Some Try to Tell Me Thoughts They Cannot Defend

Mike Lawson • Commentary • September 4, 2015

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As I was driving my high school senior to school today, he was telling me that his garage band was talking about what they wanted to perform at some of the upcoming high school open mic nights, put on by the school music department to help raise funds, and increase awareness of school music programs. One of his band mates suggested that they do “Nights in White Satin.” Cool song, right? I mean we all want to play cool old tunes when we perform, and probably have a nice bucket list of songs we all want to have in our repertoire. “That sounds fun, but who is going to sing it?” I asked. “I mean no offense son, but I don’t think anyone in your band can hit the notes on the chorus like Justin Hayward from Moody Blues. Are you planning to recruit another singer for that song?” 


This gave me a great chance to talk about how a bandleader chooses repertoire successfully, whether they are a combo garage band, or a school symphony orchestra, or a concert band or marching band. It really doesn’t matter; it’s the same in any kind of band. I explained to him that, even in my own band, there are songs we don’t do if I’m supposed to sing them because I can’t really hit the notes and do that song the justice it deserves. I told him about a former band mate who would insist on “calling songs” that were his favorites that he always wanted to do, that is, sing, but that he really couldn’t hit the notes, seemed oblivious to it, and took great offense if it was suggested that somebody else sing it, or we change the key to accommodate his range. That’s not how you put together a great show. “I’ve always wanted to do that one, wouldn’t that be cool?” should never come into play when establishing repertoire unless you have reason to believe your public performance of it is going to be amazing.

To me, there are two simple reasons to include material in ones repertoire for public performance, and they include their likely reception by the show’s intended audience, and the group’s ability to absolutely knock the performance of the piece out of the ballpark, so to speak. Speaking to reception by the audience first, they are there to be entertained, and a good band performance must entertain. No matter how well you perform, if the people you perform for are not happy, well, its kind of a fail. So first and foremost, know your audience and select music for that performance that is going to speak to them, engage them, and make them want more. 

The other task is to make sure that the music you select for a performance is something that your band is 100% able to perform expertly. Bandleaders of all types sometimes make the mistake of adding to the public performance repertoire selections the band just isn’t ready to play in public. They have to fill time. If they do it in the middle of the show, maybe it won’t be as noticeable if there are clams. I’m here to say, nothing will sour an audience faster than hearing the songs they wanted to hear played poorly. So, no matter how important a song seems to be to have on “the list,” if you can’t absolutely nail it when you perform, then it shouldn’t be on the list. 

So it came down to this in our discussion: If your band is going to do an amazing arrangement of “Nights in White Satin” as an instrumental because your group doesn’t have a singer that can do it justice, but you can nail it as an instrumental arrangement when you play out, then by all means, do it. But if you can’t do it vocally, either bring in a guest vocalist, or simply don’t do it until you can hit those notes. 

Learn to discern what you can and can’t play in public. Be your harshest critic and be honest with yourselves. Just because its cool, appropriate and you want to play it, doesn’t mean you should play it if you can’t nail it. Tradition doesn’t come into play when assembling repertoire, unless the other two factors are met — does the audience expect/want to hear this in the particular planned performance, and can you knock it out.

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