Wednesday 29 June 2016

How to put on a house concert

(This is an excerpt from my broader article "Make Your Own House Culture":

Putting on cultural events in the home is actually super-easy. If you have a performance, presentation, or activity you'd like to share with others, you simply find a friend who's willing to host. If you're a person with a space, you just pick something to do together, or find an artist or other presenter, invite your friends over to participate, and there you have it: House Culture. You really don't need to know any more.

That said, here are some tips, based on my personal experience.

Please don't be intimidated by all the suggestions below! None are essential for a great gathering, and they won't all apply to your event anyway. And in case you've agreed to host me as a performer, please don't take these as requirements for a Michael Holt house concert! I am actually quite easy, can help you with all I need on the day of our event.

choosing a house

No home is too small. The smaller the room, the closer people will be brought to each other, and the more magical your event may become. You'd be surprised how many folks you can pack into a tiny living room, especially if you use the floor. And as I said earlier, a strong connection between a few people is often much more valuable than a weak connection between many. Some of my best gigs have been for groups of five or less.

More important than size is the feeling of the space, the comfort, the warmth. If you don't want to use your own space, ask your friends. You may know someone with a living room, kitchen, den, basement, or even bedroom that feels just right for what you want to do. Indoors is generally better than outdoors because it provides more focus.

If you're going to be performing, I do recommend doing it at someone else's house. It will make you, as a the featured guest, seem more special; the host's friends and neighbours will greatly augment the crowd; and without having to host, you can focus fully on your craft.


Almost any kind of art, performance, or shared activity can work well in the home, and chances are you already have an idea for what to do. Pairing more than one thing can make for a particularly fun and rich gathering. If you start with an activity that has clear structure, like a concert, game, meal, or guided exercise, that will help people get comfortable with each other. Then you can do something a bit more spontaneous, deep, or interactive, like a conversation on a touchy topic, a brainstorming session, or a creative collaboration.

Here are some examples of House Culture I've seen go beautifully:

- A sculptor showing her work, with slides, real pieces, and lots of Q&A.
- An improvisational cooking event, where we met at the local farmers' market, bought what looked good, came up with culinary ideas together, went home, cooked several dishes while sharing experience and techniques, and then sat down to eat.
- A sing-along, where people suggested songs in advance via email and brought enough copies of lyrics to go around.
- A Puppetry Jam, where two facilitators provided art supplies and guidance, a few guests made shadow puppets and came up with a little show together, and then more guests arrived to see the show.
- Sabbath and Passover ceremonies, with ritual reading, eating, candle lighting, drinking, praying, etc., and conversation about the ceremony during and after.
- A live Beatles party, where a skilled pop-up band played while lyrics and chords were projected on the wall and everyone sang along.
- A fundraiser for a group sponsoring a refugee family, with food, drinks, live music, and Q&A.
- The Piano Salon music and conversation series, where a musical performance was followed by a speaker starting a conversation on an interesting topic, followed by more music.
- A vegan potluck, followed by a documentary on animal rights, leading into a sharing of our diverging views on the topic.
- On open stage, where anyone could sign up to perform anything for 5-10 minutes.
- A 134th birthday party for Maurice Ravel, with French food, live performances of his music, and a documentary on his mental illness.
- A garden-building party, starting with a potluck meal, followed by everyone clearing ground, pounding stakes, laying landscaping fabric, and hauling soil, while live music played.
- A listening party, where we all listened to my friend's new album, and then talked about it.
- Thanksgiving meals where everyone says what they're grateful for. (Q: What was the turkey grateful for? A: Vegetarians.)

Follow your intuition: curating House Culture can be a creative, artistic activity in itself. I particularly enjoy combining disparate things in a single program. At the first House Culture Festival, one event had a classical accordionist, a conversation on naturopathic birth control, and an indie-pop band. Another had live electronic music followed by original theatre about the Antigonish movement. Delightfully unexpected parallels often emerge in such diverse programming. Divergent content draws different crowds, who then get to meet each other. And people get exposed to culture they wouldn't otherwise encounter, in an environment that's ideal for connecting with unfamiliar things.

On the other hand, house events are also a nice way to bring together similar things, and people with complimentary interests. For example, at the last festival, we invited representatives from several community projects in my neighbourhood to come talk about them, bookended by some heartfelt folk music.

If you want your event to have a performance or presentation, your artist or speaker doesn't have to be well-known and accomplished. In The Piano Salon we often programmed friends to just come and share about something that mattered to them, such as Anya who gave a lovely talk about her experience of growing up in the Ukraine. Most important is that they be inspired, passionate, and able to really engage with people. And if you program someone who lives nearby, and invite your neighbours, then you are building culture and community in your area.

Don't have a house concert for a birthday concert unless the artist was chosen by the birthday boy/girl, or a real favourite of theirs chosen as a surprise. Otherwise, there will be a clash of foci between the bday person and artist.

I highly recommend including some kind of conversation in your program. When a single, riveting conversation breaks out at a party that has been just a jumble of separate conversations, it is always great, and feels like a lucky happening. Yet such unity can be easily planned and created. Groups of people really want to come together and talk, they just need one person to give them permission and space for it. All you have to do is say, "OK everybody, let's have a conversation."

Particularly if something artistic or emotional has been shared, it is natural to want to talk about it afterwards. So if you have someone giving a presentation or performance, ask them in advance to leave ample room for Q&A.

Your conversation can have a pre-determined topic, or not. At the Piano Salon, we would sometimes just start talking, and an interesting topic always emerged. Conversation is an end in itself, because of the connection, fun, and new ideas that can come from it.

designing your event

Once you have your programming, you'll want to set other parameters about date, time, food, money, etc.

Make a game plan for the gathering, leaving realistic amounts of time for set-up, guest arrivals, and your planned activities. Leave time for folks to mingle before and after the main activity, and a break if it's going to be more than an hour long. Mingle time lets everyone relax, meet each other, and talk about stuff that comes up, and is just as important as the structured parts of the gathering.

If the event is going to happen during a meal time, decide whether or not you want to include food. Performers or presenters may be at your house a long while, and will be putting out a lot of energy, so at least their mealtime should be heeded. However, nothing says you're obligated to provide food or even snacks for your guests. House Culture is itself a very real kind of food. The togetherness and creativity that happen at these gatherings can easily make people forget about eating and drinking. 

On the other hand, sharing food is one of the most basic ways humans create trust and connectedness. So if you want to include a meal in your event, just remember to leave enough time for it. And don't overextend yourself with work or money. Cook only if it's a joy for you; otherwise, do a potluck, delegate cooking, or order in and take up a collection to cover your expenses.

House Culture works well on all evenings and days off. If your event's on a weeknight and you're including a meal, then invite guests for 6 or 6:30, and start the program at 7:30 or 8. Otherwise, invite them for 7:30 (or 8 on weekends) so they can feed themselves beforehand.

Consider carefully what you want to do about alcohol. Is it really going to serve your event, or might it actually detract? Alcohol loosens people up, but it can also make them hazy, selfish, or belligerent. A shared connection is more likely to splinter into separate conversations. The spirit of these events is a fine balance between intimacy and joviality, focus and spontaneity, depth and fun. Alcohol is not necessary to create this balance, and it can certainly disrupt it. I see House Culture as an alternative to consumption, escapism, and dependancies, generating social energy in a healthier, more creative way. That said, there are many ways to constrain alcohol use without eliminating it entirely. Find the balance that's right for you.

And what you want to do about kids? Kids can be a frustrating distraction, or a magical addition. They're easily engaged by all kinds of music, even if it's not specifically geared towards them. If you are going to take up heavy topics like personal or global crises, consider including kids rather than sheltering them – they have a valuable contribution to make. Just be mindful of how things are effecting them, and ideally, plan a separate space or activity in case they get too bored or unruly. 

At an all-ages house concert, a large group of kids seems to work best. If there's just a couple, you may find one of them drawing all the attention by cavorting in front of the performer. Yet if there's lots of kids, they tend to form a magnetic cluster that holds individual ones back from taking over the event.

Beautiful weather or your awesome patio may tempt you to meet outdoors. However, if you really want to create depth of connection, inside is the place to go, because there will be a lot fewer distractions. You can always go outdoors before, between, or after the focused parts of the event. One lovely combination is an outdoors meal followed by an indoors concert or conversation.

There's no rules about money. You can make the event free, pass the hat for voluntary contributions, announce a specific suggested donation, run a strict entrance fee, or even sell advance tickets online. My favourite is usually passing the hat and encouraging people to give what they can afford. This makes the event accessible to everyone and keeps out any corporate connotations, yet usually results in a good amount of money, because people recognize they're getting a rich cultural experience. Keep the proceeds for yourself, give them all to the performers or presenters, or agree in advance on a split.


You don't need a big crowd: seven people packed in close can make a wonderful, intimate gathering. On the other hand, the more, the merrier, and a larger group will raise more money, help people make new friends, and please any performers you may have. Start far enough in advance to attract the number you want. Email and social media are good; phone and face-to-face are often better. 

Informing someone just once doesn't mean they'll get the message, and if they say they're coming, don't count on it. At the last minute, many people get sick, can't find a sitter, get discouraged by the weather, etc. So invite about three times your target number. And ask key people to help spread the word. Ideally, the organizer, host, and any performers should all invite all their friends, through as many channels as possible. 

And encourage the host to invite their neighbours: you won't have to worry about noise complaints, and house concerts are a great way to meet them – something we should all be doing. Many neighbourhoods have a person who keeps track of residents' contact info (for the annual block party, etc.) or has started a Facebook group. Find out who that local hub person is, or be them yourself! Another idea is to simply put a flyer in each mailbox on your block.

Whether printed or electronic, make your invitations informal, yet clear about time, place, money, and how you hope folks will participate. This can be as simple as saying, "we'll share our ideas and experiences about gardening" or "after the performance, we'll pass the hat for voluntary donations to the artist." You may also want to specify whether kids are welcome.

I rarely request RSVP's for my own house events. Unless I'm including a nice dinner and really need to know how many to cook for, too many participants is a problem I'd like to have. There's always room to squeeze in a few more. On the other hand, RSVP's can help you know if too few are coming, and you need to shift into high gear with the promotion!

setting up

Perhaps the biggest lesson I've learned from House Culture is how much of a difference physical design makes at a gathering. The way you set up your space not only establishes the tone, but can have a strong influence on people's behaviour, helping them to relax, focus, come together, and participate. It's like a friendly, invisible hand that gently guides them without their realizing it, and without anyone telling them what to do.

Your main goal in setting up the space is to literally bring people together. Physical closeness maximizes the interactive synergy and warm-fuzzies that are the essence of House Culture. Some of my favourite house concerts have been for folks practically sitting on each other's laps, in rooms you'd never guess could fit so many. And I love looking around during an event to see people holding hands or even cuddling. 

Don't worry about people not wanting closeness. They do want it; they are just shy. If you make it easy for them to spread out, they will, without even thinking. However, if your physical set-up naturally brings them together, then even if a few are a little uncomfortable at first, they'll be grateful in the end. 

So choose a space that is no bigger than the crowd you expect – not necessarily the largest room in the house. Or section off a space in a larger room. And put out only as much seating as you think you'll need. Remove, or cover up, any extra seating that's not right where the activity will be happening, or people will spread out away from it. You can always add seating later if you get more folks than expected.  

Avoid multiple rows, and anything that feels like a classroom. The ideal shape for your seating is a single, tight circle or semi-circle. This allows everyone to feel equal and see each other, and maximizes the possibilities for interaction. Try not to have anyone standing, because those people will feel separate and end up uncomfortable as the event goes on. 

If you expect more people than you have seats, make room in the centre for people to sit on the floor, ideally with pillows and a nice fluffy carpet, or even a mattress. If there must be multiple rows, space them just far enough for good leg room. Put the taller seating in back, and the more comfortable in front, to draw people closer to the action.  

If you are going to have a performance or presentation, then angle all the seats to face inward so no one has to twist their necks. If the room is rectangular, don't put the performer against a short wall, or it will feel like a classroom. Centre her in one of the long sides, and curve the seating around her. If your room is square, put the performer at the corner or wall that seems the best focus of attention, without distracting windows or artwork on it. After the presentation, if you're going to have a conversation, move the seating to close the circle for maximum interaction.

Use the comfiest seating you have, even if it means carrying couches and armchairs in from other rooms. Pillows and blankets can be a great touch, to encourage coziness and even snuggling. Once you've set up, try each seat to check for legroom, sight lines, and comfort. 

If you're serving food or drinks, set them up outside of the circle, against an opposite wall, or in a different room. Remove distractions like a big colourful poster on the wall behind your performer, or a coffee table and flower vase in the centre of the room. Very few if any tables are actually needed for drinks. Use curtains, doors, and shades to block out sights and sounds from outdoors, and contain the event's focus in a womb-like den. If there's a rear window behind your performer, turn off any outside lights.

If you're having a show, set up a little table where your artists can display any merchandise they want to sell. When I'm performing, I like this to be conspicuous, yet not right up front with me, or else it all starts to feel like a commercial. 

If you're concerned about kids disrupting the proceedings, set up a separate room or activity for them, and someone to be with them if necessary.

Choose lighting that feels good, ideally from several sources, and that allows everyone to see each other's expressions, to maximize communication. Too much is better than too little, but avoid lights glaring in anyone's eyes. Warm lamps are nicer than harsh fluorescents; candles add a relaxing, festive note. 

Since a performer or presenter will automatically attract the main attention, you need to create a physical environment which gives some attention back to the rest of your group, so as to draw guests into participation. Therefore, don't give the presenter anything that places him above or apart from the rest, such as a stage, special lighting, or unnecessary amplification.  

Avoid microphones at all costs. I could write a whole piece on just this point. Mics destroy intimacy. Their absence, and the natural beauty of direct, mouth-to-ear connection is, for me, a quintessential advantage of House Culture over commercial venues. Mics are a visually distracting barrier between people; they discourage real engagement, either beating an audience into submissive silence, or actually making it feel comfortable talking over the presenters. Trust my years of experience on this: no matter how big an audience you expect, your event will go much better without microphones. 

Let your performers know this in advance. You may get push-back from more professional ones who are not used to singing un-amplified. Say something like this to reassure them: "We'd strongly prefer no microphones. You'll have a very engaged audience in a small space, and you will definitely be heard. Our main goal is to create intimacy, and we think mics will interfere with that. They may even make people feel ok talking over you."

Even if the singer has a very quiet voice, other instruments can simply be adjusted to it. For that reason, keyboard and guitar amps are actually fine – they can be turned down as low as necessary to match an un-amplified voice, and are not nearly as visually obtrusive as a mic in someone's face. The only good reasons I can see for mics are if 1) vocal loops and effects are an indispensable part of the show 2) there's a full drum kit in the band, with which singers can't compete, or 3) there will be a singer at a piano that can't be turned to face the audience. In any case, run a little sound-check to make sure the singer can be clearly heard, before the audience arrives.


Good event facilitation is a balance of yin flexibility – letting the gathering unfold as it wants to, and yang assertiveness – steering it as you feel is best. Once everything is set up and ready to go, don't worry about how many people come. It's out of your hands now. The people who show up are the right people, and as I said earlier, smaller groups sometimes have a very special chemistry. So relax, have fun with those who have come, go with the flow, and let House Culture work its magic. 

That said, you do want to keep things on schedule so none of your activities or presenters get short-changed. So don't be afraid to usher people along from one phase to the next, when the time is right. Stick to your game plan, unless you have the intuition to vary it based on emergent circumstances. 

If you get a smaller crowd then expected, remove any seats you won't be needing. This will automatically tighten the circle and is a lot easier than trying to convince people to sit close. 

Guests should get any food and drinks before or after, not during, the main proceedings, because the act of serving is a big distraction, and eating deserves its own time and focus. 

Five to ten minutes before you want to start, cheerfully call out, "OK everyone, come in the living room and gather 'round!" Turning off lights in all other parts of the house will help bring people in and deter them from straying away later. If you've made your announcement twice and people are still talking in the kitchen, just turn out the light and they'll come, barely noticing what you've done. If there's still more seating than guests, urge people right up to the front. 

Don't start the proceedings until everyone is seated and engaged, because you want to set a tone of participation from the very beginning. Here are some things you may want to say in your introduction:

- Thank everyone for coming. Suggest a round of applause for the host (if that's not you), without whom the event would be impossible.  
- Explain the general plan for the event (approximate set lengths, intermissions, etc.) so the participants know what to expect. This makes it easier for them to be present. 
- Invite everybody to relax and make themselves at home. One way to do this is to say where the bathroom is and that it's ok to go in the middle of the proceedings! 
- If you're planning to pass a hat after the proceedings, you may wish to say at the start where it can be found, in case someone needs to leave before the end.
- Remind people to turn off their phones, which will help everyone focus. Picture and video-taking is also a distraction, although having some record of the event may be useful, so just ask people to keep it to a minimum.
- If there is a performer or presenter, introduce them by explaining your personal connection to them and their work. 

Inviting folks to interact with the presenter during the event can make it much more fun and meaningful. Encourage them to ask questions, give responses, make requests. The best way to do this is by example: a few questions or jokes from you at the start will break the ice for everyone. If you can be spontaneous, real, vulnerable, and humorous yourself, everyone else will follow.

If you want a full-out conversation, the best way to get it going is also through your own example. Offer the comments and questions that honestly occur to you, then give the floor to others and let things go where they want to go. Try to include as many participants as possible in the conversation, and remember that a group exploring questions together is a much better model than individuals trying to convince each other of points.

An event facilitator or emcee is also a boundary-keeper. The informality of home events can make them seem like a free-for-all to some participants. If you like that, great. If it's not what you have in mind, then you may need to say things like, "Let's let this other person speak now," "I'm sorry, we don't have space for you to perform tonight," or "OK, I have to kick you all out soon so I can get some sleep!"

If there are children, suggest that parents set reasonable boundaries, yet not suppress their kids' every sound and move. As a performer, I usually find parents' nervous attempts at control to be much more distracting than their kids' natural responses. For audiences of any age, there is a profound difference between silent obedience and active engagement.

If you want to maximize donations, the best time to pass a hat is after your participants have enjoyed the experience, yet before they get up and start talking. The word "contributions" is better than "tips." Encourage people to give as much as they felt they received, on par with what a commercial event would cost. Luke Jackson, one of my favourite emcees, likes to say when passing the hat, "It's pay-what-you-should." You can also pass a mailing list around to collect names for future events, and point out any performers' merchandise that's for sale.

final thoughts

Thanks for reading! Please leave a comment below. To post or learn of house events in Toronto, visit To find potential hosts, or artists that like to do things in homes, visit To find House Culture in other areas, google the name of your town plus "house concert." To reach me, email, phone (416) 532-8912, or visit 2466 Dundas St. West, Loft 501, Toronto, ON, Canada, M6P 1W9. I'm also often at 3 Daisy Lane, Truro, MA, USA, 02666; (508) 349-2120. Come on over. We'll put the kettle on for you.

1 comment:

  1. This is really informative. Holy cow. Such a resource. I'm gonna do it...gulp.


Paypal or credit cards