‘Tis the season of winter holiday recitals. One more activity for the student stuffed in between a myriad of others that they are required to partake in. Some years back I decided I was tired of the traditional model of recital; ie. students and parents sit quietly in a recital hall while each student gets up and performs their solo piece, nervous and under a spot light, lasting all of 2 minutes each before everyone claps politely. The beginning students and many of the intermediate and advanced as well look a bit shell shocked when they finish (regardless of how the performance went) and it happens much too fast for them to truly digest the magnitude of the moment. I decided this model of recital was through. No fun for anyone involved (parents included) and it did not truly celebrate all of the hard work the students had completed. Time for a change!
My first step was to change the recital to a ‘gig.’ I explain to the students that in my world (as a jazz pianist in New York) all of my friends and I referred to each performance opportunity as a ‘gig’ and sometimes a ‘concert.’ So the students and I talked about the upcoming performance as one of many gigs we would play over the year. In conversation, I talked of their gig no differently than any one of the gigs I play each week.
The second step was to move the venue from a recital hall to a local jazz club with a nice piano. I simply called a club that could accomodate the numbers I expected and pitched it as a ‘happy hour show’ that was not open to the public. I assured them that they would have a decent crowd and they jumped at the opportunity. This is probably the most fundamental shift for both parents and students (especially adult students). The jazz club feels more ‘real’ than a recital hall to most involved. The fact that shortly after our show is done (we run from 5-7pm on a Friday) another group loads in for the their first set, validates the student’s show as ‘real.’ In their mind they are part of a long list of performers that work at the club.
The third step was to hire a rhythm section. Both an upright bass player (a good friend I worked many times with before) and a drummer (sometimes me..sometimes a pro) were brought on board to play with each student. Every student was given the opportunity to work with professional musicians when performing. While I did not force them to work with the group, I strongly encouraged it and they all jumped at the chance. One very important point to stress is that the student’s level absolutely does not matter. I have absolute beginners playing 4 bar pieces (repeated a few times) that include nothing more than the notes F and G. I also have very advanced students playing a blues they composed themselves. The key is to address all pieces as equally valuable and ready to be arranged and performed with great musicians backing them up. As one of my mentors once said, ‘treat every gig as if it were the last you will ever play.’ I try to impart that sense of urgency and desire to all my students and their approach to their pieces at the ‘gig.’
The fourth step is to prepare students and parents for a different kind of recital. I send out multiple email invites that list the jazz club with a web link to it’s site. I encourage everyone to invite family and friends (which many of them do). And I let them know that the club is a working jazz club with a bar and restaurant that should be taken advantage of by arriving early, ordering up drinks and food, and mingling with other musicians. This final point I think is crucial because what I believe keeps students continuing for the long haul and staying committed to music studies is less their level but more their sense of belonging to something greater than themselves and their studies. The jazz club creates an environment that allows the students to get to know one another. Parents mingle with one another and celebrate the music together. Instead of merely focusing on their own 2 minutes of fame at a traditional recital, I find students become much more invested in the success of their fellow musicians. In large part, I believe, this is due to the fact that they all perform with the same rhythm section and share the same energy of the jazz club environment.
Yes, my personal experience as a performer (predominantly as a jazz pianist) lends itself well to this type of adjustment to the traditional recital model. But I think every teacher could stand to take a second look at how, where, and why they ask their students to perform in a recital. See what kind of new and unusual performance opportunities you come up with. Maybe instead of a rhythm section, you hire a string quartet or a harp to accompany your students.
Next month I will continue this entry by discussing how I prepare my students musically to perform at a club and with a pro rhythm section. And we will look at the many lessons that can be taught in preparing for the opportunity.