On Planning a Set: Hook, Line, and Sinker

prepared for fellow NEFFA workshop participants, NEFFA News, Spring 2000 by L.E. Noel

October is the deadline for NEFFA applications, and I've had several requests to republish this piece from the NEFFA News. Thanks for your interest!So, you have a festival gig. You know your venue, audience, time, location, and set length. You have your performers, and you know what they can do. You have a workshop title, which is probably a theme of some sort. You probably also have a list--a long list--of material you'd like to present, from which you need to select, arrange, and rehearse a set in not-enough time. How do you get from here to there, where THERE is the applause at the end of a dynamite set?

There are lots of ways to organize a set list. The easy way is to go round robin, but we know how to do that. How do you develop a theme? Here's how I work with material that has a lot of content and narrative flow: entertain first, educate second . Start with the basic rule of 1-2-3.

Rule #1: One-Two-Three

  1. If you get ONE song, choose your most upbeat attention-grabber: hook, line, and sinker all in one. It should be SHORT (under 3 minutes), simple, and require NO introduction. Hop up on stage. Sing. Hop down. Say nothing. Just sing. Everyone will say, Who Was That Masked Musician? Your song will tell them who you are. (Then the organizer will call out, "And that was the Masked Musician, folks! Give her a hand!")

  2. If you get TWO songs, pick the upbeat one and another one with an easy but rock-em-sock-em chorus. Put the one with a chorus SECOND. Hop up on stage and sing. Introduce yourself and the next song for no more than 30 seconds, including teaching the chorus. Sing. You're done. Everyone will say, "Boy, that Masked Musician sure can sing." (Because you got them to sing.)

  3. If you get THREE songs, you can have a slow one. Put it in between Song One (your attention-grabber) and Song Two (your audience involver). This is your solo, your reflective moment, the story you are telling. Your three-song set goes:
  • One, Here I Am. (The Hook)
  • Two, Here's My Story. (The Line)
  • Three, Let's Tell It Together. (The Sinker)
Three songs is a fifteen-minute set, because just getting up and down off the stage takes time, and one does talk between songs even if one doesn't mean to. Also, it's incredibly polite to run under time (I think I did it once...) Focus on entertainment. Deliver your educational message, if you must, in Song Two, which should also be entertaining.

To plan a longer set, fill in from the middle using the 5-minutes-per-song rule. 25 to 40 minutes allows you to develop your basic festival workshop set from thematic material with a lot of content and narrative flow. But where do the extra songs go? One BEFORE and the rest AFTER the first song. Why? Read on.

Rule #2: Before and After

So, let's take a 40-minute set at NEFFA. 40 divided by 5 means 8 songs. Three we know already: the beginning, the middle, and the end. Using the before-and-after rule, your new songs are #1 and #3-6. The ending doesn't change, the middle gets to be four songs that tell a story (in some order), and the beginning gets a one-song throwaway before your bang-up opener, which is now Song Two. Why? Because people will be trickling in, you will be clunking around with the mike setup, and your engineer will be doing an on-the-fly sound check. Pick something good, but not your best: save that for second and for last. Choose the simplest song that you do well, one you'd be willing to sing to an empty hall, and stick to the Masked Musician approach: don't talk until after you sing. But DO sing, because they won't trickle in until you do.

In a longer set, you can have an introduction. Put it before your second song: remember, this is really your Song One, the hook. Introduce yourself before and your theme after the second song, so that the hook sets the line. Then pay out the line: tell your story, in four songs (numbers 3-6). Songs 3-6 form a mini-set, which should also follow the 1-2-3 rule in a low-key kind of way, developing whatever narrative line you want to throw out.

Song Six is about where the set starts to drag. If you have been telling your story well, you are really into it now, and performers tend to talk a LOT between songs Five and Six. Develop your theme with a few reflective songs: slots Three, Four and Five are the place to put soloists or small groups, as well as ballads and long songs without choruses. Then pick up the pace with an upbeat Song Six with some kind of a chorus. The audience has been listening happily to you for half an hour now, and it's time to let them know the end is coming (so they will wish it weren't).

You HAVE been checking the time, haven't you? Oops. You're over. (Everybody always is.) If you need to cut to the chase, cut Song Five and/or Six. This is why Seven and Eight remain your original Song Two and Three: deliver the message, THANK the organizers and make any announcements (like where to buy your product) and then head straight for the finish line with that good all-sing closer, your original Song Two of Two or Three of Three. And of course, audiences LOVE it when you reprise your opener as a grand finale.

The Set List

So, let's review the 8-song set. This will get you through 40 minutes at NEFFA slicker 'n a smelt. This type of nested structure will also let you plan anything from 15 to 50 minutes on the fly. Each song has a purpose:

  1. The Sound Check
    Introduce the group and hand out words if you must (better they should look at you than at the paper in their laps; I prefer to give handouts at the end)
  2. The Hook
    Introduce yourself and your group; present the theme in one sentence, then sing
  3. The Line, or Story Part I (another throwaway; keep intros brief)
  4. The Line, Story Part II (another hook; choruses are good)
  5. The Line, Story Part III (another throwaway; cut to #6 OR #7 if you need time)
    Tell how the last three songs fit together, and then teach
  6. The Chorus (a wake-em-up and/or a wrapup to your story)
  7. The Message
    Introduce group members, thank the organizers, announce who's on next in this slot and where you're performing next, hand out any flyers, say where your product is on sale, thank the sound crew, and do all this in under 3 minutes!
  8. The Sinker, or the Grand Finale (all sing, with the audience)
  9. And of course, if you cut something and finished early, you have it for an ENCORE!

The Amateur is the Audience

Of course there are lots of other ways to plan a set. For one thing, you may need to put certain songs together because they are in the same (or conflicting) keys, or need certain tunings or musicians, or whatever. But this outline, or ANY set list outline, will prevent most of the more embarrassing moments of amateur performance. Remember, being an amateur means you LOVE what you do. Help your audience to love it--and you--as well, by refraining from the following common faux pas (that's French for no-no's) of set list planning:
  • Endless intros before the first song (like sitting in a plane on the runway)
  • Endless explanations of the song you just sang (like sitting in a plane at the gate)
  • Er-um, ah, what shall we sing next? (unless you are taking requests)
  • No, no, after YOU! (If you are next in line, SING. If no one else is, count to three, make eye contact with the designated Mouth, and sing anyway. You will be forgiven for toe-stepping faster than for dead air.)
  • Oh, wait a minute--no no, start over. (This is the difference between performance and rehearsal. Please do not ask the audience to indulge you more than necessary.)
  • We just have ONE more song, and it's our BEST song... (When your time is up, you are DONE. A good workshop leader WILL cut you off so that the next group can start on time. Plan accordingly, and finish early if you can. You can always have an encore.)

Hook, Line and Sinker

Plan your set like a plane trip that spends more time in the air than on the ground. Plan it like a vacation that spends more time out of the car than driving. Plan it with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and give your audience a map. Remember, they're along for the ride. And do plan your set like a fishing trip: you want to bring home the whole audience, having fallen for you and your music hook, line, and sinker.

Who was that Masked Musician?

Lynn Noel (lynnoel@lynnoel.com) rarely practices what she preaches onstage, but she does observe the rule of 1-2-3 religiously and has been known to perform en masque.