Suggestions for Happy and Successful Recitals

A recital is usually a stressful time for students, especially a first recital. Not only are students worried about playing their piece(s) well, but they may be playing on an unfamiliar instrument (if you have rented a hall) and certainly the size of the audience will give most of them pause.

Parents, of course, are worried that their children will not do well and later will feel terrible about playing in public and perhaps even rebel against piano study.

Also of note, even though people don't talk about it, is that parents feel that they are validated, according to their children's success.

And of course, the teacher has her professional credentials on the line if students do not play well.

Actually, given all the opportunities for difficulties, it's surprising that we even hold recitals!

Here are some general tips for recitals, gleaned from a loooong time in this calling of teaching others to play the piano.


Call it a piano party, not a recital. Emphasize the fun of playing for one another and the food and good conversation afterwards!

Remind the student he is sharing his talent with others. He is giving a gift. This is something uniquely his that cannot be duplicated by another person on this earth.

Don't mix adults and children on the same recital. This is unnerving and humiliating for adults, who already might be skittery about playing in public.

Similarly, give teens their own recital if you can possibly do so (grades 6 and up, unless grade 6 in your area is taught in the elementary school rather than the middle school/junior high). Teens are very "cool" and don't relish associating with "little kids." This is especially important if some of your elementary school pupils are decidedly superior players to any of your teens (who undoubtedly started late; and the child started very young). Your teens will be thoroughly mortified and probably will refuse to participate in any further recitals if their skills are shown to be noticeably below a younger child's; the teens might even feel so awful that they quit piano study. So, if nothing else, a "mixed" recital is a poor business decision.

Another plus for having recitals divided by age is that it makes the programs shorter. Better to leave the audience wanting more than dying for the recital to end! Forty-five minutes to one hour is maximum for everyone, adults included. At this point, even the adults will become restive. Let's not even talk about the little ones!

Well, no, let's do talk about them. They're a fact of studio life!

Any child who is not participating in the recital and is under the age of 10 (ok, maybe age 8) should -not- attend. Arrangements should be made for a sitter at home or for the youngster to go to a friend's house. We really can't expect a child to sit quietly for a long time (which for him seems interminable) while something is going on that he doesn't understand very well and, therefore, in which he has little interest.

If you fear that a family might bring a young one - - perhaps this child is brought to lessons on a fairly regular basis and sits in the other room with a parent during the lesson - - speak directly to the parents. Don't rely on your "recital memo" to get the message across; I assure you they will think you are speaking to "some other family." The trick is to sell them on the idea because it will benefit them. Not: "Your kid is going to be a disruption to everyone. Leave him at home." But: "It will help Hannah have a much better recital if you'll make arrangements for Richie to stay at home with a sitter or visit at a friend's house. Will this be a problem?"

Write a recital handout that covers everything you feel is important, including bowing and applause, what to do if there's a memory lapse, etc. Make sure you reiterate the need for babysitting for young ones; point this section out to families to whom it applies. As noted, don't rely on their reading it and taking action!

Find out which families are affected by baseball/soccer/swim/etc. schedules. Perhaps the entire family will be unable to attend; one parent might come with the student and the other parent might do the sports or other obligations. If your student is the athlete, do what you can so the student need not choose one activity over the other. Your student does not need more stress (missing an important game, letting down her teammates, or having the coach angry at her), nor does she need to be forced to a choice she should not have to make. Your recitalist may have to change into her uniform in your bathroom and leave before refreshments. Encourage the family to stay as late as possible, however, as movement in the recital room is distracting to others, and their exit states quite eloquently that they do not think this recital merits their full attention. The family will usually sit at the back of the hall if they need to leave early. If at all possible, schedule the student in the spot appropriate for her if she is fairly skilled, rather than at the beginning of the program just so she can leave early. (The soccer coach is just going to have to deal with the fact that one of his players will be delayed. Soccer isn't the only thing in this child's life! Go the extra mile, but draw reasonable a line and stand firmly. Music is just as important as sports, although I must admit I never met a coach who agreed.)

Selection of the Recital Piece

The deciding factor for whether the recital will be a success for your student is the piece that is selected.

Select a recital piece that which has been in the repertory for quite a while and with which the student is very comfortable. This should not be most difficult piece the student can play or the last one studied. It also should be one the student likes so he is willing to polish it.

For students who have begun study shortly before the recital, have learning difficulties, or are otherwise obviously playing a much easier piece than other students' pieces on the program, do a duet. This helps "flesh out" the beginner piece and lets the student enjoy the total musical effect. His lack of mastery, compared to the others, will be camouflaged, and he'll feel wonderful about sounding so accomplished.

Another option is to program one of the student's own compositions, perhaps along with a piece that represents his current level. Generally, students dream up more difficult music than they are currently reading, so the piece will sound "more advanced." Program the student's creation second. Put the child's full, formal name ("Joseph Hill McAdams") in the program as the composer, even if you put "Joey McAdams" as the performer. I like to add the year of composition or Opus 1 (or whatever). The kids get a big honk out of this, and it makes a touching keepsake for the family.

Don't forget about duets. If it's you and a student, that's fine. A student and a member of his family is even better. A student and a friend? Two students?

Ensembles are terrific, too.

Don't hesitate to add other solo instruments. We've enjoyed some fine performances by siblings of some of my students.

I also always recognize my students who study multiple instruments (or voice) and encourage them to play their second instrument on each recital. It's great to see how they've progressed, and they know that this instrument is valued, too. Interestingly enough, parents of other students notice the sibling's (or the student's) progress on the instrument - - and usually pay compliments.

I am blessed to have a fine instrumentarium at my disposal (early keyboards, recorders, viols, and percussion), so I often join my student for performances of early works. When we can, we enlist the parents, as well. A jolly time is had by all, and it's a wonderful experience for my students and the audience to see and hear other instruments up close.

Since I hold my recitals at my church, with the playing in the sanctuary, I also have access to the organ. Ode to Joy and Bach inventions are no-brainers. The parents are the thrilled, and the kids are jazzed. It's not called the King of Instruments for nothing! Shake that plaster!

Don't wait until the month before the recital to select the song. At least three months out is better, although you can encourage the student throughout the year to identify any piece that she might wish to play on the recital.

The recital piece should be a type of music for which tthe student has an affinity. For example, 7-year-old boys are not great fans of Dvorak's Largo. In fact, most kids don't like slow pieces much at all, which is why I don't use a lot of them in my teaching repertoire, and when I do, I translate the tempo indication as "as slow as you can stand." This gets the point across.

The piece should not be too difficult to be handled well in a stressful situation. If a student indicates she wants to play something that you know is not likely to be successful in a recital, suggest something else instead. If she persists in wanting to play the piece, gently inform her, "I don't think that would be a good choice for this program. How about the [date] recital?" If she asks why, you'll have to state that you don't think it's solid enough now to be ready. She may not ask. She already may know, down deep, that this piece isn't ready but be hopeful that you will find her something magical that will lift the piece to recital readiness in only a little while - - or that it's really better than she judges her preparation to be. Even though the student will be disappointed, it's better to have a small disappointment now than a recital disaster than can influence the entire course of the student's piano study.

Another solution is a strategically-foreshortened piece. Example: the rondo theme only of Für Elise if that section is rock-solid, but the B and C sections are still too insecure for public performance.

Program Order

Arrange the order of the program carefully, as noted.

It is never a good idea to put a beginner next to a highly-accomplished student, or even a moderately-skilled student, no matter what the beginner's age.

The basic programming guideline is the least advanced student begins the program and most advanced one ends it. This is one reason I don't group recitalists by the historic period of their music or some other ordering.

If you have a number of very early beginners who will be playing songs at the same level, arrange them by age, with the youngest one first.

Playing by Memory

Memory playing should be optional .

I can't stress this too strongly. If you do only one thing I tell you about in this article, this is the one to do. I promise you it will pay everyone (including you) huge dividends.

Even if the student has the piece by memory, having music on the music desk during the recital may be enough to ensure a great performance. It's there if needed.


More info via the link, above.

Prepping Students to Play

Allow lots of time for preparation. Better to have too much time than too little!

Expect catastrophes and plan for them. Murphy's Law is going to be in full bloom, so do what you can in advance to stave off calamity. Disconcerted students play poorly. Students who are embarrassed by their playing want to stop lessons or are so uncooperative at home that [most] parents cave in.

At least two weeks before the program, instruct your students NOT to stop if they make an error at home during practice. Keep playing until the end, "no matter what." In the recital, they will not have the chance to take a second shot at it. Emphasize that making an error at home is actually a good thing, as it gives them experience in working themselves out of a jam, which is what they'll have to do at the real recital. It also indicates a place that needs attention. A place they might not have realized was weak because at home they went back for a second shot at it.

Unexpected noises (babies crying, people whispering) and movements (a child leaving for the bathroom or squirming in his seat) are unnerving for inexperienced performers. Teach your students to deal with them.

Simulate performance by recording it. So is playing for friends and family members. The dog doesn't count. These folks must come in and be a proper audience. The student comes in a bows, etc., and then plays, bows, and leaves the "stage."

Encourage the student to locate other pianos to practice on, unless the recital is at your studio.

Identify several interior starting points ("Save Your Bacon") to which the student can jump in case of a problem. Select these places together. Encourage the student not to go back to the starting point before the error, even if he knows what he did wrong. Very rarely will they be able to correct it on the second try in a performance situation, and this will cause even more consternation. ALWAYS jump ahead to the next starting point. Drill the student in such jumps, asking him unexpectedly to "jump." Don't wait until a problem occurs while playing at the lesson. Of course, tell the student what you plan to do!

Incidentally, the emergency places also are excellent as fall-back places for memory lapses.

Games are a great way to prepare students for performances. Here are some of my favorites.

Don't Stop! In the second and third weeks before the recital, play this game. Kids love this, and even adults get a chuckle from it. Instruct the student to keep playing "no matter what. I'm going to try to make you stop, so keep playing! If you stop, I win. If you keep going, you win!" You have a pocketful of tricks that you use to try to make him stop.

Tricks: Sing in a different key. Play another instrument, again in a different key (recorder or guitar are fine for this; or use a second keyboard in the studio or even an area of the keyboard the student is not using) or perhaps play the student's recital song (in the correct key) but starting a measure behind him. Clap, snap your fingers, click your tongue, beat on a drum or tambourine. If a parent is in the room or someone in your family walks by, engage in loud conversation ("Pig eyes over spaghetti tonight? Wow! That'll be yummy!"). Open and shut doors. Get the dog to "speak." Announce the arrival of Santa Claus. And my favorite: "Ok, you can stop now."

Even though the child may ask to play the Don't Stop Game in the week before the recital, your answer now must be no: the pieces should be played without your attempt to trip the student.

Brazen it Out. This one is particularly good for adults and teens. If some of the final notes are incorrect, I ask the student to correct them, one at a time, as though they were suspensions. Just brazen it out, as though it were meant to be exactly like that. Practice this one, too, even though the student may find it difficult to play a wrong note at the end!

Jump! Again, best for teens and adults, who generally have longer pieces. Select the jump places (see above) and mark with a red star or something else easily seen. Obvious jump places are entrances of new material, recap, etc. The student plays, and you randomly call out, "Jump!"

Prep for You

Don't forget yourself!

Memory Lapses

Memory lapses usually derail playing completely at the studio level. When this happens, the student is flustered and humiliated. Very few can keep going. This is the main reason I always make memory playing optional.

When a student needs to play from memory (pre-music major, preparing for a competition, or some other reason), teach him the tricks you use to memorize successfully.

Have the student practice in ways that will disrupt muscle memory and/or make her really concentrate.

Some that I have found most helpful:

At the Recital Venue on Recital Day

Lay out programs, arrange flowers, set up music stands, make sure the piano light works, etc. You might need an hour to do all this.

Plan extra time to change clothes and otherwise be ready to "appear."

Before the recital begins greet each family, speaking first to the recitalist. With children and teens, you might comment on how nice they look, but the gist of this pre-recital chat is to communicate support and confidence that the student will play beautifully.

Probably you won't want to mention your adult students' attire; just say that you're looking forward to hearing them play and are sure they'll do splendidly. Afterwards, of course, speak to each adult and his spouse/parents/supporters.

During my opening or closing remarks, I make a point of thanking the students' "support system." Another thing I like to do is "brag" on each student: something specific and unique. The students lap up the praise, and the parents beam. The first year, I winged it! Boy, was that a mistake! Now I write notes to make sure I say something different about each student that also is different from what I said last year and that the brag on each student takes the same time to do. It's not an easy document to write, but it pays incredible dividends.

At the Reception

Your job after the recital is to mingle and to speak to each and every one of your "people." Your job is not to watch the table or have some punch and a cookie. Speak to each performer and each parent and each grandparent. They sometimes get split up during the reception. Each of these people should be complimented on the child's performance, and you should note how proud you are of their playing and their hard work.

Sometimes a student will want to get involved in a post mortem of his playing during the reception. If this happens, or if a parent starts such a conversation, politely say that you'd rather discuss this at the next lesson where there is privacy. You add, of course, that you thought the playing went well.

Sometimes a student will say, "Oh, no, I was horrible!" when complimented. Everyone needs to learn how to accept praise, and this is no easy task, especially if the student feels he could have done better, as is usually the case. If he says this to you, you say something like, "When you receive a compliment, you always smile and say thank you, even if you feel you could have played better. We'll talk about details at your next lesson. For now, be happy that you did well. Everyone enjoyed your performance, and I'm very proud of you!"

Praise the student again at the lesson following the recital. Be specific. "I was so proud of the way you got a little messed up but kept going" or "You really brought out the right hand in the middle part," and so on. Not the generic: "I thought you played very well."

Serving Assistance

You need to have some help in the kitchen, I feel sure, unless you are setting out something very simple such as cookies, M&Ms, nuts, punch, etc., all of which can be put on the table before the playing begins. (Add fizzy stuff to the punch right before service begins. Ice, too. An ice ring makes this easy. One piece. Plop. No series of mini-plops and splashes with loose ice cubes.)

Have your spouse, a teenaged child, or a friend help. Do not ask a student's parent! Do not ask a teen student to help out with the children's recital, either. Keep business and pleasure separate.

Finding an Assistant

That said, is better to hire someone to look after the refreshment table.

The culinary program at your local high school probably will have just the person for you, I feel sure. Speak with the teacher, saying what you need to be done and that you are looking for someone who is 100% reliable and can make decisions in the kitchen. Is there anyone in his program he might recommend? Emphasize you must have someone who will be there, be on time, and be properly attired. Tell the teacher what you will pay.

There is usually at least one student who is a stand-out, and the teacher will give you that person's name. More below on interviewing the student. After the recital, touch base with the teacher to say how the student did and thank him for his help.

Interviewing the Prospective Assistant

Speak with the teen by phone first.

State what you expect your assistant to do, exactly when to arrive, when you anticipate finishing, etc. State the fee when you approach the person about the gig ("I will pay you $X for X hours" or "I will pay you $X per hour"). The amount of the fee is important. I advise you to pay the teen generously. More below on amounts.

Emphasize that the student must be on time. Be very firm so there is no ambiguity. "You must be on time. I am counting on you. If there is the least possibility that you will not be on time, you need to tell me now." (If you pick up the student at her home, you will have better control over whether the student is on time.)

Matter-of-factly, state what you want the person to do in the kitchen.

Tell her what time you want her to be at the site and when you expect to be finished. Tell her where the recital is to be held.

Tell the student what clothing you want to be worn. Are jeans ok? Bare midriff? Mini-skirt? "Low-slung" (ahem) shorts? Hat? Dress shirt? (Sometimes teens make, shall we say, inappropriate clothing decisions.) Do you want a chef's jacket? Should the student arrive in said jacket or put it on just before service? (The latter is what I recommend!) The program at school may have jackets available. Don't expect the student to go buy one!

Ask the student if he is interested in the job, having heard what you wish him to do. "Based on what I need, is this something you feel comfortable doing?"

If the teen says yes, state the fee. You don't want the answer based on knowing the fee before the duties. If the teen asks, right off the bat, what the pay is (bad sign!), state that first you want to state what the job is.

If you are unsure, based on the phone conversation, that the teen is responsible - - his teacher has vetted him for you, remember - - say that you are interviewing others and will "get back to him." (Sound familiar?!) Don't forget to be in touch if you did hire someone else.

If you decide not to hire this teen, get in touch with the teacher immediately. The closer to the recital date, the more likely the student will have made other plans. Always make the call to the student on a weekday so you can call the teacher the next school day in case you need another name.

When dealing with a teen, communicate with the parents, also. It is absolutely vital that the parents be in the loop.

I have the teen come to my house so we can discuss things in detail - - exactly what I expect, to what level I expect it, and that my assistant absolutely must appear and appear on time, dressed in the manner we have agreed. I will tell the teen what I will be serving and what sorts of things should be monitored during the reception. I want the parents to come along so they can meet me and ask questions. I want them to be comfortable. I ask the teen to come prepared with questions, also. Most come with a notebook to jot down details (good sign!).

Ask if the student needs a ride.


Fee depends on what you want the person to do. If you want the person just to make sure the plates of cookies are full and replenish the punchbowl, a fee of $10/hour is more that adequate. This person can be a teen. If you want the person to assemble hors d'oeuvres, pay more for more skill and responsibility. I state that I will pay a "flat fee of __."

What you pay for recital assistnace is tax-deductible as a recital expense. Check with your own accountant.

I know you want to know how much I pay, so here it is (2007).

I pay $160 for eight hours' of help to a student from the culinary prep program at a high school. This is not a person from the "foods class," but a pre-career class at an above-high school level. I expect the teen to make pizzas (I have the ingredients prepared), arrange and garnish food on plates, prep fruit and vegetables, move around tables and chairs (the reception is in my church's social hall), arrange the reception table, keep table watch during the reception, clean up, etc. I expect a lot, expect it to be done to my specifications, done well, and on time. If things hit a snag or the reception lasts longer than I guessed, I don't feel bad about having my asistant stay on until the job is done because he is earning more an hour with me than he can in almost any job available to him. In fact, I say something like, "Based on how things have gone in the past, I expect us to be finished by 9 p.m." This leaves the door open for the unexpected but allows the teen a good estimate of when he'll be finished. If we are finished early, the fee is unchanged.

If I have an excellent culinary student, I call upon that person the next year.

For an adult assistant for an adult recital (I have often hired my housekeeper), I pay $275 for eight hours. I expect her to assemble hors d'oeuvres (baking when needed, whipping cream, etc.) and prepare the items for service, keep table watch, clean up, and so on.

You may be appalled at my fee ($20/hour for a teen; $35/hour for an adult). I have stated elsewhere on my site that I prefer to err on the side of generosity and do not cut corners in any way in my business. I hesitated to mention exactly what I pay, but I get so many requests for specifics on this topic, that I decided just to put it here and hope no one has heart palpitations.

Of course, where you live influences fee a lot! As does the size of the reception. If you have a studio in a small town, only 10 students play, and you expect playing/reception/clean-up to take three hours, minimum hourly wage probably will be perfectly fine for teen help. What's the going rate for babysitting? For an adult, you should pay more than the minimum wage, of course.

You also may be surprised that it takes so long for me to "do" a reception! The teen/kid recitals I hold back-to-back (2 p.m. and 6 p.m., with call 15 minutes prior to each), so there's a clean-up/reset time between recitals. For the adult recital (in my home), there is a great deal of last-minute prep because the reception is basically a cocktail party with "heavy" hors d'ouevres (I do everything in advance that I can, of course). There are some touch-up cleaning to be done(dust, bathroom, etc.), and other things that need to be done. It takes eight hours, easily, by the time we have prepped, played, partied, and cleaned up. Again, a generous fee means I do not feel bad if I must ask my assistant to help past the eight-hour point.

I am sure your recital will be marvelous. I hope there are some ideas here that will make it more marvelous and more relaxing to all.

There are a number of other recital files on my site. Find links for links for these files from my business and pedagogy pages. Also look in the question-and-answer pages for business, pedagogy, and material for students and parents. Search on the term recital on each QA page, as I probably have not hot-linked them.

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Last updated July 13, 2007.