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by Philip Johnston

Ringmastering your Studio Recital

As entertainment, most parents would rank studio recitals somewhere between folding laundry and being on hold for tech support…it doesn’t have to be this way. IMT looks at how you can fire things up from out the front.

Ringmastering Your Studio RecitalAS ANY REALITY TELEVISION PRODUCER WILL CONFIRM, it’s not what’s happening that keeps viewers engaged. It’s what those viewers know about what’s about to happen . It’s about subtexts, inside information; it’s about turning backstory into expectations, and then expectations into anticipation. Once we’ve been briefed, we have a reason to care, and even the most ordinary of events can then be fascinating.

When recitals loom, it’s very easy for a music teacher to focus solely on the performances themselves. But there’s more to keeping audiences engaged than well-prepared performances. Compelling and memorable studio recitals are actually less to do with music , and more about your role as ringmaster— this article looks at techniques that every music-teacher-MC can use to get inside the heads of their audience.

Turning spectators into supporters

There are two types of athlete that we cheer on at the Olympics: those from our own country , and those we know something about . So that sprinter might not be wearing your national colours, but as soon as you find out that they’re the oldest competitor ever to represent their own country , or that they’re a kindergarten teacher for their day job , or they always wear a lucky blue sock in memory of their grandmother , who was their first coach , then it’s human nature to watch their lane a little more closely.

To the parents at your studio recital, most of your students are just names, which means there’s no reason beyond politeness to be cheering on all these strangers. But as soon as they know something about the performer—no matter how trivial—it’s impossible not to connect a little, and then be hoping they’ll play well. With a reason to care, they’ve made the transition from spectator to supporter .

roundkeyboardALPHATo the parents at your studio recital, most of your students are just names . There’s no reason beyond politeness to be cheering them on when they play.

Which is why the first rule is this:

Never, ever let a student just take the stage cold. Always introduce them. Always.

Picture it from the audience’s point of view. You’ve either read “Lucy” and “Melody in Bb”, or you’ve heard the teacher say this:

“Most of you have seen Lucy play before, but it’s amazing that she’s playing at all today. In September, she broke her collarbone and both wrists in an awful bike accident; there was no way she was going to be ready for this recital. So said the doctors. They obviously don’t know how determined this girl is. Ladies and gentlemen, here to play Melody in Bb, and with both arms working, could you please welcome Lucy…”

No matter how only-fifteen-pieces-to-go-until-my-kid-plays bored parents might be, they’ll all be clapping harder and sitting up straighter for Lucy’s performance. And Lucy will be playing better because of the warmth in the room.

Of course, you don’t need to feed exclusively on disasters. Triumphs work nicely too.

“As you watch Albert play this next piece from memory, you might wonder how he remembers so many notes—what you might not know is that he’s been a finalist in the state Chess Championships for four of the past six years, has over 250 openings memorised, and is working towards a thousand. Compared to that, I guess pieces just aren’t so hard. Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Albert…”

And the room erupts with applause. Everyone is looking at Albert differently, and Albert is walking taller for the fact that his extramusical accomplishments have been acknowledged publicly. There’s expectation in the building now, and a sense of connection that simply would not have existed without your prologue.

If you don’t have a student with other talents to highlight, trivia can work just as well. Again it’s all about connection:

“Our next performer might look tall and be in Year 10 at school, but he’s actually only 4 years old. Born on February 29th, he has to wait until leap years to get birthday cards. When you hear him, I’m sure you’ll agree though: for someone who’s not going to turn 5 for three more years, he plays remarkably well…ladies and Gentlemen, Mikael…”

The audience is smiling at Mikael. They’re willing him to do well. He’s not just a name; there’s an intimacy about this now that transforms the experience for listener and performer alike.

The key to this is a little research; to make sure that you know something extra about every student who plays, and then have turned that into a 20-seconds-or-less introduction. Your recital program is then not just names and faces, but a procession of stories; for the parents otherwise stuck in the room with nothing but piece titles and composers’ names, it’s a list of reasons to care.


While backstory introductions are a powerful way to introduce each item, foreshadowing is about creating an awareness of—and anticipation for—concert items that are actually some way off yet, so that the audience has Points of Interest to look forward to in what otherwise can feel like a long and homogenous program.

Much of this can happen in your introduction:

“…the students really have chosen some really interesting repertoire for this concert. You’ll hear a piece that was composed in a dream, another that was stolen from Mozart, and another that was banned in five countries. You’ll hear a piece that’s so slow it almost stops, another that’s so fast that you literally won’t be able to see the performers hands move, and another that uses nothing but the same note, over and over, for almost a page, but in a smart, creative way that will really surprise. All this and lots more, packed into 90 minutes: it’s been a great year, and now you’ve got a window seat to the best of what happened…”

roundkeyboardALPHA…the first rule is this: Never—ever—let a student just take the stage cold. Always introduce them. Always.

Think about this from the audience’s point of view. Instead of a concert program with 23 generic and indistinguishable items on it, you’ve now seeded the whole thing with Points Of Interest.

To dial things up, you can foreshadow more than once. This, as the introduction to the 4th item:

“Now as I mentioned at the start, today we’ll be hearing a piece that was stolen from Mozart. That’s coming up in the second half. But before that, right now, we actually have some Mozart. He was only eleven years old when he wrote this…”

You’ve introduced the piece, but also restoked the curiosity fires for the “piece stolen from Mozart”. This piece is coming soon, hang in there, don’t touch that dial.

Your teasers are not just little splashes of water in the faces of otherwise snoozing audiences, but appetizers that have them looking forward to the courses to come.

Remember, unless you set things up otherwise, recitals have just two points of interest for parents:

• The moment when it’s my kid’s turn to play
• The moment when the concert ends and I can finally go home

Now, with the Stolen-From-Mozart teaser, there’s a third point of interest. And a fourth, when you mention the piece that’s coming up that “takes just 35 seconds to play”. And a fifth, when you herald the three-people-one-piano performance at the end of the first half. Those that you mention more than once will loom particularly large.

You don’t just have to limit such setups to introductions. You can also give booster shots after a performance has concluded.

“For those of you in the audience who enjoyed that, coming up later is a piece that is—hard though it is to believe—even faster . The composer is somebody called Liapunov, and he was actually best friends with the composer of the piece we’re about to hear now…”

A double segue, but wait, back up…Even Faster Than The Piece I Just Heard! Of course they’re looking forward to it. They’re all busy trying to imagine such a thing…

…it’s very hard to be bored when the ringmaster is actively using the audience’s imagination to paint the picture of what’s ahead.

Wildcard Performances

Of course, it’s much easier to use foreshadowing if you have some exciting things to foreshadow. There are some suggestions below; they end up not only being items that the audience looks forward to, but events that stick in people’s minds long afterwards.

Guest performers

These can be former students who have gone on to bigger things, or perhaps a colleague who is a member of your local symphony orchestra. A two-minute talk, a five-minute showpiece, and your students will be remembering it for many, many lessons to come. It won’t inspire all your students, but it will inspire the right students.

Your guest performer’s time is precious, so don’t expect them to sit through your entire recital. Their arrival is then something you can foreshadow in its own right:

“Ladies and Gentlemen,if we could just interrupt the regular program for a moment—I mentioned earlier that Carlene Montague, principal oboist from the TSO, would be making a special guest appearance at some stage today. I can see she’s just arrived, and when I introduce her in a moment, I’d like you to raise the roof. This lady can really play, and I’m so grateful she’s taken the time to come today…”

Insane Ensemble Pieces

The endless procession of students playing their piece at your studio recital can feel like, well, an endless procession. One way to shatter the tedium is with something completely crazy, and nothing does this quite like Insanely Huge Ensembles.

roundkeyboardALPHA“…if a piece is to be worthy of a place on your studio recital program, then quirkily memorable is almost always preferable to pedagogically defensible.” .

So you might be running a flute recital. We’ve all heard one flute before. Most of us have even heard two or three at once. But I don’t think many would have heard 35, all with different parts…

…it’s going to be bedlam and carnage, and probably will be to music what a stock exchange room floor is to conversation, but it’s going to be short, and lots of fun.

All your students would be on stage. Each would have a part tailored for them, so this ensemble can feature your newest beginner alongside your I-can-play-anything stars. You would have chosen something well known, and harmonically simple (you’ve got to write 35 parts, so you don’t want to be arranging Scriabin here). Anything that only has a couple of regularly changing chords will work well—”chopsticks” ,nursery rhymes, a current ad jingle, that sort of thing.

Everyone has their part, you would have rehearsed it perhaps once at a workshop, or maybe never at all, but the whole point is that it wouldn’t be over polished—the parents know that this is everyone , and musically a very, very bad idea. But everyone in the room will be smiling, because it’s such a very, very bad idea.

You can do the same thing at piano recitals by having half a dozen students crammed onto the same oversized piano bench. If you have two pianos on stage, that’s twelve students. Everyone has an octave of their own to work with. There will be elbows in sides, hands colliding, four feet all going for the same pedal like a demented game of foot-snap, and plenty of laughter. The musical result will almost certainly be a train wreck, but there will have been plenty of evidence elsewhere in the program that your students can produce polished performances when they need to. This segment was entirely about reminding all those parents of something that usually isn’t so obvious in stuffy old studio recitals:

Your studio is a fun place to spend time. It’s not all about Correct Posture and whole notes that are exactly 4 beats long.

Improvised or sightread performances.

Again, this is tailor made for foreshadowing:

“Just a reminder, that in the second half, two of the performances will be from students who have done no practice at all. In fact, they’ve never even seen the music before— it’s a first, we’ve never included a sightread item before, and you’ll see it here live soon.”

Who in the room won’t be anticipating that? Everyone will know what a huge ask that is, and the students involved can expect plenty of applause before and after, no matter how well they play.

Same piece, 4 different performances

Back to back. Seriously. Normally something like this would be the programming equivalent of turning up to a party in the same dress as three other guests, but this time you’re doing it deliberately. When you’re foreshadowing, you can remind the audience that while the performers all worked from the same score, they’ve all come up with completely different ideas as to how the piece should be delivered. Sit back, listen to the imaginations at work…

Again, it’s interesting because it’s different.

Student original compositions

Students who compose their own works are a rarity (they shouldn’t be, but that’s something I’ll focus on in another IMT article), and so the idea is fascinating for the audience. If you have a student who shows enough courage and initiative to be ready with a piece of their own, then that’s definitely worth foreshadowing. The whole room will be curious every time you mention it, and listening hard when it arrives.

Getting the repertoire choices right

No matter how good your ringmaster skills, your recital will still have the effect of a general anaesthetic unless you’ve completely embraced the idea that there’s an enormous difference between a teaching piece and a recital piece. Teaching pieces need to be good for the student . Recital pieces need to be good for the audience . It’s certainly possible to find pieces that can do both, but if you want your audience engaged and applauding, you have to at least get the latter right.

roundkeyboardALPHAIn short, don’t just show them what your studio does . Show them what’s possible .

This means thinking a little differently when you’re scouting potential repertoire. If the piece is destined for your studio recital, then quirkily memorable is preferable to pedagogically defensible. You’ll be looking for pieces that delight, mystify, seduce and surprise, which means you’re going to have to hunt outside the usual feeding grounds (See the IMT guide to finding great repertoire)

When I’m not writing articles for IMT, I’m a taekwondo instructor, and the same thing holds true for any public demonstrations my class gives. We don’t just select things that we’re doing in class anyway, we choreograph and tailor the content specifically with demonstration in mind. It’s not pedagogically the most useful exercise to spend 10 minutes smashing boards and doing the most spectacular looking self defence drills we can think of, but it makes for much better viewing than the often repetitive, patient, slow motion, highly technical drills that we do in class so that we can do all this other stuff.

In short, don’t just show them what your studio does . Show them what’s possible .

Getting the performance order right

In cricket mad Australia, one of the biggest regular headaches facing any captain is setting the batting order. Where do you put your strongest players? Do you get them in early to dictate terms from the outset, or protect them from the freshest bowling and toughest conditions? What about that otherwise gifted player who seems to be in the middle of a form slump?Do you hide them for the time being, and bump them down the order? Or send them in as you normally would?

roundkeyboardALPHAIf questions like these are not keeping you awake at night in the week leading up to getting your programs printed, then you can’t complain if your recital ends up containing Periods Of Dull.

However mysterious you might find cricket, know this: the batting order for your recital is critical, and worthy of much more attention than it usually gets.

Do you open with the student most likely to give a reliable performance? Or the cute 5 year old (for the “awwww!” factor)? Or with three students who are all giving their very first studio recital? Or their last? Or maybe warm up the crowd with one of your Wildcard performances?

If you’re introducing each performance – and you should be – how easily will you be able to segue from this item to the next? Are there three pieces in the middle of the programme that are all in the same key? Or the same tempo? Is there a “dead” spot of several consecutive uninspiring performers/weak repertoire items in a row? Can you rescue it with smarter introductions, or do you need to separate them? And where do you schedule that one student you’re worried about who is most likely to screw up? Or that gifted student who, like our batsman above, might be brilliant, but seems to be suffering a form slump at the moment?…

Ordering your concert program needs to be done with the same sensitivity, iterative shuffling, what-if-this-were-to-be-moved-here detail as determining the seating arrangements for a function at which the Secretary General of the United Nations would be present. If questions like those listed above are not keeping you awake at night in the week leading up to getting your programs printed, then you can’t complain if your recital ends up containing Periods Of Dull.

Keeping them guessing: Colour Coding

While the focus so far has been on what the concert items are, when they should appear, and how they can be talked up, this tactic is about generating curiosity. It’s so simple, but will have everyone in the room scratching their heads and whispering conspiracy theories to each other:

roundkeyboardALPHA“As the concert progresses, the audience will be paying extra attention as they try to figure it out. Why is this child in yellow? How come my child is in red?

Instead of students wearing their Sunday Best to the recital, they need to wear the colour you request. So on the day of the concert, because you told them to, some students will be in red, others in blue, others in yellow; you’ll end up with a rainbow of colours that have been assigned, and they presumably mean something…but what?

As the concert progresses, the audience will be paying extra attention as they try to figure it out. Why is this child in yellow? How come my child is in red, while the student who has the lesson after them, and is a similar standard, is in purple? And how come there’s only one student wearing black, and so many wearing brown?

Go on. Admit it. As you’re reading this,you want to know what it’s all for. So will the audience. It’s a little thing, but they’ll be hooked; the concert now has a subtext, and until the puzzle is solved, time will move faster for everyone in the room.

So what are the colours for?

That’s up to you. The beauty of this idea is its reusable: every recital can have the colours signifying something different.

For example…

• Red could mean “A fast piece!”, while blue might be “Something slow.”. Green might be in between, while black might mean “Crazy Fast!”…or…
• Red might mean “My very first concert!”, blue might mean “only the second recital the student has given”, green might mean “3-6 recital notches on their belt”, while orange might indicate a “more than 7 recitals!” veteran…or…
• Red might mean “With the music”, blue might be “From memory”, Green might be “I’m sightreading today”, yellow might be “I composed this piece myself”…or…
• Red might mean “Major key”, blue might be “minor key”, Green might be “no key”…or…
• Red might mean “you’ll all know this one”, blue might be “you might have heard this before”, green might be “you’ve never heard this piece before!”…or…
• Red might mean “beginner”, blue might be “intermediate”, green might be “advanced”…or…
• Red might mean “Classical”, blue might be “Rock”, Green might be “Traditional folk music”, yellow might be “movie theme”…or…

…you get the idea.

By half way through the recital, the audience either will have figured it out, or you will have made the announcement that solves the puzzle for them. You can even foreshadow that you will be solving the mystery half way through the recital, and that very unveiling then becomes an Point Of Interest in it’s own right…yet another reason to be engaged as the concert progresses.

Either way, for the rest of the concert…

… the audience now is engaged with each new performer even before your introduction starts, because the colour coding tells them sometime about the student. This student is playing their very first concert (awwww!). This student is playing the only rock piece of the night (nobody else is wearing blue). That student is dressed to play a Crazy Fast Piece (I wonder when she’s playing? And I wonder just how fast Crazy Fast is?)

Now instead of counting down 23 performances until they can go home, they’re counting down 4 performances until the Crazy Fast piece, or 5 performances until the Piece That Nobody Has Ever Heard Before, or 2 performances until the Piece That The Student Composed Themselves.

It’s all part of the same idea: that all these parents have been to studio recitals before, but they’ve never been to one as unpredictable, creative and engaging as yours. Why would they want their children learning anywhere else?

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