded fire speech, play that in full.
- If the concert starts with someone delivering introductory remarks, treat the remarks as the first “piece”.
- Do a short snippet of the first piece (one phrase of music or a few sentences of text) to make sure everyone is comfortable, well lit, and appropriately miced.
- Jump to the end of that piece and run the entire transition into the next piece, including bows. If there’s a set change, include whatever you’re doing to cover that set change. If the set change is considerably longer than what you have to cover it, see what can be done to either shorten the change or lengthen the cover (or both). You may need to reset and run the transition multiple times to make sure everyone involved is comfortable with what they’re doing.
- Once the change is comfortable, do a short snippet of the next piece to again make sure everyone is comfortable with the performance setup. Then jump to the end of that piece and run the next transition.
- Repeat until you get to the end of the program.
- In most cases, you will probably need to combine the sound check and dry tech rehearsal into a wet tech scenario. Since there won’t have been a separate sound check previously, you’ll have to spike as you go, which means you won’t be able to run the transitions in real time. Still, getting down spike tape and seeing the before and after for each transition can go a long way towards making them run smoothly in concert.
- Either way, you will need to designate someone as Stage Manager, that is, someone who will keep things on schedule and keep track of who needs to be where when. They are the logistics point person. They will also need to come up with a plan and schedule for the concert day in advance; trying to improvise this the day of is a recipe for important detail falling thru the cracks. They can certainly be someone who already does other things for your organization, but make sure you pick someone with good logistical skills and who can also firmly manage people without being rude.
- In the theatre world, we usually have long chunks of time built into the rehearsal process to hash out these details, a luxury that is seldom afforded to concerts of classical music. Again, what I’ve outlined above represents a pie-in-the-sky best-case scenario; real-world constraints are going to require compromise. Can stagehands run transitions without the musicians? Can they walk around the stage to get a feel for the space? Are there diagrams they can study to get a feel for the layout? Photos on someone’s phone? Checklists of who is moving what? Even a little preparation is better than none at all. As always, do what you can.
Pre show and post show
- Know who is coming when and make sure they know what they should do when they arrive.
- Have a plan for who will stay after and help clean up the venue.
- Return chairs and stands to their storage places.
- If there are percussionists, work with them to work out a plan for dealing with their instruments post-show.
- Check the seats for used programs and other debris.
- If the seats for the audience are folding or otherwise storable, fold or store them.
- Pick up spike tape (if used) along with any other tape from mic or speaker cables.
- Some degree of “hurry up and wait” is probably inevitable, but try to minimize it where possible — the more concerts you do, the better able you will be to approximate how long various setup tasks are going to take.
- It’s usually a good idea for the Stage Manager to be the first one there and last one to go home, but scheduling may make delegation necessary. Adjust to the specific needs of your organization as necessary.