Selecting Performance Music in 12 (Time Consuming) Steps

Posted on November 11, 2014 by

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This week’s question:

How do YOU decide what music YOU use for gigs?

(What’s the process you go through, not what music you think someone should use)

This week’s question is a great one and worthy of a comprehensive answer. Of all the tasks I do as a performance artist, selecting music is one of the most time consuming and at times, frustrating experiences. Keeping your performance style and act fresh requires a constant upkeep of your music database. I find no matter how frequently I’m looking for music, I never seem to have enough of the music to which I want to perform available. Hopefully this article will provide you with the necessary steps to attack the problem in a manageable and inspiring way that expands your music collection.

First, I determine the context for which I need the music. What’s the nature of the needs with respect to the music? For whom will I be performing, with what prop, in what contexts, in front of what types of audiences and on what types of sound systems? For me there are three distinct types of tracks for which I look:

  • music for practice
  • music for solo performance
  • music for choreographed group performance

It is often the case that the selections for the second two performance items comes from the “best of” selections from the first list for practice and in that way, by searching for practice music first, I’m later able to whittle down the list to tracks I’ve enjoyed practicing with. Generally though, despite this happening, more often than not, the best performance tracks are tracks I love at first listen.

As a general criteria, I rarely choose songs I can’t perform in front of all ages so with that, I rule out explicit music simply because it’s limiting at gigs for families in terms of presenting the image I want to present. There are of course excepts where I have and would again use explicit tracks, but I find it’s much easier to hunt those down if I need them than it is to stop using them after falling in love with them.20141111-053649.jpg

I should say that one time it took me 50 hours to locate a track for a pice of choreography and while I’m happy with the piece, we weren’t really completely in love with the track. Time became a factor because the selection process took so long and as a result, I now operate with this guideline: leave at least a month for the music selection process. By giving myself this time, I have really created a winning scenario when operating under deadlines and this has been a huge benefit to me over the years.

Once I’m armed with knowledge, I go music hunting. This is a multistep process, starting with a willingness to spend $20-$30 on new tracks. Then I hunt in the following places:

  • First I go to my Shazam application and see if there’s anything I’ve tagged that I haven’t purchased. Of course, this requires that you be an active Shazam user as you move through your life so you can capture the tracks you want to enjoy and obtain later.
  • Then I’ll go to iTunes and see if there’s anything that I put on my wish list that I haven’t purchased that’s right for the occasion. It should be noted that I regularly add to my wish list by building stations on Pandora and when I hear new tracks I like, I will launch in iTunes and put the track on my wish list.
  • After that, I will go to the Genius selections on iTunes. First I’ll pick a track that’s like the track I want and try the suggested tracks for that particular track and if that doesn’t yield results, then I’ll go to my general Genius selections and see if there’s anything I like. While in this process with the general selections, I also find it useful to “thumbs down” anything I know I’d never buy and “thumbs up” anything I’ve already acquired as this both helps refresh the database and fine tune the selections.
  • After I find a track I like, I’ll go to SoundCloud and search for the track name with the word “remix” and/or the word “mashup” after it and see if I can find a different, lesser used version of the track. I try to get remixes or mashups because, from a copyright perspective, these tracks have questionable origin and if the remix artist is doing it on SoundCloud, then it is my belief (based on nothing more than my own experience as a musician, so this may just be a fantasy) they are more understanding of collaborative art. The other more practical piece of that is that remixes and mashups often have some cooler means of re-remix and/or re-edit possibilities so that I can change the track and make it my own GlitterGirl remix, thereby further obscuring the copyright issue. It’s unclear to me what percentage of a track you need to change in order to have it be your own material but if you can obscure it sufficiently so that YouTube doesn’t recognize the track, that is incredibly useful in ensuring the video can be played without a copyright issue. All of that said, it should be noted that I usually plan to have to do something to the track and it’s rare in recent years that I don’t actually edit it in some way before using it. Fortunately for me, I was a music minor in college, a composer and a DJ which helps with the process because as a performer, I’ve done my fair share of reedits and remixes of tracks (which adds another few hours to the music selection process).
  • If I’m utterly in love with the track and can’t find a remix or mashup, I’ll go back to iTunes. Since the clip they give you on iTunes is so short, I’ll often go to an external source and try to hear the full version of the track before making a purchase decision. This is very rare and off the top of my head, I can’t actually recall a track I purchased through iTunes I used unedited for a performance.Temple Of Poi Donate Now

Now that we’ve covered where I search for music, let’s talk about a bit more about selection criteria. My number one criteria is that I have to feel like I can be free with the music. If I want to attain flow state in a performance — a rare and magical moment when it actually comes — for me, the music has to inspire that state of being. That means a song that will move my hips and make me dance. I want something that literally makes me dance out of my chair. All of my best performances have come to songs like that and I know if I can’t get lost in the music, I won’t give my best performance.

After the initial “hook” that gets me invested in the track, I then consider the journey of the music. Factors that go into this include:

  • Are there appropriate ebbs and flows? This means energetically there have to be some peaks and valleys.
  • Is there at least one section where the beat drops out for some period of time? I think that helps divide up your performance and is incredibly useful for taking the crowd on a ride.
  • Do the layers of the music build? This is particularly important to me when using electronic music because I want to hear the intensity and complexity of the track shift on the journey.

The next criteria is really about the ability to engage and retain the crowd: is the track too monotonous? Even if I love the trance of the track, it’s important to have something that has easily identifiable sections. This helps when you lose your place and need a music cue for choreography as well, but the more important factor is audience engagement. Also, as much as you may not like “pop” music, there is a reason it is popular and it often will appeal to a wide audience. Good remixes and mashups of pop tracks can be a fabulous crowd pleaser and are worth considering because of the mass appeal.

From a practical perspective, I have to look at the tempo of the music. For me, different tools work better with different tempos so when listening it’s important to figure out which prop I think works with the song, or if it’s the kind of song with which I will be able to use any prop. On the other hand, if I am looking for a track for a specific prop that can help rule things out in the selection process. What I find important about this is multifold:

  • If the track is a finale track, the slowest track of the night may not be the energy that’s best for ending a show.
  • Similarly, if the track is for the opening act, the highest tempo — often also the highest energy track — is probably a bad track with which to lead.
  • How will the track fit in with the flow of the other tracks that make up the full show? Too much slow stuff may be a yawner and too much fast stuff may make people crazy. For me, it’s about the right balance to create a journey both within the individual tracks and within the overall flow of the show.

Along with tempo is the consideration of strength of the beat. While this may not be an important consideration all the time, in some contexts, especially when I’m dancing with artists who have a hard time keeping a beat, it’s important to have a track where they can track the counts of the music. A strong “downbeat” or “1 count” really assists in keeping artists with counting challenges on target and definitely assists in reducing frustration and keeping everyone in time with each other.

The final consideration is the length of cut within the track that I need. Will there be a section that has exactly what I seek:

  • a good opening in which there can be a strong start yet leave room to build
  • a clear ending in which I can solidly and definitively command applause
  • at least one clear energetic peak in the track
  • at least one breakdown in the track

If there isn’t a natural cut in the song with this, the next question is, can I edit something together? It is sad to say that I’ve gotten all the way to this point, tried to edit tracks together only to have to give up on the track in the end. Which is why I go back to what I said earlier: leave at least a month for the selection process.

If you need help with music selection, choreography or other parts of the performance process, consider our upcoming remote choreography class series available over Google Hangouts, in which we will cover music selection.

Ready for private instruction? Want to try Zero to Fire in 4 Hours! Or if you want to join our next beginner class or have other questions, contact GlitterGirl directly or subscribe to our newsletter for mailbox delivery of this and other articles written by Temple of Poi founder and visionary, GlitterGirl, who has been a full time flow arts coach and instructor since 2002. If you seek professional guidance associated with creating a safe performance, obtaining a permit in San Francisco or other personalized coaching, contact GlitterGirl directly for a free consultation (GlitterGirl <that pretty little ‘at’ symbol> TempleOfPoi <daaaaaaaught> com).

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