Painful Piano Recitals

    There’s no doubt about it.   Most mothers, as they usher their little one to that first piano lesson, are cherishing images of the year end recital.   Visions of tiny tots in puffy little frocks and dress shirts,  sitting at a huge shiny grand piano and dangling their tiny feet above the pedals are just so darned cute.   They’re almost irresistable.   For the parents.

girl piano


     What is odd, is that so few of those parents remember their own piano lessons decades earlier and the misery of those recitals, where they were forced to sit stiffly awaiting their turn at the keys.   Little mimeographed “programs” were often distributed and each child would locate his or her name in the apparently endless list, and then sit there trying not to fidget while struggling with perspiring hands and a distinctly uncomfortable fluttering in their stomach.  Apart from the one or two “star” pupils who were often older and whose names appeared at the end of the program, most of the others didn’t enjoy the experience at all

     Nowadays, that piano recital is an even greater obstacle to leading a child to a point where they actually enjoy playing the piano and enjoy the music.  Because modern mothers have become slaves to the idea of “healthy competition” and “getting ahead”.   Comparisons are inevitably made and each  mother either feels her child is better than all the others, or that he’s not lived up to his “potential”.

Both points of view are unfortunate.   There is nothing more distressing to a good teacher than being confronted by a child whose mother thinks he’s a second Mozart.    Sorry folks   …. the chances are very slim.   Mozart and Mendelsohn are the only two child prodigies I can think of  …. and this is because they composed music and weren’t merely performing monkeys.

And the mother who fears her little one hasn’t measured up and scolds him for making a mistake ranks even higher on my list of joy-killers.   The child already feels humiliated and the thoughtless parent piles their own disappointment on top of that,  effectively sucking any joy the child ever felt for music and the piano right out of it.  That’s another youngster who isn’t going to look forward to the next year’s recital  and is almost destined to lose interest in the lessons as well.

I won’t be party to this.   Music is one of the most wonderful gifts we can have in our lives.   It can inspire and comfort, change bad moods to good ones and at its best,  make our souls fly.   And learning to actually make music can be one of the most rewarding activities a child will ever have.   So I bend over backwards to make sure that every aspect of learning to play the piano is a positive one.

And piano recitals don’t fit into that goal.  Yes, for the one or two most talented ones,  recitals can be a sort of reward   … an opportunity to show off.   But that comes at the expense of the others.  Some will be bored, some will be nervous and most will just wish the tedious event was over.   The misery that these recitals cause the student is only a small part of the much greater loss.

That loss is the huge amount of time wasted in repetitive practice.   This is the most distressing sacrifice made to the piano recital.  Weeks and sometimes a couple of months are spent repeating a simple piece over and over again to make sure there won’t be any slips when the child is finally seated at that big piano for their moment on stage.   Time which would have been so much better spent in learning six or eight new pieces.  Maybe not perfectly, but that isn’t nearly as important as the practice in reading notes. and each new piece offers another opportunity to practice those notes.

No matter what “method” is flogged by various teachers and publishers of student music books, the basic truth is that you HAVE TO READ THE NOTES.   You can learn to fake an accompaniment with chords and if you have a good ear, you can pick out a basic melody.   But to be able to play confidently, you have to learn the notes.  There’s no way around this.   And the time wasted on preparing for a recital could be so much better used in note drills and learning more and more pieces more and more quickly.

I make this very clear when I interview parents before setting up the first trial lesson.   There will be no recitals.    This is one of my two basic rules.  (The other is my age requirements).

But  …. I do have an alternative.   The “Piano Party”  …. which has proved immensely popular with the children and gives everyone an opportunity to perform  … or not.   There is no pressure, no butterflies in little stomachs   ….  just a lot of informal fun and sharing.

I will be posting details and hints on holding your own “Piano Party” soon.

7 Responses to Painful Piano Recitals

  1. Hello Happy Piano Professor!
    Thanks for leaving a comment on my site, which led me to yours! I look forward to reading more from you. I wrote the post below, just over a year ago, and since have been more occupied with my blog, kids and household chores and so have let my piano practice fall by the wayside.

    But I do think about approaching the piano as I do think about fitness. A few minutes here and there really does make a difference. This will be my next challenge.

    My kids practice their instruments for 10 minutes each morning before breakfast. My son plays the drum kit and trumpet and my daughter plays piano. It is remarkable how these 10 minutes of focused practice has made an immense dent in their abilities. As opposed to attempting to force them to practice unwillingly for 30 – 60 minutes. As a result, their music practice is a pleasure and leaves them feeling good about it and the household is happy and stress-free.

  2. Cecila says:

    I remember my 9 year old daughter going through a lot of pressure because she needs to memorize two piano pieces; each piece having six pages. So much was expected from her because I was her teacher and my other students look up to her. A week before the recital, she had the flu and was unable to perform. The stress and pressure was way too much for her to handle and I felt bad. This experience changed the way I do yearly recitals.

  3. Lisa says:

    I’ve looked for your Piano Party post under “Putting the Joy back into it”, but can’t find the post anywhere. Please help! I’m really interested in that idea

    • nikkitytom says:

      I am so sorry Lisa. I have yet to list the Piano Party. I had fogotten that I had mentioned it before publishing. My error. The Piano Party is in the works. Thanks SO much for pointing out my lapse. I will edit the above post so no one else goes hunting for that party … which is still on file.

  4. Ghosthand says:

    Thank you so much for this post which exactly describe the nightmare which … made me decide NOT to become a pianist. I recently described the horrors from my child year’s recitals in this blog posting, you are most welcome to read:

    I am very happy to see a teacher describe the recital horror too. Yes, it is true, the experience I had as a terrified little piano student really took all the fun out of playing for me.

    The “kid” I mention last in the post gave a master class last year, where I proudly participated… as the only representant of the amateur division … The other students were Master’s students and they were terribly good and very nice. But we were to finish the days with a recital! Oops … The younger students from the junior section arrived … all of them very neatly dressed up, and with their very proud families along, of course. The older students got a bit worried, as they had not planned concert outfits but performed in their casual clothes – actually that was very nice too, it sort of added a relaxed atmosphere. And so me. I expressed my anxiety to P, and he just shrugged and said “of course you should not waste the day being worried for a recital! Just relax, enjoy the lessons and be in the audience instead.”
    And so I did. I did not perform, I was in the audience and I was perfectly happy with that and had a good time. (And all the performing students did great.)

  5. nikkitytom says:

    Your account of your childhood memories is deeply moving and beautifully retold. I share so many of those memories with you. But my ego kept pushing back into the recitals and competitions until many years later when I had that epiphany. I hated performing.
    But we have both survived … loving our music.
    I have so often quoted the Baghavad Gita … “Work without regard for the fruits of your labors”. I took me years to understand this. And when I did, my life changed. I took joy …the purest joy … in the act of creating. Whether an article, a drawing or a piece of music. I play music now only for myself and love it. Purely and absolutely. The sheer ecstacy of making those wonderful sounds and sending them out into the Cosmos ( okay to the limits of the atmosphere if you want to get technical …LOL) is enough! Yes …

    • Ghosthand says:

      Actually I have, recently, found a good reason to perform again: I have fallen in love with some composers that are too seldom heard of – Teresa Carreño, for example. Maybe I can overcome my stage fright to bring this lovely music out to an audience. At least that is what I hope … but that is for the future.

      Besides, SoundCloud is also a good tool, and an alternative to live performance that I find less scary.

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