What makes a good programme note? Here’s a handy guide to help you get started.
The purpose of a programme note is to give your audience a little background information on what you’re playing and who wrote it. It doesn’t have to be super dull though. Your job is to make it interesting.
How you go about writing a programme note also depends on how many words you’ve got to work with - and sometimes it can be tougher to stick to 100 words than 1000. The more restrictive a word count, the harder you’ll have to work in cutting down what you include. The most basic programme note needs to include something about the piece you’re playing and the (probably) dude who wrote it. Really good programme notes point out the cool, interesting stuff about your piece – like the story behind its creation. The best programme notes demonstrate that you’ve put some thought into what you’re writing, and include a bit of yourself.
First and foremost: programme notes don’t need references. While some of you may see that as a license to copy/paste, don’t go yoinking from Wikipedia just yet; that’s a massive cop-out. You’re better than that. Also a quick google will immediately show what you’ve done - think of the shame people. The SHAME.
The first thing you should do is sit down and listen to a recording of your piece - here’s an excuse to find your favourite version, kick back and enjoy. While you’re listening, write down any parts that are noteworthy – for example, the quirky instrumentation, the beautiful melody line, the interesting harmony, or just a section you love in particular, and why.
Next up, find a bio of your composer. Grove Online should be your first stop to get the complete picture, but there are some other handy places you should look too. The Classic FM website (http://classicfm.com/) has some convenient composer summaries, and yes, you are allowed to look at Wikipedia - just don’t copy it! Resist the urge! These simpler summaries are written in a more informal conversational style to Grove, which I personally find makes it easier to understand the situation behind your composer and the piece, and therefore writing your own summary that much better. A quick google should leave you with at least three or four good bio’s: your job is to summarise them in your own words. Once again, here's where your word limit becomes an issue - sometimes your summary can be a paragraph, other times you'll need to cut it down to one or two sentences max.
If the piece you’re playing is somewhat famous, sweet! You should also be able to find a bunch of info about it online, similar to the composer bio’s. You’d be surprised at how many pieces of music have a hilarious story behind their conception: for example, I recently wrote a short programme note for Debussy’s Rapsodie pour orchestre et saxophone. Apparently, Debussy was commissioned to write it, took the money, and then just...forgot about it? For several years? Who does that?! Debussy, apparently. That kind of anecdote is fantastic for a programme note. If the piece isn't famous, or maybe brand new, and you can't find a lot written about it, here's where your own experience of the piece can play a bigger role. If you can contact the actual composer and ask them about it, great, but that's obviously not always possible.
If you’ve followed along this far, your note should include a nice bio of your composer, a cool summary of the piece - what it is, how it was written if that’s at all noteworthy, maybe something about its structure - but the end of your note is a chance for you to put your own stamp on it. The stuff you wrote down when you listened to your piece? Bring that out here. Make this part a kind of “listening guide” for the audience; give them aural landmarks to listen out for. Is there a particularly violent climax in the third movement? Did the composer rip off a famous children’s tune? Is there a sudden surprise inclusion of the kazoo? Let us know! That way, when the audience is reading your note before hearing you play, they’ve got even more reasons to keep listening to you when you’re onstage.
Of course, this is just written from my own experience. If any of you have any questions about writing programme notes, or any suggestions for ideas I haven’t covered here or your methods if they differ, feel free to leave a comment, or even get in contact with us here at Rehearsal by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org! We're happy to help.