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My Programming Process, by Michelle Merrill

Like many of you, I have a love-hate relationship with programming. On the one hand, it is incredibly exciting to think about all of the possibilities and combinations of pieces that you can tailor specifically to a particular concert (or series of concerts) which make up a season. On the other hand, there comes a sort of paralysis in programming when trying to make it “just right.” This is even more compounded when you have the limitations of orchestra size and budget. Ultimately though, programming is one of the most important jobs we as conductors undertake. To accomplish this job, we need a guiding light or a north star - something that we hold as the pinnacle of what we are trying to achieve with an ensemble, be it for one program or an entire season.

In looking at various orchestra's season brochures a few years back, I was immediately struck by a welcome paragraph from music director Alain Trudel of the Toledo Symphony:

A good program must have elements of familiarity - what you know and love. A great program, however, has music that stretches your mind, heart, and spirit. It takes you somewhere you do not expect and remains with you as you leave the performance. It is these lasting moments we strive to create for you with our programming.

What a statement! It captures exactly what we should be striving to do every time we put together a program - no matter who the audience. We don’t merely entertain, we enrich.

Don’t just be a 19th century cover band

Symphony orchestras are a bit like an art museum - but we aren't just a modern art museum, just like we aren't just an impressionistic, romantic, or renaissance art museum... We are an ART museum in it's inclusivity and entirety, and we want to feature as much great and influential art as possible.

We must also take into consideration what the audience wants and needs, but with the knowledge that if you only play what they want, you are potentially neglecting what they need. Of course, if you never play what they want, you won’t have an audience! It is the same with the orchestra - striking that balance of what they want to play and what they need to play. Especially if you are a music director, you must find pieces that are going to help make the group better as a whole: Mozart for clarity and style; John Adams for rhythm; Strauss waltzes for flexibility, etc.

Choosing repertoire

So what are some of the particulars when settling on a program? Here are some of my go-to guidelines:

  • Have at least one thing that is familiar, be it a composer or a soloist. It’s a bit like getting a toddler to eat at dinnertime - don’t just put all new food on the table and expect them to be happy about it. If it is a shorter work on the program, it doesn’t matter. It’s more about name recognition and satisfying a 'want.'

  • Think about the community you are serving: are they an anything Beethoven city? Go gaga for Tchaikovsky? Hate Mahler? Love modern music? Take this into consideration when programming. Of course if you are a guest conductor, it can be a good idea to see a list of what they have programmed over the last 4 - 5 seasons so you can get an overview of what has been done.

  • Don’t feel like you have to have a theme for the concert: Yes, themes can be nice, but I find them limiting some of the time. Instead, focus on finding pieces that flow well together and sound good following one another on a program - regardless of whether or not they fit a precise “theme.”

  • Program pieces you actually enjoy: There is a lot of music out there (both old and new) that for various reasons, I might not enjoy listening to. If I don’t enjoy it myself, how can I convince my players and my audience of its worth? If you are passionate about what you are performing, it will come out naturally and is much better than having to manufacture a connection to the piece.

Specific considerations when planning a full season

When I was the assistant conductor in Detroit, Leonard Slatkin told me about his method of curating a full season based on a number system. Basically, you assign a number to each concert from 0 - 2. A two, which is very rare, would be an all-Tchaikovsky program with Lang Lang playing the first piano concerto; a 0.5 (depending on your audience), might be a program of all new/modern works, but it is redeemed from a 0 by having a Rossini William Tell Overture to kick the concert off; a 1.5 would be a modern/new piece or overture, then an established soloist (Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing Gershwin or the like), and a Beethoven Symphony on the second half. As I mentioned before, you have to have either a well-known piece or a well known soloist as a draw. Even a concert like Stravinsky Symphony in 3 movements, Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2 without a well-known name, and Rachmaninoff Symphony Dances would only be a 0.5 because none of them are a huge draw. Now, it’s ok to do this concert, but ultimately, you want the entire season to average out to a 1 by having some really popular concerts interspersed with ones that you think will be great musically, but might not be as big of a draw marketing wise.

Parting thoughts

One of my favorite things to do is look at orchestra season announcement brochures - especially those organizations that are on the forefront of programming diverse and interesting concerts throughout the year. You may find new composers or pieces this way, or just see a particular program offering that you might not have thought would ever work (Once in Detroit, Leonard Slatkin did an all-Bach first half, and a jazz inspired second half, including a world premiere of a concerto by jazz pianist Michel Camilo. It was a huge hit). Also, use lists such as those provided by the Institute for Composer Diversity, Anna Edward's “Composers you should know “ 10 x 10 series at, or other resources to discover music you have never heard of before. It takes time to do this research, but it is time well spent when you discover fantastic gems to present to your audience.

Ultimately, strive to program concerts that feed the soul. Like a chef, make meals that are going to be fun to eat, with ingredients that your audience will already know and love. But don’t forget about making them nutritious as well, and interesting for those who are preparing them (the orchestra). Remember the rich traditions that brought us to this point - the bread and butter composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler - but do sprinkle in a multitude of spices every now and then to showcase what your orchestra can do.


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