The Well-Planned Public Performance

by Amy Rice-Young (1988)

Concerts can be very frightening. Even if the only aspect you have to think about is performing the music. Quite often, however, there are the many technical aspects which must be considered, and relatively few of us have managers to take care of all the worrisome details. Regardless of how you are involved, a performance of any kind can be much more enjoyable with well organized advance planning. If you are the director of a group, most of the planning will fall on your shoulders. Being organized and keeping all of the performers informed will enable everyone to play more confidently and avoid unnecessary errors.  

Before you can make any plans, the type of performance must be determined. There are basically two types:

  • 1) Formal or Semi-Formal Concerts—those that have audiences who are attentive.
  • 2) Informal Concerts—performances usually consisting of background music. For the purpose of organization, almost all performing occasions will fall into one of these categories.


All concerts require a certain amount of set-up, some more than others. A majority of concerts will be sponsored by someone other than you or your group. These might include concerts in schools, libraries, churches, or for various organizations; concerts for a community concert series; performances for a special occasion such as a wedding. As varied as these may seem, they have many similarities. All of these performances should have contracts. These do not need to be extremely complicated, nor do they need an expensive attorney to be effective. They do need to state all relevant details. A typical contract, or letter of agreement, should include the following:

1)  Financial agreement - This not only states the amount of money, but the manner in which it is to be paid, and to whom. Be sure to include a clause about a deposit, if desired. Most deposits are between 1/3 and 1/2 of the total amount, to be paid within certain dates and/or at the time the signed contract is returned. It's also a good idea to put in a cancellation clause stating the consequences of cancelling within a certain period of time.

2) Location, Time and Date - There is no worse feeling than to arrive for a wedding an hour late, or at the wrong church on the wrong day! Make sure this information is correctly and clearly stated. You should know in advance if it is an outdoor performance, as there are various adjustments to be made. Ask if there are arrangements in case of inclement weather, and remember, it could be windy, so take clothespins. Will it be dark, and what about electrical outlets and amplification. Playing outside can create lots of challenges, so be sure to be prepared. Finally, if it is not a commonly known location, require clear, accurate directions, and a map when possible.

3) Format - This should include what kind of music is to be played, how much, and for how long. Ask about intermissions and/or any other possible interruptions. In some cases, you may need consultation about the works to be performed. Inquire if they would like you to provide a program, if they are planning to print it, or if they would prefer narration in place of a program. How many performers are you planning to use? Are you being paid "per performer" or a general fee? Request the necessary equipment, such as music stands. Occasionally there will be a dress code. If other than standard concert dress, this needs to be known well in advance.

There may be many other details you would like to include, depending on the performance. Try to imagine what they could be by tracing your actual steps through the day and imagining the needs of the performers. Not every detail needs to be included in the contract, but by reviewing the three points listed above, you should be well on your way to having the performance organized.

Some concerts are self-sponsored. These would include concerts that you organize and finance on your own. While these concerts do not require a contract such as the one just mentioned, a similar type of organization, including a number of other details, will be required. You may need to decide on a location. A simple contract might be in order here to define dates, both for the performance and any rehearsals. When choosing a location, it is important to keep your budget and the nature of the program in mind. Are you planning to charge admission? Will there be printed tickets for advance distribution, or will you charge admission at the door? Know in advance who will collect ticket money and how you plan to organize it. If you are planning to have printed programs and/or reserved seating, you will need ushers. In a self-sponsored program, there is a lot of freedom for many of these decisions, but you need to know what is involved in order for the concert to run effectively.

The next step is deciding upon your program. Programming is a very important step. Here are a few points to consider:

1) Is your audience familiar with your group? Ensembles such as flute choirs are not as common as an orchestra, for example, so you may want to keep this in mind when deciding which works to include.

2) Are you following a theme, or is the time of year important? Consider if it is a holiday performance, or if a theme has been requested.

3) Are there any requirements for music selection? The performers should be comfortable with the music. It should not be too difficult or too easy. What about soloists? In some instances, a soloist, or winner of a competition perhaps, is intended as part of the program. Sometimes a soloist may add variety and interest to a program.

You may also want to incorporate instruments other that what you usually have. Be sure to plan the length. Time the pieces you want to use, allowing for miscellaneous spaces for applause, stage setup, etc. If the performance is a wedding or similar occasion, make sure you know what the parties involved would like, and always be prepared to take a cut or a few repeats! Each performance has its own personality, and your program should not only help reflect what it is, but remain flexible to it.

Your performance should be fairly well set up at this point, but it certainly isn't complete yet. There are many items which you may need to follow through. Do you need advertising and promotion? If another organization is in charge, they will most likely arrange for it. Be sure you are able to provide them with the necessary information about you and your group as well as photographs. If it is a self-sponsored concert, the responsibility is yours. Possible publicity can be obtained through the newspapers, local media such as television and radio, posters, or perhaps a co-sponsor. Entire books have been written on effective advertising. It may be worth your time to investigate these. If you are responsible for tickets and/or programs, be sure to allow plenty of time to prepare them, and decide how involved (and expensive) they should be. Of course, allow time for preparation of the music. While everything else may be perfect, if it doesn't sound good, it's worthless.

The final step comes after the performance. Evaluate it! Decide if it is something you would like to do again, and, if so, what can you do to insure an invitation. Examine both the possible ways you can improve and what was most successful. Finally, be sure to extend thanks to all appropriate people. 


Informal concerts are really not too different from Formal and Semi-Formal concerts, except they are usually easier. These performances tend to serve a function, such as background music. They might include music for a party or a wedding reception, any of a variety of civic functions, or maybe even performing in a shopping mall. The same basic steps of organization should be followed. A contract can be even more necessary, as the person or organization that hired you may not even be present. The person who is responsible for taking care of various details should be clearly defined. Review the steps taken for a Formal or Semi-Formal concert, and apply whatever is appropriate.

Planning your program can be entirely different. Keep in mind what kind of music is preferred and how much noise there might be. If it is a lengthy performance, plan breaks for the performers. Discuss the possibility of amplification. In the case of a reception, be sure to check if the performers are allowed to eat. When not discussed in advanced, this can create a very awkward situation.

Follow through is usually easy, but necessary. If the event is being publicized, request that your name is included as the entertainment. Be sure to call a few days in advance and confirm that the details have remained the same. If you plan to bring guests, check to make sure it is agreeable. When the performance is finished, follow the same steps as before. Evaluate and write the necessary thank-you notes.

A couple of further steps will help you double check your organization and keep everyone who is involved informed. First, make a check-list that you keep for all performances. Attach it to your contract. By simply glancing at it, you can determine what the status is at any given point in time and remind yourself of what still needs to be done. It can also be useful for your evaluation. Second, make a similar list for all performers. This should include all of the pertinent details, directions and the program. It might also include a rehearsal schedule. This list can be easily copied and distributed, and will save you significant time and energy by avoiding last minute questions and phone calls. It also enables the performers to be more organized and prepared.

As you read through this article, you will undoubtedly think of other points to consider. Be sure to make note of them for future use. After a while, you will find that the process becomes automatic, and your performances will be more efficient and enjoyable. Programming is discussed at length in a separate article entitled Adventures in Programming.