Preparing For A Recital
Updated: Nov 5, 2019
"Recital"; the word alone conjures up a feeling of dread and nervousness for every student of music. Months of preparation and repetition are judged by a few minutes of performance in front of a group of strangers. The performer is alone and exposed, isolated on stage away from the comfort of their parents and teacher; the next few minutes will have an impact on the performer for a lifetime.
While a positive recital experience can inspire a life long love of the arts and performing, a negative experience can traumatize an aspiring musician to the point that they quit their studies and join the legions of adults who regret stopping their music lessons at a young age. Preparing for a recital is one of the most important experiences for a young musician but as parents we often feel helpless; here are some steps that we can take to ensure our children and students have a positive recital experience.
While it is important for a young musician to challenge themselves, it is generally best to play it safe when performing. Often a student will be tempted to perform the newest piece that their teacher has given them in an attempt to prove to themselves (and their parents and teachers) that they are progressing; too often they are not comfortable enough with the new piece to perform it and end up rushing through it with more mistakes than they ever make at home.
Rather than encouraging a student to perform whatever piece they are currently practicing, encourage them to perform a piece that they like to play after they practice. Does your child like to play through "Lightly Row" triumphantly without effort after struggling through their tenth repetition of a Bach Minuet? Have them perform "Lightly Row" this time around and have them save that minuet for the next recital (there is always another recital).
If a student is performing a series of pieces then the order of those pieces is very important. An ambitious student may be tempted to start "with a bang" and open with one of their more technically challenging pieces; the problem with this is that if the student makes a mistake early on they will loose their confidence, making future mistakes more likely creating a "snowball effect" of mistakes. In general it is best to ease oneself into a performance rather than trying to make a dramatic entrance.
Instead of starting with a bang, begin with piece that has breaks in the melody or can be played with a decent amount of rubato (can be sped up or slowed down for musical effect). Being on stage can be a disorienting experience; having a little breathing room in the music can help the performer "center" themselves if they get lost in the music. Focus on slower pieces of music that emphasis melody; avoid "perpetual motion" pieces, "arpeggio etudes", or anything that sounds more like an exercise piece than a proper prelude.
Practicing, playing, and performing may seem synonymous to the outsider but for musicians they are very different concepts with different mindsets. "Playing" is the casual creation of music for the creator's enjoyment, "practicing" is the focusing on specific aspects of music to increase the music creator's vocabulary and technical capabilities; "performance" is the end result of months of playing and practice distilled into a few minutes to be judged by an audience. Performing music is like is far more demanding that playing or practicing; it takes it's own kind of preparation.
The best way to get a student ready for a recital is to hold "mock recitals" a few weeks before the performance. Find some space in your home where you can set up a chair and a music stand that will be your "stage" and set up a few other chairs across from where the performer will sit to be the "audience". Have the sheet music on the stand and the instrument next to the chair; have the student quietly walk to the chair, announce their name and the piece they will be performing, play through the piece without stopping for any mistakes, and then have them take a bow and exit. Repeat this several times a day. Do not let them stop or ask any questions in the middle of the mock recital; treat it exactly as if they are on stage in front of an audience.
This may seem a silly thing to do but it will help get the student into the mental state of performance where you only get one "take" a the piece of music. As a student gets more confident performing "mock recitals", challenge them by adding realistic distractions like coughing, yawning loudly, having your cell phone go off, or even telling them jokes while trying to finish the piece they are performing. Turn it into a game; if the student can finish the piece without stopping while being being bombarded by jokes and funny noises they win, if they start laughing and have to stop they lose. Children are far more receptive to "winning" or "losing" a silly game than they are to sitting in a chair playing through the same piece of music for the 100th time in front of their parents and this will help prepare them for real life distractions that occur at every performance.
While the weeks before a recital should be focused on practicing and preparing for the performance through mock recitals, the day before and the day of the recital should be relaxed and uneventful. Performance anxiety often creeps in the day before a recital and suddenly the student wants to practice everything they are performing to get it "perfect". The simple truth is that if you need to practice a piece of music the day before the recital than you are not ready to perform it and should swap it out for a piece that you are already comfortable with. Any attempts to "improve" a piece the day before will inevitably add to the stress of performer and will ultimately detract from the performance itself.
Instead of stressing out about the recital the day before, make sure the student has a relaxing day with a nutritious dinner and an early bedtime. If the student wants to play their instrument than let them but don't let them fall into the trap of trying to "cram for the exam" the night before. Play some music in the background at dinner but don't make them watch recording of virtuosos to "inspire" them; they would be better off having fun with their friends or even distracting themselves with video games. Make sure they go to bed on time, let them sleep in a little if time permits, and make sure they have a light breakfast to avoid having their blood sugar crash in the middle of their performance. An early performance time is ideal as it provides less time for a student to get anxious, if you need to have a later recital time than try to find some simple activities to keep the student occupied before the time of the recital.
No matter what happens before, during, or after a recital it is important for the student to receive unconditional praise and encouragement from their parents and teachers. Music, like sports, is an activity where the totality of a performer's months or years of preparation is judged by what happens in a matter of a few minutes. To complicate things, there are many factors outside the performer's control that can effect those few minutes of performance. Very few adults have their work judged in such a way so it is an experience foreign to many parents; praise your child after a recital and encourage them no matter what happens on stage.
The most talented, skilled, and prepared musician can always have a bad day just as the person who never practices can occasionally pull off a good performance; a student should never be made to feel bad about their performance because there are so many factors that can effect it that are out of their control. Just as a parent should not fall into the trap of criticizing their child's performance, the student should not fall into the trap of comparing their performances to the performances of other students. Recitals are not competitions and should never be treated as such. Encourage your child to compliment other students' performances and to take inspiration from them; they will make new friends and gain perspective which will make them better musicians in the long run.
If a student feels bad about their performance than speak with them about it; ask them if they feel that there was anything they could have done to better prepare themselves, remind them that there are factors outside of their control and remind them just like in video games and sports there will always be another chance for them to do it again.
Recitals are in important part of a proper musical education and a positive experience can inspire a student to continue their studies for years but a negative experience can have the opposite effect and discourage a student from music altogether. While there are a number of factors outside our control, being prepared well in advance will ensure the student can approach the recital with the confidence and a relaxed mind needed for a great performance.