I’m frustrated with students that have the ability and time to have their recital songs prepared by the performance date, but do not. I am considering “recital contracts.” If the students are not completely prepared two weeks before the recital date, they will not participate. How does this sound to you?
This is a tough situation. I definitely understand the frustration behind the contract idea, but I also know that if I had set up this criteria for my students our Christmas recital would have had about six participants. And I would not have been one of them. 🙂 Here are six points that have helped in our studio with recital preparation.
1. Cultivate a culture of excellence. From week to week in their lessons students should know that you expect excellence in their practicing and preparation of assignments. Pieces should be learned well. And when students get together for group events, the majority of them should play very well. When this is the case, those who are not as prepared as they should be will usually feel a sense of positive peer pressure to do better next time. Most students want to play well, and if they are the only one who doesn’t do well in a particular performance venue, it is usually extra motivating to them to work harder next time. I have seen this happen numerous times with my own students.
2. Emphasize character rather than achievement. This is a really important issue for me. I am much more concerned with whether a student is diligently working on getting a piece to performance level and is just struggling with some of the difficult spots than the actual quality of their performance. As teachers, we know each of our students’ strengths and weaknesses and a student who is really struggling with a particular concept may never have the piece quite “performance-ready.” For example, one of my students has an incredibly hard time with rhythm and continuity. His pieces are rarely played with a consistent, steady beat the whole way through, but he works really enthusiastically and does the best he can. I love letting him play and cheering on every step of progress! Another student started out with the worst hand position I’ve ever seen. Every time he put his fingers on the keys, they would all collapse to the side on top of his pinky. For him to keep his fingers controlled enough to play a simple melody with a somewhat erratic rhythm was a huge milestone!
3. Quality practice is what really pays off. I have a tendency to overshoot my students a bit when I’m selecting repertoire. This Christmas that was especially the case. I found such gorgeous arrangements that just perfectly suited certain students that I couldn’t help it! They all loved their selections, but it was a definite challenge for them to have them ready by the day of the recital, let alone a couple weeks in advance. However, I feel like the students and I learned a lot of effective practice strategies through the process as we dissected difficult spots and discussed strategies to learn them well. My mantra became, “quality practice is never wasted!” Stick with it to the very end and don’t ever give up on yourself.
4. Focus on the character and beauty of the music. No matter how simple or difficult the piece, it can be played beautifully. The chances of hitting every note correctly and with perfectly timed rhythm, dynamic level, and articulation are pretty slim. So I spend a lot more time working with my students to be able to improvise and keep going, creating a beautiful and musical sound than emphasizing perfection. Our focus this year has been on playing everything beautifully, excellently, and naturally, and I am so excited about the progress my students are making as musicians as a result.
5. Keep your students’ best interests at heart. It’s so easy as a teacher to feel like your reputation is on the line if a student plays poorly. But we have to get over ourselves and sincerely care more about our students. We should want them to play well for their own sake and because it is glorifying to God when they practice diligently and play well. For this reason, I would probably avoid an across-the-board approach to recital preparation and deal with each student on an individual basis. Will it be more beneficial to their progress as a pianist and what they should learn on a personal level for them to experience a failed performance, for them to sign a contract agreeing to be prepared by a certain date, or to have them sit out and just observe a recital? If your motive is love and concern for the student, you should be able to communicate any decision to the parent and student with confidence and persuasiveness.
6. Have a rehearsal. For our big event of the year – the Christmas recital – I always hold a rehearsal the week prior. We say that it’s to give us a feel for the piano and the environment, but we all know it’s really to scare us into practicing our fingers off for the next week! Nothing can highlight spots that still need work quite like a nerve-wracking performance experience when you’re not quite ready. It’s ideal if the students are good to go with their pieces by the rehearsal, but the reality is every one of them still has some finishing touches they can put on the piece in the final week. It’s not like they’re playing for a competition; this is just a special opportunity to share what they’ve been working on with others and bless them during the Christmas season.
These are a few of my thoughts regarding recital preparedness. I would love to hear from others, though. What do you do if students aren’t ready for a recital? Do you let them play anyway? Do any of you use recital contracts with your students.
Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!