Battles and Butterflies
It’s that time of year again. Graduations galore, vacation plans, award ceremonies, and oh yea, let’s throw in a recital as well. The kid’s brains are already sticky melted puddles like their colorful popsicles on the sidewalk, but now the biggest musical achievement of the year depends on them. Getting them to even sit on the piano bench seems like it is nothing but negotiations and tears (from both of you). They’re busy in the back yard building pirate ships, kingdoms, friendships, gardens, and—let’s be real—Minecraft empires. How are they ever supposed to be expected to sit on a hard bench focusing on little black dots, attempting to learn advanced concepts every single day?
What if instead of halting the fun and activities, we channel it so that practicing is the fun, and lessons and “the big recital” are part of the activities? Piano recitals provide the much needed burst of motivation to work on those pieces and increase that practice time. Knowing that they are about to get up in front of their family, peers, and friends to show off what they can do, students suddenly ask for help, and start to play that piece again (and again, and again, and again….sorry moms). It is amazing how that tricky concept of note values suddenly make sense and comes back to the lesson perfected when a recital approaches. The internal motivation of wanting to succeed in music is far more valuable then me reciting, “a half note gets two beats”, and “please hold out that half note. Here’s a red pen to write in the beats again. Let’s mark it green. Think ‘Hip-po’ to feel those beats. Clap after me. Let’s draw half notes. Go ahead and sing the words in rhythm while I play it”, etc. Months and months can go by, but until the student wants to get the rhythm correct, and spends the energy to understand how to play their piece correctly, my job is simply a frustrating thirty minutes attempting to say the same thing in a million different ways with hopes that the student will get it. When the student knows they will have to perform soon, they focus their energy into understanding and accomplishing musical concepts. Once they have accomplished small tasks it becomes enjoyable and even fun. Suddenly, students are building empires and conquering unknown territories on the piano bench instead of the couch.
Even if students are motivated in practice time, the crippling emotions of performing in front of a large crowd can squelch all enjoyment of piano. When I was eight years old I had my first piano recital. I got to wear a pretty dress, play “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and then sit with my parents. The only emotion I remember feeling was that of boredom as I listened to mediocre musicians for hours. In high school I looked forward to sharing my music that I had worked on all year to present to them and encourage the little kids. When I was a senior in college about to give a half hour long recital of memorized music, I remember nervous breakdowns, sleepless nights, and tearful lessons. Now, I still have trembling hands and shortness of breath, but I look forward to sharing beautiful music with others. I have seen each of these emotions manifest themselves in students, and heard stories about adults recounting how much they hated piano recitals when they were younger. For my students I attempt to instill the passion and thrill for performing that I wish I have always had.
A few months before the recital, the student and I determine a piece(s) that they are so good at and really enjoy. That way we are both confident that no matter what happens they will have fun delivering a solid piece on stage. In the weeks leading up to the performance I have a count down in my studio and we rehearse all of the details so the student knows exactly what to expect. I give them cute invitations to hand out to friends and family so it can really be a community event celebrating the student and their efforts. At the recital I decorate the concert hall and have personalized gifts and endless sweets. I attempt to vary the performances so that duets, quartets, silly songs, and lengthy ballades maintain the interest of the audience. Recitals are 30-60 minutes long and each student is heartily congratulated. Recitals are also the time when awards are presented to students who achieved specific studio competition goals. After my first recital I had such a positive response from parents and students were begging for another one. Naturally, nerves still play a role in recitals, but with enough encouragement, preparation, and experience, they propel each student to perform their best.
As we enter in to recital season (only 16 days for mine), I hope that students will have popsicles in their hands and music in their head instead the other way around. Even though making practicing a priority is challenging (isn’t that what I’m supposed to be doing right now?), having occasion to perform and share the hard work can be so rewarding and motivating. Even though nervous energy makes our palms sweat and stomach lurch, experience in sharing beautiful music with others propels us forward in musical endeavors. During this busy season of trips and celebrations, may music be a joyful part of it all.