“Well-crafted program notes help captivate audiences.”
–The Musician’s Way, p. 209
As soon as listeners enter performance spaces, we musicians have opportunities to enhance their concert experience.
All too often, though, audiences are greeted by printed programs that serve as little more than sterile playlists, sometimes supplemented by tiresome descriptions of the music they’ll hear.
We can do better, and, in the process, not only enliven our concerts but also win over new fans.
6 Steps to Better Program Notes
1. Write Your Own
It takes time to compose effective program notes, but it’s worth the effort because only we can say why we choose certain music, what it means to us, and how we compiled a particular program. Our writing then helps communicate our artistic identities.
What’s more, we can make use of our writings for years, both in programs and online.
If you’re not confident in your writing, consider engaging an editor. Regardless, we all benefit when others review our drafts.
2. Evoke Emotions
To me, classical concert program notes often resemble treatments for insomnia:
“The development section reintroduces the main theme in sixteenth-notes, and then modulates to the unexpected keys of B and F major. This is followed by a hymn-like melody in A major, interrupted by gestures in the bass derived from fragments of the exposition’s second theme.”
Instead of mirroring undergraduate music theory papers, if we want to describe structural aspects of a piece, our writing can suggest the music’s emotional terrain while also echoing our personalities and triggering anticipation:
“Agitated passages skitter across the keyboard, careening from one key to another, finally transforming into a melody so serene that it could depict heaven. Yet, amid the beauty, as with The Force, there’s a dark side.”
3. Relate Something Personal
What is it about a composition that attracts you? Did you study it with a legendary teacher or even the composer?
Listeners crave such personal accounts from artists.
Whether it’s an intriguing tale about how a composition was commissioned, an anecdote about its premiere, or some other tidbit, pen narratives that pique listeners’ interest.
5. Speak Authentically
Although audiences come to hear us make music, not lecture, we can form deeper connections when we offer concise, heartfelt spoken program notes.
In tandem with warmly greeting listeners and acknowledging our sponsors, we might heighten listeners’ receptivity by sharing insights about a piece, portrayals of our closeness to a musical instrument, and the like.
6. Produce Online and In-House Media
On our websites, we can post content such as images, videos and links – our printed programs can then include URLs and QR codes pointing to custom pages.
A number of large performance organizations, such as the Philadelphia Orchestra, go further and publish apps.
In some venues, during the pre-concert period and possibly during intermissions, we can also project attractive slideshows that build on our program theme, highlight a composer’s background, announce CD sales during intermission, detail upcoming events, and so forth.
* * *
All in all, when we connect with listeners, we motivate them to support us, join our online communities, and be part of our ongoing musical adventures.