Program Notes the Right Way

performing May 14, 2017

"Program notes? You want me to talk?!"

The time will come when you will be asked to “say something” about music that you are about to play.

I can’t remember the first time I was asked to speak about my music, but I do remember my mother’s urging me to “tell them what you’re going to play.” And I remember my first experiences as a twelve year-old, performing for ladies’ luncheons and delivering my “harp talk.” Thank goodness there was no YouTube back then.

Fortunately, experience is a wonderful teacher, and I learned over the years how to speak confidently to an audience. Even more importantly, I learned the one secret to making verbal program notes painless for me and interesting for an audience.

The secret is this: your program notes are not designed to show how much you know or how brilliant you are. The purpose of your words is to introduce the audience to your piece, just as you would introduce two people to each other.

Social introductions have one main purpose: to facilitate interaction and conversation between two strangers. Your program notes serve the same kind of function: to help a listener connect to and engage with the music he is about to hear.

Imagine you are at a party. The hostess comes over to you and says, “Anne, I want you to meet Sarah. Sarah just moved here from Atlanta, and her daughter has been studying piano. I told her that you are a harpist and know most of the musicians in town.”

In just three sentences, our hostess has given Sarah and me enough information to begin a conversation. Where we take our new acquaintance from there is up to us, but we have some common ground to start with.

Your program notes will do just that; they will provide your audience with just enough information to give them a touch point of connection with your music.

Here are the basic ground rules:

  1. Be brief. If all you need to do is announce the title of your piece and composer, that’s fine, but if the situation calls for a little more, feel free to elaborate within limits. What’s a good limit? The program notes should never be longer than the actual piece. Don’t laugh – it’s happened.
  2. Be polished. Practice your program notes ahead of time, if possible, and memorize them. Don’t read from note cards; your program notes should be short enough that you can deliver them naturally. Remember that you’re introducing a friend, not a stranger, to your audience.
  3. Speak with energy. If you convey your love for this music through your words and demeanor, the audience will approach the music in the same spirit. Don't forget to smile and make eye contact.
  4. Make a connection. Help your audience by giving them a frame of reference for the music. Did this composer write another piece they may have heard? What does the title mean? Is there an interesting fact to share about the composer? Perhaps you could share your own connection to the music, what it reminds you of, or the first time you heard it. Your audience will relate more easily to your personal reflection about the music than to plain unadorned information like the composer’s dates.

Here are two quick examples of easy and elegant spoken program notes:

“I will play Minuet in G by Beethoven. While Beethoven didn’t write this for the harp, the harp seems well suited to this dance that always brings to mind candlelight and powdered wigs.”

“This is Pistache or Pistachio, written by the French harpist and composer Bernard Andrès. I think the piece captures the exotic quality of the Middle Eastern origins of the pistachio. You can almost hear the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.”

Sure you could say more, and you may choose to. But each of these examples meets the four criteria above, and each gives the listener an instant connection to the music. And that’s what you really want.


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