Set List Approaches

September 23rd, 2022
contra, music
Now that Kingfisher is starting to have a bunch of sets I've been thinking some about how to keep track of what we play, which gets into what kind of band we want to be. There's a bit of a continuum, from dance bands with a list of sets they play a specific way each time to ones that just put things together entirely on the fly. There are advantages to each:

  • If you have a specific way you play a set it can generally be very polished, in a way that can be great to dance to. You can put a lot of thought into the arrangement, move a large group of musicians through something complex while sounding very tight, make sharp dynamic changes, and combine a lot of ideas.

  • If you're making things up in the moment, responding to each other, the crowd, and the feeling in the hall, your music can have a lot more life to it. You don't get stuck playing sets you're sick of, and if you're playing several times in the same region the dancers get some variety.

There's no one answer here: what will work best depends a lot on the particular combination of musicians, how they work together, and what they want. Larger groups generally benefit more from pre-arrangement, though if you can allocate someone to lead the band you can still put on a great dance with a large band and no planning. I've enjoyed dancing to bands all over this spectrum.

Bands also often move between these categories over time. The Free Raisins started off going into each set with just some planned tunes and making things up as we went (see our first CD), but over time we would remember things we'd done before and call those things to each other. Patterns we especially liked became the way we would play those sets, and then the process of putting together our second CD gelled them further. As of the start of the pandemic, while we still would play around and improvise, if you heard a given set at two different dance weekends it would probably sound pretty similar, and to be honest we were getting a bit sick of having been playing most of our sets similarly for ~5y. As we get back into playing together (Ann Arbor's Tree Town Stomp next month!) I'm not sure what we'll do!

I wrote to a few different musicians to get their takes:

Ethan Hazzard-Watkins:

I've been thinking about tune lists as well, but more from the perspective of how to remember all the tunes I used to play but haven't had to bring to mind for the past few years. In my bands we have a pretty loose approach to set lists. Elixir last updated our tune list in 2016, and when we add new repertoire it often gets scrawled by hand on someone's printed copy. Because our arrangements each have such specific musical characteristics we have a pretty clear sense of what kinds of dances we prefer to pair with which tunes, and since we mostly work with Nils as caller that's a pretty well oiled machine for dance/tune pairing.

In the Figments we actively resist planning, arranging, or consistent repertoire, and we just play whatever tunes come to mind in the moment, so we don't have a set list. I imagine these approaches aren't too helpful for your purposes but perhaps represent a data point at one end of the spectrum of band organization. I'd be curious to hear what you hear from others and what you land on for yourselves!

Julie Vallimont:

You know, I've always thought of myself as pretty structured about these things, but I guess my approach is fairly fluid, or I do a lot of it in my head! In Buddy System I do most of the tune picking because that's not Noah's jam. I have a set list with all of our sets on it, and they are organized by type of tune (reel, jig, march, etc.). Within each type they are organized by genre, generally from genres I consider to be more "notey" to less "notey". Something like Irish, Quebec, New England, ending in old time and modern tunes. I haven't looked at it a while but I think it was something like that.

As we play, I don't check them off, I can generally remember what we have already done that weekend. I also have mostly stopped labeling sets in my mind as "A" or "B". While we do always keep a few sets in our back pocket that we know can be good energy for the end of the night, I try not to be limited by that. I don't "save" sets as much anymore, if a dance calls for one of our sets that seems like it would be a good fit, we use it then, even if it was one we might normally want to end the night with. That helps be in the moment and we have had some cool experiences and dance arcs happen that way. It helps me feel more like I'm able to give the caller what they want in that moment, rather than the band having its own agenda that drives the programming. Some of my favorite experiences have been when the band and caller collaborate and work off of each other to create an experience together. Another thing I like about not saving our favorite sets: why not have a few really high energy things earlier on in the night, why save them to the end? It brings the dance up to this amazing level and then everything we do after that feels great.

Now, if we get to the end of the dance weekend or evening and are only left with sets that aren't arranged or tried and true, we make it a challenge live to figure out how to put some new spin on them or just play the heck out of the tunes and we have been surprised what we could pull out of ourselves. Keeps things fresh and keeps us from always ending with the same sets or overplaying our more arranged sets. Of course once in a while it fizzles but it's worth it to me. I wouldn't do that at something like Flurry where there are a lot of people and sound is sometimes more challenging and you have a very short set that is generally planned in advance. I don't generally write down what we play at a dance weekend, even though I never like to repeat tunes during an event, I just remember them. But I will keep track of what we play at a big festival like Flurry or Falcon Ridge so that we aren't repeating too much from one year to the next.

I always look at the caller's card and ask them to tell me about key moments in the dance and what things they are looking for, including tempo, and then I scan the set list for a good fit. The sets are sorted by genre partly because that is kind of a shortcut for what kinds of tunes might go with certain kinds of dances. But really I just look down the list and visualize the dance in my head and pick something.

I have also been trying to stay flexible and once in a while change the way I think of a set. For example if we normally played a set with something really balance-y and driving, tried doing it with some thing more mellow or funky. It's fun to see the tunes in new ways and get out of our normal musical groove, and different dances can bring different things out of a tune and vice versa. Sometimes cool things have happened. Of course some of this works best for bands that are comfortable improvising together. Different bands work differently and thrive in different ways of working. I'm writing here from the perspective of my most recent band, Buddy System, where Noah and I play off each other well enough in the moment that we can go in any number of directions.

Relying only on a set list can be restrictive because most musicians know a lot of things that aren't on the list and we would forget to play them, and it can narrow your thinking a bit to rely on it too much, and make it easy to get into habits or ruts.

So I think my favorite approach in a night is do a variety of things. Have a couple tightly arranged sets that we have played many times that we know will be successful, although we still try to improvise within them and keep developing them. Try a couple totally new things that we've never done before, because there's nothing like that feeling of freshness and excitement where no one knows what's about to happen, and it's important to keep exploring as a band and developing new ideas and material and keep making sure we're listening to each other. And have some sets of familiar tunes but without a lot of prearrangement, or maybe familiar tunes in a new medley, that gives us enough to go on so that we have some sense of what's happening, and then we can play with the texture and musical development on the fly.

Jeffrey Spero:

Most musicians I play with have scaled back our setlists as we can't remember the tunes we used to play, even though we have setlists. But as far as organization goes, I tend to have setlists divided into the following categories:

  • Generic: tunes that seem to work for most any dance, especially barn-burner sets to close out a dance.
  • Smooth Reels: Perfect for non-percussive dances with heys, right-shoulder-round, or non-percussive driving dances (circles, stars, R+L thru...
  • Bouncy Reels: I notate WHERE the balances are in the tune as well (bouncy A, bouncy B, bouncy 4 beats in...)
  • Smooth Jigs: Same as smooth reels
  • Bouncy Jigs: Same as bouncy reels
  • Additional sets: This would include jig-to-reel sets, rags (I like rags for contra corner dances)
  • Waltzes
  • Other couple dances

While I tend to notate what key each tune is in, I don't have my setlists organized by key (unless I'm playing with a 5-string banjo player who needs to retune for each key).

As far as arrangements, unless we're playing a set we've recorded (where the arrangement is pretty much etched in long-term memory), we try to keep things spontaneous.

While our setlist is (not surprisingly) on the computer, we use printouts on the stage. And we tend to remember which sets we've done throughout the weekend. Pretty low-tech, but it's worked for us.

I hope this helps... I always find it interesting to see how different bands do this as well!

Kathleen Fownes:

What a great question. I don't know that Nova organizes our sets in the most helpful way, but I can certainly describe it! In our setlist, we organize sets into types of tunes: jigs, reels, jig to reels, and marches (or marchy-feeling tunes haha). We keep this list on a google doc, which we can all access via our phones or an ipad. On occasion, I will copy and paste the whole list into my Notes app on my phone, and just delete each one as we play it. I'm sure I've used the bold/unbold method as well. However, we tend to have almost exactly the number of sets needed for one dance weekend, so it's easy enough to just skim over and choose ones we haven't used yet.

In terms of what sets go well with types of dances (balances As or Bs, groovy vs bouncy vs smooth), or what instrumentation each has, we keep all that info in our heads. As a band we have very similar senses of what tunes go well with what dances, so we suggest things to each other and the caller on the fly. I think in my mind there are too many nuances to sort them in a static list based on the qualities the set has; for instance, two dances could have "balancy Bs", but depending on where the balances fall on the phrase could change what kind of tunes work best for them.

I know some callers use software to organize their dances and use different search criteria to find their next one; this question makes me think about how one could design something like that for bands!

Max Newman:

With the Stringrays, our music is a combination of familiar sets, unearthed tunes that Rodney and Sam used to play decades ago, and a deluge of new tunes, including new compositions. (Have you seen Rodney's awesome book?)

I write down all the sets we play in a book. Now several books, actually! I will make notes about anything I want to remember. This might include particular arrangement ideas, putting a big star next to a great new set, and noting dances that worked particularly well or poorly. I always write the caller, the date, the location. Often I include notes about the choreography.

I do have an organized setlist. By nature of our process, it goes out of date quickly, so usually I just look in the book. Every year or so, I'll update the setlist with new stuff that has solidified.

Mostly I keep arrangement in my head, which is easier to do with material that has been done a lot of course. But it is helpful having some notes to refer to. I also like the trip down memory lane that my books provide. I'll make other little notes in them. It's a friendly place.

With Nor'easter, we had a much more set in stone setlist. That was a smaller repertoire of more highly arranged music. A setlist is a valuable tool in that context.

I'm always keeping an eye on variety of all kinds -- as much as is appropriate for the band sound and context. Genre, feel, number of tunes in a set, instruments used (e.g. avoid Pokey doing hand drums twice in a row).

Knowing as much about the music I can draw from is helpful in that regard, including when the answer is, "Hey, let's try something not on any of the lists!" And often I'll use the book to sketch out a set in advance.

I do think writing down the sets one plays in a weekend or while on tour is good. I don't like repeating the same sets for the same or similar crowds. It is strangely easy to lose track, especially if one is playing many events in a row. Having a book to reference means I can even think about playing some fresh material for a crowd we haven't seen in months or a year.

(This reminds me of the attention to detail the incredible Adina Gordon has, noting on her dance cards the when/where of her calling those dances.)

Ben Schreiber:

As far as organization goes, I keep my set lists in Google Docs. Sets are listed by: reels sets, jig sets, jig/reel sets, waltzes, and individual tunes. Individual tunes include alternatives in case we want to swap a tune in a set, or could also be one-tune sets, or could be newer tunes that haven't found a home yet.

With Uncle Farmer, most of our sets are rehearsed (some more than others). We like to add new sets when we can, but don't really modify the older sets. Some of our sets have very specific arrangements that we've worked out and will not change. There are a few reasons why this works well for this particular band. One reason is that I, unlike many other fiddlers, am not able to speak very easily while I'm playing. So while we can do a lot of spontaneous things, I'm not always able to communicate certain ideas I have on the fly. This is more apparent in Uncle Farmer since it is a two-person group, and both of us tend to be playing all of the time. So it makes my life a lot easier having a selection of pre-arranged sets to choose from. Another reason for having pre-arranged sets is the fact that certain tunes just work a lot better for us than others, partly due to our instrumentation (fiddle and guitar) but probably mostly due to our musical habits when working together. Throwing sets together on the fly is possible and it happens, but there is definitely a lot of thought that goes into the keys we choose, as well as the types of tunes we choose. Without digging too deep into it, our tune selection trends towards tunes with less notes, longer phrases, and non-specific chord progressions, with the overall goal of allowing each of us to play outside of the lines without clashing.

With the Dam Beavers, we tend to play a little more spontaneously. As a piano/percussion/fiddle trio, we can do a lot creatively while staying mostly in our own lanes. Also, having a more robust rhythm section means that I can pull back a lot, allowing me to drop out entirely at times if I need to communicate something. Since we are more on the spontaneous side, our sets tend to be less rehearsed. Our sets are also smaller (mostly 2-tune sets) because our instrumentation lends itself to more varieties and textural changes, allowing us to spend more time exploring a single tune before it starts to get old. Although we tend to throw a lot together on the fly, we do also have a handful of pre-arranged, rehearsed sets. I like to think of us mostly has a tight-knit jam band, but the polished sets add another dimension, and are especially useful for certain dance pairings. We also tend to end a half or an evening with one of our more polished sets.

Adam Broome:
Our approach has always favoured spontaneity, based largely on reading the dance cards and getting a sense of the mood of the dance; where the balances occur; if it is smooth or more emphasized rhythmically etc. Internalizing the material helps to make the matches accessible and successful. It helps to have set list that can be categorized by mood and flavour, but the more you play the material the more this becomes less necessary. You just 'hear' an appropriate tune as you scan the card for information.

We also try to get a sense from dialogue with the caller what they are looking for—usually catching an adjective or two.

It is great to have loads of material to choose from but we found it works fine to repeat a set or single tune at a dance weekend. For instance, we might repeat a favourite tune that we played on the Friday night again on Sunday afternoon; played for a completely different dance injects enough variety. Having favourite tunes gives a band a certain recognized sound. For the dancer/listener it creates a signature sound associated with the band.

Having 'B' tunes that are not completely in the pocket I think of as energizers as they push the opportunity to experiment and extemporize, which can be refreshing as a player. By departing from a comfort zone ideas get stimulated and interchange happens on the fly. We always have a few of these tunes, and the dancers seem to pick up on the kinetic energy that is being generated by the band's musical exploration.

So, reading the cards helps to decide the flow of an evening dance schedule as far as tune choices go. A good caller will have a program worked out, so the tunes simply follow and enhance that initial concept. Playing sets you love to play brings energy and stimulates. Using one or two tune sets gives an opportunity to build a mood and means that less tune material is needed overall. Being spontaneous and intuitive about dance tune choices and not getting too hung up on choosing from a list. Seeing a dance program ahead of time can help you prepare your tune selection. Keeping track of what you have played is as simple as keeping notes. Jaige used to do this, she would write every tune down in a note book after each set. It was always a good reference after the fact and helped to avoid a lot of repeats. Generally this would never happen as we would remember what we had already played.

Thanks to everyone for writing up responses and letting me include them in this post!

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