Music Teacher's Helper Blog

A Different Kind Of Recital

‘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.

About the Author

Nate Shaw
For 20 years keyboardist Nate Shaw has been performing around the globe. His touring groups have included Bebop Jazz sextet, Motion Poets, which released three CDs to wide critical acclaim, the explosive world music trio, New Power Trio, featuring Yo Yo Ma’s percussionist of choice, Mark Suter, and his current favorite, the Brooklyn based, Gowanus Reggae And Ska Society. Nate has released 9 CDs ... [Read more]


  1. Elissa Milne

    I love this so much, I can’t begin to say. It obviously changes the repertoire as well as the parental culture, however….. and not all piano teachers might be up for THAT.

  2. elissa Milne

    Nate, I also love your philosophy of teaching (as in your bio): especially the idea of discouraging fear of the unknown and taking time (as well as focus, support and discipline) to develop a student’s musicality.

  3. Benjamin Healy

    Thanks again for including some of my students in the gig. We had a great time. I’m pleased that you’re sharing the experience here as well.
    I find it fascinating to see how students perform in different circumstances. I think it is important to provide a variety of performing opportunities, from recitals to gigs, masterclasses to open mics. Each type of show can highlight a different aspect of a student’s talent. For example, a student who struggles as a soloist may shine with accompaniment. If they feel pressure when in a lineup of all pianists, the variety of an open-mic style show could give them space. Adult students can enjoy a masterclass together, where there could be less focus on performing and more on learning from each other.
    I hope to collaborate on many more such opportunities in the future.

  4. Dena

    These are great ideas! Coffee houses are a good alternative, too, with some families sensitive to “clubbing” with young children.

  5. Nate SHaw

    Thanks for the comment Dena. I have actually never found a parent that had a problem with going to a jazz club with their kids. Somehow it is different in most peoples minds than a dance club or a rock club. Your idea of a coffee shop is great as well. Especially if there is a local coffee shop that presents music and has a good instrument (more difficult to find). Thanks for the idea.

  6. Jennifer Thomas

    Wow – what a fantastic concept! Not only is it original but it is so much fun! I bet your students had an absolute blast. Thanks for sharing that with us.

  7. Suzanne Lichtenstein

    Bravo! I just finished posting about the fictional student Janina, and the concept of “recital” as posted there. While I said that I thought a recital should be formal, have a program, have a dress rehearsal, and have no surprises for the student…I was talking about classical repertoire recitals. What you have hit on is exactly what I was talking about, only in a different genre. I try to make my recitals into actual concerts. True, my genre is classical, but my goal is to make it “real” and “exciting” for the student. This year I plan to have the recital in the same place where I do my own concerts with local musicians…a place where my own students have seen me perform. And I plan to have another professional musician play also (maybe on harp), and to play piano duets with my duet partner. It will be a real concert in every sense of the word. Oh, and I always vary the levels of the students and plan the concert as carefully as if I were making a record album, so the songs flow into each other nicely, or provide a nice contrast. The sweaty-palms kind of concert where the primary students play first, progressing up to the most advanced students, is a no-no in my book. Way too stressful!

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