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Stuck on Programming? Words of Wisdom left behind by Shirlee Emmons

Updated: Jul 1, 2022

Joy In Singing asks for a program of five songs in three languages for the upcoming International Art Song Competition. Not sure what you should offer?

Noted teacher, author and friend to many singers during her lifetime, Shirlee Emmons' insights on the recital form are still very much on point today. Shirlee's suggestions can be very helpful as you devise your program.

"The first group on your recital is your calling card. It says: “This is how I look. This is my personality. This is the quality of my voice. This is my musical ability. This is my dramatic flair. These are my linguistic skills. This is the breadth of my repertoire.” It says, “Sit back and enjoy. I will capture your attention because I am ever so ready to perform. You will have a wonderful time, because I too am going to enjoy the evening. I am very good, and I can’t wait to show you this music that I love.”

Variety of languages Change languages frequently. Sing in an unusual language. What about Czechoslovakian? Or Norwegian? If the language is really off the beaten track, talk about the songs and the poetry. Do oral program notes ● If you’re singing in just one language, make sure to feature plenty of variety in the music. If you’re doing a specialized program in French, for example, be sure that each group features a different kind of French music. French song repertoire probably contains more variety than any other language. And wear a dress that suggests France (French blue?)

Variety of styles ● Even though Romantic composers have provided us with a great deal of beloved and beautiful music, spice your program up by digressing to something modern, or something sophisticated, or Impressionistic. More than one group of bel canto music, beautiful as it is, will tend to have a soporific effect on your audience. ● This is what I call the Tiffany window syndrome. In Tiffany’s window, you see one enormously expensive bauble. In Kmart’s window, you would not even be able to see the Tiffany jewel, because of all the many articles stuffed into the window. Showcase your musical jewel by surrounding it with music that is very different, so that the jewel cannot be overlooked. ● More than one group of contemporary music, however, may inspire fury in your audience. Unless the program is for a group of contemporary music lovers, choose carefully for audience appeal. Minimalist compositions, for example, with their endless repetitions, have a way of inducing people to nap.

Variety of eras Not everything should be from the 19th century. Move around historically. Juxtapose the groups in such a manner that the beginning of each new group inspires a small and pleasant frisson of surprise at the contrast in the styles.

Variety within the oeuvre of one composer If you search, you can find different types of composing within any composer’s body of work. Very few composers wrote the same way all their composing lives. Be curious. Do your homework. Many second-rank composers wrote just one jewel of a song. Make it your business to search them out. (“Psyché” by Émile Paladilhe or “À Cloris” by Reynaldo Hahn come to mind.)

Variety between familiar and unfamiliar compositions

A steady diet of old favorites can be dismaying, even to avid music lovers. After an old favorite or two, sing an unknown composition from that era, or in that style, or from that composer. On the other hand, if most of your audience is not musically sophisticated, be sure to include a lot of old favorites. A good rule of thumb when facing such an audience is to choose pieces that are so dramatically clear that your listeners can understand the drama without reading the program notes and without knowing the words.

Variety of tempos and keys

Too many compositions in the same key can be stultifying and monotonous even when the listener does not know why he or she is getting restless. Pay attention to the keys in each group. Make the change from one song to another pleasant and musically logical. Variety of song type Evaluate each song for its type. In general, songs fall into one of five regular types: 1. The narrative song, which tells a story.

2. The lyric song, which deals with emotions, atmosphere, or sometimes personal responses (reverie, contemplation) to aspects of nature or situations.

3. The character song, which delineates through the text one or more of the following characteristics of the protagonist: gender, name, personality traits, physical attributes, personal philosophy, or romantic interests.

4. The fun song, concerned with humor, frivolity, or nonsense.

5. The pyrotechnic song, which shows off the vocal skills of the singer, and which may be, but is not necessarily, of musical worth.

You probably don’t want to program three songs of the same type from the same composer, or even three songs of one type from three composers. Move around among the types. Do not repeat types in close proximity. The great majority of songs are set to lyric poetry. Programming too many such songs in a row is not a good idea, despite their undeniable beauty.

Content excerpted from an article originally appearing in Classical Singermagazine, December, 2004.© Shirlee Emmons


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