Concert Programming Using the Whale Method

Posted By Derek Nance on Mar 28, 2014 | 4 comments


This past month I have been wracking my brain over concert programming.  There are so many variables that go into creating a concert program that it can be hard to conceptualize.  Just off the top of my head, some things you have to keep in mind include

  • What level of music can the group perform, based on the number of rehearsals and ringers
  • Where are concerts being performed?  Churches, schools, concert halls, bars?
  • Who is the audience?  College students, church goers, families?
  • What did you play last year?  Does your audience want to hear the same or something different?
  • Are there other instruments besides bells available to your group?
  • What are you going to do between pieces to keep the energy flowing

Because this topic is so broad, let’s break it down into some manageable pieces.  Today’s topic is choosing and ordering music.

Choosing and Ordering Music

In an article for The Guardian, writer David Butcher says that “In truly memorable concerts, the music always comes first”, a sentiment with which I agree.  Choosing music that your group can perform well and that your audience finds entertaining should be your first concern.  But once you choose your music, determining what order to perform the music in can be a challenge. Our goal as performers should always be to take the audience on a musical journey.  For instance, do you want to present a concert in chronological order based on composition dates?  The concert would be extremely educational, but typically that leaves your heavier, slower pieces towards the front of the concert and lighter, catchier music for the end.  Trying to get a good balance and mix in your concert flow is key for keeping the audience engaged.  When I go to plan a concert, I always analyze our music first and break each piece down to it’s fundamental parts.  Specifically, this is what I look for:

  1. Key Signature (major/minor)
  2. Tempo
  3. Time Signature
  4. Feeling (sad/happy/energetic/dirge)
  5. Is the tune catchy or recognizable?
  6. Other instruments used (chimes/piano/vocal/flute…)

Once I break the piece apart, I can then describe each piece by how it feels musically.  Since our goal is to take the audience on a musical journey, the next step is to decide what that journey will look like.

The Whale Method

In my non-handbell life I spent a decade working at a Boy Scout Camp in Southern California.  At the end of every week the staff presented a campfire of songs and skits to the Scouts.  Much of our material was either drawn from Monty Python or the standard songs about bears, beavers, and moose that come to mind when you think summer camp.  When I was first being taught how to organize a campfire I was taught about the Whale as a way to conceptualize the emotional journey we wanted to take the audience on during our show.  I used this model for hundreds of campfires over the years, and every time the kids came away having a blast.

The Whale Model

The Whale Model

First, imagine what the outline of a whale looks like.  Second, mentally run your hand over the top of the whale.  As your hand goes up, the energy should go up, and as your hand goes down, the energy should go down too.  Notice that the emotional feel of the show isn’t one long arc.  For campfires, we always wanted the Scouts to leave on a high note, which is why there is a kicker at the end of the show.  A typical campfire for us would start with an action song to get the Scouts moving, skits and songs to build the energy afterwards, a climax with our best skits, a slower activity to dissipate the energy, and a solemn flag retirement ceremony.  Then we kicked the Scouts out of the fire ring with a face paced song.  In one short hour we were able to take the Scouts on an emotional ride that they all thoroughly enjoyed.

This got me thinking, however, about our own concerts.  Is it possible to graph our concerts in the same way?

Concert Emotion Model

Concert Emotion Model

While I was planning our spring concert with my home group Tintabulations I decided to try and see if graphing a concert would help in the planning.  The illustration on the right is what the emotional model of our spring concert will look like.  The journey the audience will go on will feel something like this:

  1. Open with Michael Glasgow’s “Gravitas”, which is fast and energetic
  2. Next is Michael Glasgow’s “A Simple Dance”, which is a simpler song most of the audience will recognize and has violin
  3. Fast forward to the end of the first half and close with Karen Roth’s “Jesus, Lover of My Soul”, which is loud, heavy, minor, and dark to leave the audience on a low note going into intermission.
  4. Open the second half with Dr. Payn’s “Bread of Angles”, which is fast, long, and happy to pull the audience back into the concert
  5. End on Arnold Sherman’s “Grazioso” which is a dramatic piece that tells a story.
  6. Encore with Kevin McChesney’s “Now the Green Blade”, which is fast, crazy, and impressive, especially since the group can play the entire piece in 80 seconds.

Notice that with every piece I describe how the audience will feel while listening to the piece.  When using the Whale Method for concert programming, the goal is the take the audience on an emotional roller coaster.  Do you want your concert to start dark and mysterious and then build to a grand finale?  Do you want to take your audience on several ups and downs to keep them on their toes?  Do you want to end the concert on an upbeat or solemn tone?  These are all things you can do with the Whale Method.

What technique do you use for concert planning?  What does the graph of your spring concerts look like?  Let us know in the comments below.

Cover Photo: “Belena” by Gabrie Coletti from Flickr.  Used under the Creative Commons License.