The most important work as a producer is...

Explore how Levende Musik i Skolen, Denmark approaches the YAM producer role
1. The most important work as a producer is...

The headline poses a challenging but essential question. Since the concert producer’s role and functions varies slightly from country to country, the best way to attempt an answer is probably to approach it outside-in. Allow me, therefore, to start by outlining the general job description for a Danish producer. The first step will be to give you a brief explanation of the Danish system.

2. The Danish system

At LMS in Denmark we handle all state funded school concerts; app. 2300 concerts a year, involving 90-95 different music groups, duos and soloists. Our goal is to obtain the highest possible quality throughout the entire concert process: all the way from the music group’s initial concert idea until their music reaches the children’s ears. And even beyond that. Our concerts are funded by the state, the local commune and the individual school. We make a contract with the commune to deliver concerts to all the children in all the schools in that particular commune. This means, that we can keep a group touring in a particular area for a week, which makes it cheaper (less travel expense) for the commune and schools, but also better for the group since this system (where the concerts are sold ‘in bulk’, so to speak) guarantees a set amount of jobs in advance (10, 20, 30 etc.). Furthermore, the group gets to choose exactly, which weeks will be the most convenient for the involved musicians to play these jobs. Through our regional contacts and all our individual school contacts, LMS puts together the whole tour, complete with a time schedule, all relevant contact information for each school etc. - and usually also books the cars and hotels for the group. In other words, an entire tour is handed ‘on a plate’ to the musicians, which illustrates part of what we mean about quality in the whole concert process. However, because of the way this system is put together the schools only get a limited choice between maybe a handful of groups for each age group – whoever is touring in that area. That is why, it’s essential, that we can guarantee a very high musical quality of every involved group, we send out.

3. The producers' job

This is where we as concert producers come in. The producer in Denmark does not have anything to do with tour planning or handling any of the financial and contractual side of things, but works specifically with two main things: the concert itself and the making of an extensive individual study material that accompanies every single concert in Denmark. This school material is not only aimed towards music class, but a wide array of other subjects: English, history, Danish, art class etc – and is distributed to the school at least half a year in advance,  so it can become part of the teachers plan for the next school year.

The purpose of this study material is mainly two things: to pave the way for the childrens’ artistic experience at the concert by preparing them in different ways, and by taking most of the learning stuff out of the actual concert, in order to make sure that it in fact does become an artistic experience, and not just a form of music class posing as a concert…

The study material and its important role in mediating the concert experience would certainly be an interesting topic to discuss at a later producers’ meeting, but for now I’ll focus mainly on the producer’s role in preparing the concert itself.

4. Selection of the groups

All the groups, duos or soloists we send out playing concerts in the schools through LMS are selected from a great number of applications by a programme committee (app. 100-120 new acts apply every year / and app. 25% of the new productions are added to our regular programme). Our quality criteria and standards are high: Only the very best will do, since these groups will be playing for kids! We want the school children to have a unique and hopefully ground shaking and truly inspiring experience at these concerts. Therefore we must demand the musicians have the highest excellence in musical skills in their field, that the musicians really must want to play for kids, and that there is a genuine need for them and for us as an organisation to present this kind of music for the children.

A result of this selection process is that only on very rare occasions do we as producers instigate a concert program ourselves. We almost always work with a – more or less – readymade concert programme, thought out by the group or soloist themselves, before applying. This is good, because generally this would mean that the programme is born out of the musicians own artistic necessity. Ownership is an important aspect here. It is important that the musicians feel strongly about what they play, so that they can truly play from the heart.

5. The producer as mediator

Even so, there’s still quite a lot of work to be done yet, before the musicians are ready to meet the children.

Yesterday someone at the conference said: “It’s just a question of playing a lot of concerts, then the musicians will learn how to make a good concert – what works and what doesn’t”. That is very possibly true, but at LMS we feel that children should not be taken hostage to a group of musicians’ learning experience, so we try to be rather pro-active about it. And we do it by trying to remove some common obstacles and barriers between the musicians and their audience, to make it easy to be that audience.

So, one of the most important assignments you have is to act as a kind of mediator between the musicians’ concert idea and the children on the receiving end. To make sure that as much possible of the musicians’ original artistic statement/vision/product reaches as many of the children as possible.

And how do we do that? Well, we do a number of things.

6. We prepare the musicians

First we have an initial creative talk with the musicians. When the contract with LMS is signed, the producer contacts the group shortly after in order to plan the creative process ahead. We make sure the musicians realise what age group they are playing for out there, and the rather unusual concert setting they’ll encounter (playing in a gym, in the morning, to an audience ordered to be there + a number of other practical limitations and challenges). We inform them of what’s expected of them contact-wise from the schools etc. We discuss their artistic ideas for the concert itself, to get an impression of how far they are in the process – is this a ready-to-go concert or is it a work-in-progress? We also discuss possible teaching ideas for the study material (which we producers usually make, with varying degrees of practical input from the musicians).

7. Rehersals/trial concert/filming

Next step is to take part in one or two rehearsals - or in some cases several rehearsals - with the group. Here the group present their concert in a more or less finished state, whereupon we enter into a constructive dialogue (in words and action) with them, based on our experience from watching hundreds of concerts – and in my own case – performing even more myself. Often one of our tasks at this point is to explain to the musicians that they don’t have to suddenly start playing children’s music or make up funny little stories and/or wear red noses and colourful clothes, just because they are playing for kids. In fact, what we want is for them to play what they usually do, to do what they do best (note: most of our groups ordinarily play music for a grown up audience). Of course, you will probably have to adjust slightly in terms of communication and other minor program details, to help them meet the audience eye to eye, but as a general rule we want the children to hear the music grown-ups play, and we want a true artistic expression from the musicians, not something forced and half-hearted added-on music, put in “because it’s probably expected!”. We often film the rehearsal too. We always film one of the first school concerts in the beginning of the tour, and evaluate with the group immediately after. Together with the DVD of the school concert, the evaluation helps the group fine-tune their performance – an eternally ongoing process, as any serious performing artist knows.

In the rehearsal room the work is often very delicate. You must be very aware that you are invading their creative space, so you have to move with great respect and a lot of sensitivity here. Be very diplomatic, coach rather than tell, and be careful not to ‘cross the line’. It’s their artistic life and blood you’re messing with. On the other hand, you may end up in a situation, where you will have to be firm and direct, and maybe even cancel a tour, or at least make very specific demands to the group for the tour to happen. The fact is, that as a state funded organization we have very specific responsibilities and contractual obligations in regard to delivering high quality concert productions to the schools, and eventually to the children, so we have to make sure the productions are just that.

8. What do we want?

So what is our agenda? What do we want from the concerts and the musicians we send out in the schools? 

  • Artistic excellence
  • A kind of musical experience the children wouldn’t ordinarily get otherwise
  • Solid communicative skills on behalf of the musicians
  • The will and ability to move the children
  • To make a profound and extraordinary live meeting between the children and grown up musicians, performing the best of their art (“doing their thing”), to have the children see and hear it happen at close range in the same room, so close that they can reach out and touch.
  • To make it personal – to have the children really meet the musician and the person behind.

Well, quite a lot! Sensitivity to the creative process, the ability to tread carefully. A certain degree of psychological insight. A broad scoped – yet also specialized – musical knowledge (or at least you must be good at reading up on music genres and styles very fast!). An eye for theatrical or choreographical aspects certainly helps. And you probably need a lot of other skills as well…

My personal background includes a university major in music and economics, varied theatre experience over a 4 year period, a 25 year long professional career as a composer and a musician, making records, TV/Radio work and with app. 1.500 concerts under my belt. I’ve also been teaching music at the University of Aarhus since 1993, and so on and so forth. Actually, one of the great beauties of my job as a producer is that I seem to draw heavily on virtually all of my work experiences so far. If you’re working with some of the finest musicians in the country – and you often are – it can be an advantage to be able to document a certain track record, if you expect them to listen to you. 

However, you may be a mediator, but you don’t necessarily have to be able to do all the functions this involves yourself – you can always bring in outside people, when needed – which may very well be the case, especially if you have to get involved earlier in the creative process.

10. What is a good concert?

Now, unfortunately that particular check list doesn’t exist, because good concerts can be so many different things (which - on the bright side - is exactly what makes our work so varied and exciting!). Just yesterday we saw two very good concerts, built in completely different ways.

One was with THE GOTHENBURG COMBO, a young and internationally acclaimed classical guitar duo, presented in a kind of traditional concert layout: two chairs, two guitars, and two musicians playing. So what made it special? For one thing: their playing was sublime, very expressive and dynamic, as was the communication between them while playing. Very exciting for the audience to watch. Their talk between the numbers was engaged and personal, displaying their interest in sharing and communicating with their audience as well. The music was varied, showing many different aspects of their art and craft. No music stands (everything was played by heart), which made it easy for the audience to follow their fingers and guitars at work. Relaxed clothing, rather than the usual formal attire of classical musicians made them even more accessible to the young audience.

The other concert, with the vocal/percussion-group TETRA, was another type of traditional concert – the kind built around a story. In concerts like that the story often tends to steal the picture, so that suddenly what we’re hearing and seeing is not a school concert, but rather a children’s theatre play accompanied by music. But not in this case. The music was ever present, with dancing, rhythm and the songs telling most of the story. The music was a varied blend between different kinds of world music, chanting, singing, dancing, expressing emotions rather than etno-geography (thankfully, not just another ‘trip around the world’-concert!). The vocal sound was warm, and the mixture of styles and languages blended together quite effortlessly, as did the voices and the percussion instruments. Everybody on stage was involved in telling the story. No actors were involved, just the musicians.

11. Some key ideas to coaching sessions

Finally (and very tentatively): here are some key ideas that seem to pop-up in many of our coaching sessions around concerts. 

  • Put a lot of thought into what you say between numbers – it can be a powerful tool in opening the door to your music. Don’t be afraid to be personal, to show them who you are. As a general rule never say: “And the next song is…”.
  • Let everybody in the group say something; only after addressing the audience verbally is a musician 100% present in the audience’s minds and ears.
  • Always start and end your concert with music. It is, after all, the main object of being there, and it’s such a great way to spend those crucial first 20 seconds of full audience attention in the beginning of the concert!
  • If you feel you have to use a story (and it can work very well, despite my previous comments) – make sure that it serves the music; not the other way around. And tell it yourself, you the musician, don’t use actors. Keep focus on the music.
  • Decide to do a wordless, but still communicative concert – and see what happens…
  • Don’t use theatrical props, if you can help it. They are usually superfluous.
  • Don’t play children’s songs, just because you’re playing for children – they’d actually much rather hear what YOU really want to play…
  • In principle a children’s concert should be no different than a concert for grownups – except in the use of certain words, topics and irony when talking to them. So, what do the reference points and experiences of a child at 6 or a teenager look like? Understand your audience.
  • Show diversity, variation, pace changes, dynamics etc. as the concert unfolds – give them all you got!
  • Only involve the kids, if it feels right (they don’t have to do anything – it can be more subtle; e.g. involving them in the talk around the song). Only add clapping and singing etc. if it enhances the music or the overall experience of the concert. Make them feel that the end result got better, because they took part. If it’s only for the sake of keeping them interested or awake – don’t do it. Go work on improving your concert instead!
  • Surprise them. Surprise yourself.
  • Throw away your music stands – learn and play by heart. It gives you more direct access to your audience, it frees your performative genes, and it often improves your collective sound and expression as a group. And believe it or not: hardly any note based music is impossible to learn by heart. Just take your time.
  • Be very aware of the strong physical impact of your body language (it’s there with you on stage, if you realize it or not). So, learn to use your ‘second instrument’ as well as your primary one.
  • Know some medical facts about kids’ attention spans (the famous drop-out after 22 minutes)
  • Know how different age groups typically react.
  • Remember: There are no set rules; every new production is exactly that - new! - and should be treated as such. Which leads to:
  • Change your conventions every once in a while. Who said school concerts has to be in a certain way? Are you stuck in a set notion of how it should be? Which again leads to:
  • Every group and concert program is different – don’t make them the same
12. Conluding remarks

We are in the privileged position of helping to make the all important eye-to-eye artistic meeting between the musicians and the children better and easier – to facilitate a hopefully groundbreaking musical experience for the individual child by making often tiny adjustments that can make a big difference. We are there to help the musicians release their full potential, and to ensure the highest possible quality – in every sense of the word – when playing concerts for children.

Well, always remember to have a lot of fun doing just that!

Thank you!

This talk was presented at a Scandinavian producers' meeting in Gothenburg, 2011.

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