Recitals for group students? The why, how, when and where of collaborative group piano recitals

Recitals are becoming an essential part of a teacher's offering, and of a student's piano learning experience. In fact I would go so far as to say in some areas of the World, they have replaced taking exam grades as a preferable way to mark progress and bring together all that the child has learnt, in a performance.

Why do we have recitals?

Perhaps the first question to ask is why do we play an instrument? Yes we know all about the effects of learning an instrument on the brain, on intellect and on academic capacity. But music is an art form and with that comes opportunities for emotional nurturing. Music speaks to our very soul, the pulse to our heartbeat, and to be able to produce that music yourself makes that conversation even more meaningful.

Performance of that music then allows one to converse with others. To perform is to express our very being to willing recipients of our outpouring, to share a part of ourselves.

For children specifically, a performance opportunity is a motivator. It allows students to present their hard work, because working towards something and achieving it is so rewarding. It is no coincidence that when my students are nearing a formal performance, their parents tell me how much more they have practiced in the run up!

A recital is a great community event. Our students and their parents come together; there may even be extended family and friends in attendance. Often, teachers will throw a social after the event and everyone can have a good catch-up. This is wonderful for all involved and really cements that community feel that we all strive for in our studios.

Another reason is that, let's face it, parents like the opportunity to see their child’s progression. It is a great opportunity to take those all-important videos which are great to have at landmark times of each year.

And most important is the benefit to students. The work that they put in, the anticipation before they perform, and the beaming smile and pride after they have finished, are clear indicators of these benefits! In my (perhaps controversial) opinion, it is a far more positive performing experience than a grade exam could ever offer.

What challenges does group learning present with relation to recitals?

Quite simply, how can you have lots of pianos/keyboards at a recital venue? If you can get keyboards you are likely to have to amplify them. You could have them all doing solos but it seems a little unfair given that they normally have the camaraderie of their group behind them and will be thrown in what is already a nerve-racking situation!

Just a side note - if you teach groups where students learn independently (headphones), then I imagine you are good to continue as you would for a normal recital, as you would with private students.

However, if your students are very much group learners and group performers, you may come across some obstacles. They are so adept at playing as an ensemble that a recital with solely solo performances doesn't really do them justice.

I am going to take you through how our groups get all the benefits of a recital but in an alternative format; and why this format is essentially even more beneficial for the students (and is far easier for you to manage!).

How do we offer an alternative performance opportunity?

First of all a quick summary of how our curriculum is structured (so that you can see how this alternative may fit into your own context). We have workbooks which last a term/semester and are based on a theme or story. So the performance opportunity is a culmination of the workbook and we call it "Watching Week" or "Watch Week" (depending on which feels more grammatically accurate to you!). This is an opportunity for students to play through the whole story, with narration, or to play each piece within the theme in one big performance.

So for Watching Week, lessons take place as usual, but parents are invited in. We send the students straight to the keyboards (with headphones!) and I do a presentation to parents about what we have been learning during the term. Parents then engage with their children and listen to them practicing, plus they have the opportunity to ask me any questions.

Parents are then asked to sit in their seats (which are in an audience layout) and we begin our performance. Students play through the whole story/theme as an ensemble and then they each play their composition, and choose at least one solo to play. Children find it an incredibly positive experience as they are in their comfort zone and love showing their parents what they have learnt.

Once they have all performed, we call up the children one-by-one, give them a clap, I shake their hand and we give out certificates (and a treat!). Our certificates list a set of objectives that they have all achieved by the end of the workbook and we get them professionally printed on thick card (just to make them extra special!).

To make watching week even more of an event, we encourage the students to dress up in characters from their story or theme! We had a room full of farm animals for our recent "On the Farm" workbook for our Little KeyNotes (and our farm was a very diverse one, with a unicorn and a Spanish Flamenco ladybird being amongst the more usual pigs and farmers!).

What's great is that we can do it as part of the normal lesson time so no extra planning needed. We have parents, grandparents, friends etc and it is a lovely event! All those benefits of performing are realised here, in this less formal, but no less special, performance opportunity.

Alternatives to the alternative

I sometimes hold a completely different type of recital/concert. This is where I hire a professional ensemble (we have had a wind quintet and a vocal quartet), who come in and deliver an interactive concert for us. Introduction to their instruments, having the audience clap accompaniments, having children be their conductors and vary their tempo and dynamics are just some of the ways in which this concert is an interactive experience. This is a great event and parents are happy to pay for tickets (which covers the cost of venue and ensemble hire). Whilst being a great opportunity for the children and their families, it also helps to get your name/studio out in the community and we have often had sign ups as a result of these concerts.

Next I plan to hire the ensemble to come into the end of term lesson and do a workshop where they can then perform with the professionals (I’m thinking of a jazz workshop for the first one), as well as hear some performances from the pros. This would take a little more organisation and logistical consideration, but how amazing would it be for the students??! I will let you know if, when and how I manage to pull that one off!

In the meantime, I hope this has given you some ideas for alternative performance opportunities for your group students!

For more ideas and inspiration why not join our Facebook group: Group Piano Pioneers

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