The Fine Art of the Set List (for the Creber Music blog)

A silly-but-true little piece I wrote for the Creber Music blog in the lead-up to The Magic of Christmas 2014…

So you’re putting on a Christmas concert. You have a group of amazing singers, and a list of songs that they will sing. All you have to do is put them in order, and hey presto – you have a show! Right?

We-e-elll…not quite. Figuring out the order of a show is actually a lot more complicated than one might think. The set list for The Magic of Christmas in Vancouver took Monique many hours (over the course of about three days) to finalize…and with only 24 hours to go, it’s still being revised and adjusted! Here’s a snapshot of the process:

1. Start with a brainstorm list of every single song that you would like to include on the bill. If we did this concert, it would be six hours long.

2. Put a star next to the ones that really HAVE To be included. Some of the reasons a song might make this cut include: a) It’s a feature for one of the headliners; b) It’s on one of the albums we are currently promoting; c) It’s an annual tradition (e.g. The Magic of Christmas concerts always end with a big group rendition of “From Our House To Yours”).

3. Count how many stars you have, and multiply by 4 (minutes). This is the average running time per song – some are shorter and some are longer, but it works out more or less, especially since it’s important to include time for applause, between-songs chatter and so on. These days we always aim for 2 hours of content total, plus a 20-minute intermission.

4. Tear your hair out a bit, because there already isn’t much time left to play with.

5. Figure out how each set begins and ends. The show needs to start off with a bang, and have a grand finale that involves the whole cast. It’s also good to lead into intermission with something big (leave ‘em wanting more!). Also, Act 2 should be shorter than Act 1.

6. Add in a few more songs.

7. Colour-code the new list according to who the featured singer is in each song. Rearrange them so that songs of the same colour don’t appear too close together (without changing the tops and tails of each act).

8. Go through and rearrange things yet again, this time considering both the featured singer AND the genre/tempo/mood of the song (classical, traditional, pop, rock or jazz? Slow or fast? Upbeat or melancholy/contemplative? It’s better to vary things up on all fronts).

9. Complain loudly about the fact that so many Christmas songs are ballads.

10. Cut some things that used to be on the “we HAVE to do this” list, and substitute in an uptempo alternate or two. Make sure the performers involved are ok with this (this often involves a flurry of e-mails and/or texts). Other questions that come into play at this stage: do we have music for the alternate? Is it in the right key for the singer? Will Michael (our amazing pianist and co-musical director) mutiny if asked to transpose JUST ONE MORE arrangement?

11. Rearrange everything again, because set lists are like dominos – one small adjustment entails a cascade of others.

12. Check the running time.

13. Does it add up to 120 minutes or less? If no: repeat previous steps ad nauseam. If yes: Rejoice! And SAVE THE DOCUMENT.

Behold, the not-quite-but-almost-final set list for tomorrow (blurred out to preserve the surprise for those who are coming – but you can still see the colour coding!):

Blurry MoC 2014 Set List