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Secrets of a Killer Set List

Secret To A Killer Set List
I have worked with Taylor Swift, Lecrae, The Tenors and many others. The same concepts of show planning apply, no matter the genre -says Tom Jackson.

I have worked with artists as diverse as Taylor Swift, Lecrae and The Tenors, spanning genres like hip hop, country, Christian contemporary music and rock. The genres are different but the way we capture and engage an audience is the same.

Most artists I know scribble a set list fifteen minutes before the show, then go on stage and wing it.

They perform their songs well as they can, and hope something good happens. When something good does happen, they keep it in their show.

To me, this is backwards.

Having a script does not mean there is no room for spontaneity. Spontaneity and “winging it” are two completely different things

Use A Script

A great indie film doesn’t require a cast of mega stars to capture an audience, but one of the things it must have, is a great script.

This applies to independent artists.

You will always be more effective at engaging an audience when you are working from a killer “script” (a deliberate plan) for your show.

My philosophy applies to more than just your set list – this is about your song arrangements and everything else you do in your show.

Having a script does not mean there is no room for spontaneity. Spontaneity and “winging it” are two completely different things.

Winging it means having no plan. Spontaneity means knowing where you are trying to go at any given point, so you can be open to respond to your audience and your instincts.

Plan For The Moments

A great show will create moments and guide the audience through them.

The moments may be, high-energy dance moments, interesting musical moments, fun moments, or touching moments.

I just finished a phone meeting about a PBS special I’m consulting for, and even at this early stage, I can already see the progression of moments.

I can tell you right now where the audience will cry, where they will laugh, where they will want to get up and dance.

Planning for moments is not manipulation – the emotions are already there in your songs. You are just being deliberate about how you bring them out so the audience can experience them.

Make Your Plan


Look to your songs for themes, emotions and ideas

To develop your vision for each song and for the show as a whole, you must ask yourself these questions:

  • Where are we going to lead our audience?
  • What are we trying to accomplish?
  • What does the audience want and when do they want it?

The songs are your guide. Look to your songs for themes, emotions and ideas, and be deliberate about what you are trying to do from the first song to the last.

Differentiate Song Types

Planning requires that you recognize the different options songs can offer.

For example, some songs are all about the rhythm. Some songs, on the other hand are all about the voice. Serious vocalists love these!

Then, there are those songs which are all about the words, and – shockingly – not the voice. Songs like this are often powerfully touching, creating a quiet moment in your show. On these songs, instead of filling the room with your voice, it is often best to deliver your vocal like a whisper.

Once you look at each song with this in mind, you will be able to make sure you include the variety that your audience wants.

Change Your Arrangements For Live Shows

Don’t make the mistake of modelling your live arrangements after recordings.  Bring out your moments and your personality by making room in your songs.

Don’t make the mistake of modelling your live arrangements after recordings

Making your arrangements longer than a 3-minute radio hit allows you to bring out musical themes so your audience can really ‘get’ what you are trying to do.

For example, you might have a song on your set list that is all about the rhythm – it has got a great groove or rhythmic hook.

To turn this hook into a moment, in middle of that song you could plan to suddenly strip away the other parts of the band, and just have the drummer play that rhythm for a while.

Then you might get your guitar player to grab a tambourine, and you might grab the fish (also called a guiro) and layer in some percussion to build on that rhythm. While this is happening, your audience is getting into the groove and feeling the anticipation build.

You are creating a deliberate moment by adapting your arrangement for a live show.

Test It Out

Once you have your vision, it will guide your interactions with your audience, your song arrangements and your song order – your “script” is ready.

Tom Jackson photoTom Jackson is the author of Tom Jackson’s Live Music Method, and the DVD series All Roads Lead To The Stage. He tours internationally as a live music producer and speaker as well as being the founder of Live Music Cares, which helps touring musicians bring awareness and fundraising to charitable organizations. Find out more about Tom at On Stage Success and Tom Jackson Productions.

Lang_Bliss picLang Bliss will be contributing this month’s feedback for our singing competition entries.

Lang Bliss has played and sung with award-winning artists including Michael W. Smith, Rich Mullins, Michael McDonald, and has been a songwriter for BMG publishing. 

Here is Lang’s feedback for this week’s competition entry:

My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry

Jessica Hope Jimenez Jessica Hope Jimenez - Skyscraper

I like Jessica’s vocal quality; she has a nice tone. I think her biggest challenge, at least in this setting with no accompaniment, is her pitch.

I’d suggest that in the future, if she submits songs for other contests or reviews, that she should think about using a track or instrument to help her stay on track, pitch-wise.