How Can I Liven Up My Student’s Recitals?

By Mayron Cole
(This article appeared in the Autumn 1994 edition of KEYBOARD COMPANION.)

If you were to survey adults who took piano lessons as children, you would find that many of them share an unpleasant memory of their early musical experience--the recital! They might quickly add that this annual tortuous event caused them to quit piano lessons and develop a lifelong fear of performing in public. And to think that all of this was planned and carried out by well-intentioned piano teachers who only wanted their students to have the chance to play before an appreciative audience!

What went wrong? Before a serious problem can be corrected, it must be understood, and since "recital trauma" affects students, the recital should be seen through a student's eyes.

One facet of the problem is that the traditional, formal recital is an unreal situation. A hushed audience fidgets and stares intently at a lone little girl seated at a piano. She is attempting to play, from memory, a composition that is usually above her musical ability.

This child is keenly aware that her parents, siblings, grandparents, friends, and neighbors are in the audience, and probably feels that the family honor is at stake. She is terrified of letting them down. At the first wrong note, this young performer is engulfed with anxiety! Palms sweating, heart pounding, she numbly tries her best to continue to the end of the piece without fainting or crying. This is indeed a stress-filled situation. No wonder it is imprinted upon her memory for the rest of her life!

Yet piano teachers feel that there is a definite need for pianists to learn to perform. What can we do? We can update the traditional recital and give our younger students a chance to perform that will leave them happy, confident, and with good memories about their childhood musical experiences. We can put some fun into recitals. Here are a few great tried-and-true recital ideas for younger students:

A Library/Costume Recital
An electronic keyboard is necessary for this short, informal recital, since few libraries have pianos. An inexpensive amplifier (easily rented) can bolster the keyboard's sound system. Allow young students to select a piece of music from their piano books that they really enjoy. Let them use their music, because this recital is stress-free-remember? Next, help the students think of low-budget costumes to wear for their performances. For example, a western outfit would be perfect for a piece called Galloping Horses. Then after the student plays, the librarian holds up one or two books about cowboys available at the library.

You'll need to coordinate your program with the librarian in advance. This recital is great for Saturday mornings. And don't wait until May for this one--you can put on a recital any time of the year!

A Grocery Store Recital
This recital was performed very successfully at an Oklahoma grocery store one Saturday at the noon hour. The teacher provided electronic keyboards plus a digital sequencer with orchestral accompaniments. The program was written on poster boards and displayed on an easel. Since the crowd in the store changed every few minutes, each child rotated through the recital program four or five times during the hour. (Not all of your students need to perform on every recital!) This type of recital can easily be performed in a bank lobby or in a shopping mall.

A McDonald's Hamburger Recital
This fun recital was performed at a large McDonald's restaurant in Illinois. At all of these recitals we're discussing here, the students used their music to banish stress! The numbers played on this program were also displayed on a large easel beside the keyboard. After each child performed, the manager provided a free hamburger, drink, and fries. The restaurant was packed!

A Favorite Animal Recital
Many piano methods have pieces about animals. Help children find one or two compositions that carry out the animal theme. Students can bring their own stuffed animals to decorate the studio on the day of the recital. The Indiana teacher who reported this creative recital also served animal-shaped cookies as refreshments.

A Take-your-Keyboard-to-the-Park Recital
This great recital is the invention of a Minnesota teacher. It's fun because the recital is very casual! If you have battery-powered keyboards, put them on picnic tables at your favorite park. Young students can perform, in ensemble, many selections from their method books. You may play along with them using a more powerful keyboard. If they like, each student may elect to play a solo. Have drinks and sandwiches ready!

A Fourth of July Parade Recital
This parade recital has been successfully performed in Illinois, Minnesota, and Texas. You need a flatbed truck or a small, flat trailer, plus a generator to power the keyboards (you'll also need a small amplifier.) If you have a sequencer, you can program orchestral accompaniments to add flair! The night before the parade, students decorate the float. The next day, they proudly ride on their float and play their keyboards in ensemble while spectators cheer. This is a great crowd pleaser!

A Take-The-Show-On-The-Road Recital
One recent summer, an energetic Louisiana teacher taught my Jack and the Beanstalk operetta to her students. Students learned to play the music, sing, dance, and dramatize the story's dialogue. Then the teacher booker her performing students into eleven public libraries in her area of Louisiana. This same recital concept can work at hospitals, nursing homes, children's day care centers, and children's medical centers.

The Ultimate Recital
A piano teacher from a small town in Minnesota masterminded the ultimate recital. Her students played their keyboards, sang, and danced their way through a show at Disney World® in Orlando, Florida! How? This teacher contacted officials at Disney World a year before the event, and after many audition tapes and extra weekend practice sessions, her students were accepted! Citywide financial support through fund-raising activities enabled this teacher to charter a plane to Florida for her young "troopers." The teacher reports that during the Disney World experience, the friendships that developed among her students and the wonderful feelings of accomplishment made all the hard work on the "ultimate recital" worthwhile!

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