For generations students have been struggling to learn their recital pieces. Some succeed. Others walk off the stage mortified, vowing never to touch their instrument again. It’s time to reexamine those mainstays of instrument lessons, competitions and studio recitals. Why do we do these? Who benefits, and what are the costs? Are they worth it?
We resort to calling competitions “festivals” just to get people to participate. They’re usually not festive. I’ve long noticed an imbalance when I speak with adults about their childhood musical experiences. It’s common for them to talk about recitals as traumatic experiences. Rarely is solo performance a galvanizing platform on which they based future musical achievement. Often what adults learned from these experiences is that they can’t play their instrument! The music education community must do much better than this. Why do we keep doing the same things and expecting different results?
Teachers teach confidence when we don’t know how to teach understanding. Unfortunately the studio recital has not evolved to showcase music learning. Instead, we tell students they must play in recitals to build confidence. Friends, let me tell you: that ain’t how it works. The cost is high. We’ve lost far more good students to poor recital experiences than we’ve helped. The studio recital became a graduation from obedience school. Can they move their fingers at the right time just like their teacher told them to? Students are capable of so much more.
This kind of work is not likely to keep students’ minds fresh. It’s as if we’re preparing them for concert careers that haven’t existed for 100 years. To make matters worse, time spent preparing one or two recital pieces can be significant and can take away from time used to learn more generalizable skills. Teachers can spend an entire school year on a small number of pieces. There may have been a time when public education gave children a strong music foundation for private instrument teachers to build on. That time is no longer. A private teacher who neglects a comprehensive foundational curriculum leaves students with little functional understanding of vital music skills like improvisation, composition, and real reading. When these skills die, music dies.
…To be continued. All is not lost!