Channel Lawrence Welk and Swing, Swing Away!

Mike Lawson • ChoralFeatures • March 2, 2018

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Anybody who watched “The Lawrence Welk Show” as a teenager during the show’s long run on television probably remembers it as a program for old fogies.

It was a musical variety show that featured music of a different generation. It was your parents’ music, not rock ‘n’ roll or heavy metal or country or disco or any of the other kinds of music that most young people gravitated to at the time.

Well, I’ve been watching the show on YouTube a lot lately and have found it to be brilliant and entertaining (which goes to show you, if I may generalize, how musical taste expands as you get older). On the show, the cast plays music, dances and sings with panache and pizzazz, not to mention they all sure look like they’re having a heckuva good time! It was a clean-cut, fast-paced rollicking celebration of wonderful music, and the show’s riveting format can, with careful planning, be brought to the school band and orchestra stage where it can be recreated to bring concerts of sheer delight for performers and audiences alike.

So, if you’re ready to shake things up and have a blast presenting timeless beloved music in a spirited way, why don’t you channel (pun intended) Lawrence Welk and put on a concert in his feel-good, bubbly style?

About the Show

“The Lawrence Welk Show” ran on local television, network television, and in syndication from 1951 to 1982, and then in rebroadcasts on public television for a total of more than 50 years. Certainly, any television show that airs for more than half a century must be doing something right, so let’s take a look at the show to see what made it so successful. With an eye toward adapting its attributes for school presentations, here are some of the key elements that made this musical variety show an audience favorite:

The show offered great entertainment and was put together in a most engaging way. It’s a simple formula but when done right audiences love it. The show presented musical selections that showcased instrumentals, singing and dancing.

The show had a distinguished host. With Lawrence Welk you knew you were getting top-flight entertainment.

Great music was always presented. The musical selections were catchy and appealed to the masses. They were usually numbers people knew and fondly remembered.

The arrangements were appealing and showcased songs as they were when they were popular.

There was variety in the presentation of the music. The instrumental musical selections were presented either with full orchestra, in small combos, or by soloists.

Some numbers were apparently chosen to show off the musical proficiency of the musicians. Lawrence Welk was known to hire the best musicians he could find so compositions were selected to show off the great talents of different musicians on the show. During orchestral numbers, featured players would stand for their solos. Apparently, Welk’s audiences liked when recognition was given to musicians who stepped out.

Singers and dancers were also featured on the show. Instrumentals are great, but what would popular songs be without singing?

And of course everybody likes to watch great dancing. Dancers would move to whatever style of music was being featured, but tap dancing was a perennial favorite.

The musical selections would alternate to give variety. An instrumental might be followed by a vocal which could be followed by a dance number. Then might come another instrumental, but this time featuring a soloist. One of the great things about the show was that the audience never knew what was to come next, except that it would be something special.

Some of the orchestra musicians sang on the show (when you hire great musical talent, it’s often not limited to one set of musical skills). Different settings were created for the presentation of different musical selections. The stage was never boring; attractive sets were always featured.

The conductor, Lawrence Welk, introduced new musical selections in a brief but genial way. He might give background information on a song or its composer, or short biographical information on the performer. This made the performer more relatable, and helped the audience develop a bond with him or her. It also reinforced the well-known idea that the Welk performers were like a family.

For some numbers, the singers dressed up in costumes that related to the songs they sang, such as animal costumes for animal-type songs.

The performers smiled a lot and always looked like they were enjoying themselves. Smiling and having fun were essentially trademarks of the show. The instruments featured on the show were not just the usual instruments seen in a concert band or orchestra. Aside from such standard band and orchestra acoustic instruments as violins, trumpets, clarinets and trombones there might be a honky-tony piano, accordion, ukulele and banjo, as well as electrical instruments such as organs and guitars.

The audience would be invited to sing along with the featured singer or group. What better way to engage your audience than having them participate in the show?

The show was fast-paced. As soon as one number was over, Welk would appear introducing the next number. Of course, filmed and edited television shows enable you to set up for the next musical selection without the television audience knowing it, but the point here is that musical variety shows do best when moving at a fast pace.

Partial List of Types of Music Played on the Show

• Polkas

• Tin Pan Alley songs (1880s to 1940s)

• Other old-time favorites

• Big Band numbers

• Classical pieces

• Ethnic songs

• Songs of other countries

• Songs from musical theater

• Jazz

• Blues

• Marches

• Patriotic songs

• Civil War songs

• Medleys of great American songwriters like Stephen Foster and George M. Cohan

• Songs from operettas

Adapt the Musical Variety Format for Your School Concerts.

You, too, can put on a Lawrence Welk-type concert and not only have fun in doing so but bring enjoyment to audiences of all ages. Aside from its entertainment value, a Lawrence Welk-type concert will give you the opportunity to engage students of a wide variety of talent in your school: musicians and singers (including those not necessarily in the band, orchestra or chorus) and dancers, as well as costume makers and set builders, if available. Depending on what your position is, you will want to coordinate with other areas in the school like the band, orchestra or choral director. Of course, such a show is ideal for high schools and colleges, but lower grade school ensembles might also be able to put on such shows on a less extravagant scale.

Most of the songs played on the Welk show were standards so, while you may have to do some searching around, arrangements for combos or bands or orchestras should probably be able to be found from a merchant. In some cases, the conductor, if he or she arranges, or perhaps a neighborhood musician, could write out the parts.

To Get Started

Determine how long you wish your concert to be, then plan the musical selections you wish to put in your program. If you plan a one-hour concert, for instance, you may want to designate approximately five minutes per number, or 12 musical selections. You don’t necessarily need to select the kind of music that was featured in “The Lawrence Welk Show.” You can put contemporary music in your program, too, but try to have a variety of musical numbers–perhaps a mix of old and new songs would satisfy all musical appetites, or you can have the selections center around a particular theme.

In planning the musical selections, consider the talent you have available (instrumentalists, singers and dancers), and try to come up with numbers that complement the skills of all.

Be sure to have variety—alternate instrumentals with vocals and dance music.

Is there a save a super-talented musician or singer or dancer in your school? Pick a song that shows off that person’s special skills.

Acquire or create the printed music for the selections you plan to present.

Determine who will host the concert and have this person get biographical information on the performers so they can be introduced in a proper manner; musical selections can also be introduced with background information on the songs being presented and their writers.

Depending on what music you selected, have costumes made or acquired and small sets built, if possible.

Plan out where on your stage the different groups or soloists will perform (and plan to have a crew set up and move the sets during the show).

Have the students learn their parts.

Rehearse as a group, paying special attention to moving from one musical selection to another at a good pace.

Some Final Thoughts

When “The Lawrence Welk Show” was first broadcast in 1951, Tin Pan Alley songs and crooners were still very much in vogue. Soon rock ‘n’ roll and R&B and other youthful genres swept in and eventually pushed out the Tin Pan Alley music. Yet through it all, through The Beatles and Hendrix, through new music genres and dances, the Welk show with its old songs in entertaining presentations survived and thrived.

This is all to say that when it comes to music, it doesn’t make a difference whether it is classical or old-fogey music, pop or a new style of music; people love great music, period. And they’ll be thrilled to come to your school if you promise them a program of great music.

So, if this idea intrigues you, go to YouTube and watch “The Lawrence Welk Show” to get ideas. Plan a concert and get your school and community excited. When the big concert day comes you’ll proudly mount the stage, raise your baton and cue in your student musicians, perhaps uttering the words maestro Welk himself might say, “ah-one, ah-two…”

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