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  • Writer's pictureDeb Macfarlan Enright

Strategic Plan and Set Lists?

It never failed.

Something would shift during the evening. Sometimes it was the mood in the room. Other times it was the audience itself.

Sometimes that shift would require a major change in the set list. Other times a slight tweak.

Over time, I learned to expect the unexpected during a four hour gig fronting a jazz trio somewhere on the East Coast. I’ve thought about how the use of a set list is a metaphor for implementing a strategic plan.

I prepared for each performance by creating a set list. A list of when to play what tune during the evening to cover the length of the gig. I’d assemble the charts (musical arrangements) into a collection for each member of the band. And let me be clear, back then, I’d write out the arrangement by hand, Xerox each chart, put them in order, and supply them to each musician in a notebook of some sort for their music stand, top of their amp, or whatever worked for them.

The set list was a plan created to choose tunes that flexed our musical muscle, showcased all of the musicians, worked within the performance space, and provided an evening of entertainment that met the needs of the establishment and their customers. I also hoped to persuade members of the audience to join us at an upcoming gig, purchase our merchandise, and tell a friend (or two) about us to grow our fan base through this plan.

The list gave us a chance to use a few early tunes to test the sound in the room and get settled for the evening. This plan provided an evening for our audience to cause some interest in our music amidst their conversations (and the possible TV playing over the bar with someone shooting a basket, kicking a field goal, trying for a hat trick, pulling a yellow card, and well, you get the picture). I’d look to build momentum throughout the night especially just before we took a short break to encourage the audience to stick around for the rest of the night with this set list.

That’s right, the set list was a strategic plan with goals for real time implementation.

Perhaps a bit of a backstory would be helpful about now.

For about 10 years, in bars and concert venues on the East Coast and in the Caribbean, I had the privilege of working with the most talented jazz musicians imaginable rendering our versions of America’s Standards Songbook.

Sometimes we’d play an hour concert. Other times, we’d play four hours in a bar with all of the trappings of an audience who did not pay to see you perform.

There was a new set list for every venue we played. Within each list was a flexibility that allowed us to be responsive to the needs of the audience (take a request, change tempo to match the mood of the room, or try a tune new to our repertoire). We would always have some tunes that didn’t need a chart to perform. I’d call one of them to respond to the audience when the set list just wasn’t doing the trick.

We had a plan to be responsive to our audience, with a look to the long term that could embrace a shift in the mood of the room.

Those set lists gave shape and grounded the evening ahead of us. They gave the band a focus and a path to share our music, entertain our audience, and hopefully book another gig.

Yes, those gigs built around Gershwin, Porter, Evans, Davis, and Ellington spotlighting premier Jazzers sharing our music with audiences of all types in a variety of venues depended on the construction of a set list – our strategic plan.

And it’s been a minute, but here is the link to catch me singing with a big band the tune I wrote - “Tonight He’s Mine” - that won Song of the Year of the Songwriters’ Association of Washington, D.C.

Deb Macfarlan Enright, Ed.D. is the Founder of The Macfarlan Group. She is devoted to doing good and get others to do the same.


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