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More Student Recitals

At both of the institutions where I teach guitar, performance majors are required to give the following recitals in order to receive their Bachelors degrees:
     one (half-length) junior recital and
     one (full-length) senior recital.

This requirement has always seemed to me more of a "recommended minimum" than an institutionally imposed limit. It looks to me more like the absence of performing, especially when, in fact, the students actually major in performance.

I have always recommended my students do more. Of course I'm not really allowed to require it--both the Conservatory's and the University's policies are published and public. But I've never had to twist a student's arm to get them to give a recital. That is their dream, and access to the realization of that dream early is usually met with enthusiasm, not resistance.

My students typically will give four full solo recitals during their four years of undergraduate study. Some give more. Some only manage three. But NONE play only one and a half. This prescription for having students playing more than the required number of concerts hinges on one primary consideration: the use of level-appropriate material.

No universal pedagogical given gets set aside more commonly in guitar circles than this one. If the music they are preparing to perform is truly at their level, then there is no reason not to expect students to play it on stage. Too often, students spend years flailing away at music that is too difficult, when musically satisfying, interesting repertoire exists that they could learn, master and perform relatively quickly instead. When permitted that path, their confidence soars, their technique improves, and as a bonus, they learn how to PERFORM.

Of course it is increasingly common that freshman guitar students enter college with lots of experience and fine instruction behind them. They have sometimes played concerts already, even concerti. But the scenario of the more-or-less-beginner-level freshman still persists.

In these cases, I feel it is critical to set them on a path that encourages both a sound, healthy technique and the basics of musical interpretation and style in the context of actual pieces. The pieces might be short and elementary. But they'd be actual pieces, requiring real musicianship. Students, even beginners, can, if the level of material is right, play with beautiful tone, recognizable dynamics, variety in articulation and discernible phrasing. 

The student's perception of the experience of giving a true full solo recital should be (mostly) intensely positive. Naturally, if inadequately prepared, or if the material is too difficult, things can easily go awry. 

So to ensure a positive experience, I am very careful. Students get ample opportunity to dry-run the pieces in our various forums for this purpose (Studio Class, Recital Class, student-run weekly mock recitals, etc.). The build-up to the recital has it's own very special dynamic- planning the order of the preparation of the pieces and their memorization. Working on pacing, order, stamina. Addressing bowing, stringing and tuning, dress. Timing the invitations and announcements. And so on.

But the most significant impact on them, when giving a public recital, as opposed to a private "hearing" or "jury," is that they practice more. It's as simple as that. They become authentically self-motivated, and in a very unique way. They suddenly turn inward and ask THEMSELVES if they've done all they could that day to improve the material and their control over it. They start to mentally move away from reliance on the teacher's assessments and start really listening to themselves. In short, they get better. 

Then, after the recital, they can look around and take note: none of their freshman classmates on other instruments played a full solo recital. But they did. It's a real, authentic accomplishment and their internal sense of self will begin to show recognition of it. Their confidence will grow. 

The other thing that is undeniable is that, after this major milestone, students are quite simply, and suddenly, at a new level. They will begin new music and play it at a noticeably higher level. They'll learn it faster. They'll intuitively understand better the language of classical music, having already brought a program to the stage.

Of course every teacher knows this already. My simple point is, why not harness this extraordinarily powerful growth-push more often? 

The obvious push-back: institutions have a limited amount of performance space and the calendar has a limited number of days. If everyone did it, well, it would simply not be possible. True, but there are work-arounds. (One is, everyone else does not do it). We are fortunate to have a fantastic secondary space at Oberlin that is not generally used for degree recitals (Fairchild Chapel). We can almost always secure this room. At U Akron, we also have a beautiful church space we use when the official hall is not available (at 1st Congregational). But we also take advantage of the universal phenomenon of the end-of-the-semester bottleneck: we schedule them at the beginning of the semester when few others are reserving the rooms. Either way, we find it is possible. Where there's a will...

So, try this: prep students for annual full-length solo recitals from the beginning. And see what happens.

U Akron Student Jonathan Smith plays for Manuel Barrueco

Spotlight on Alumni: Josinaldo Costa