My friend and the mother of three of my students sat with me last week as we discussed how to help her children finish the polishing on their festival pieces. She said, “Frankly, I don’t really care if they play for this, so I’ve had a hard time making them do the extra work.”
I gave her my normal spiel: Truly working toward a goal of a clean, polished, musical, communicative performance is the type of work many children don’t do in many other ways. It’s important to work towards excellence, to reach a higher level than we achieve in our normal day-to-day existence. I also love the feeling of accomplishments my students have had in years past when they have met a goal that previously felt unattainable. I love the power of communication and emotion in well played music.
I convinced her that the struggle was worth it.
And then this morning happened. Two of my students, siblings with some life upheavals including an upcoming move, have been struggling with their festival pieces. While they were generally solidly prepared in the past, now assignments are ignored, details which are circled in new colors every week aren’t fixed, and memory work is not happening. I have become more and more worried about their preparation for this weekend’s festival. This morning they came to their lessons and it was clear that they would not be ready for Saturday. Not only that, it was clear that while trying to help them prepare for “perfection,” I was adding to their stresses.
All of my justifications I threw at my friend earlier went out the window, and I decided to pull them from their upcoming performances. The struggle for them was definitely no longer worth it.
Let’s face it: Performing can be a scary scary thing. Google “Bad piano recital” and you’ll get lots of proof that people all over our world have been scarred by their bad recital experiences. (Also, you will find this wonderful question: “Is it bad etiquite [sic] to eat poptarts during a piano recital?”)
So why do so many of us still insist that our students prepare memorized pieces to perform for an audience when it gives them stress, nightmares, and makes music lessons less than joyful?
My short answer: Because it’s important.
My other short answer: But maybe it’s not really all that important.
A couple of years ago I auditioned for a DMA program at a university near my home. I hadn’t performed an hour of memorized DMA level literature since I finished my masters’ degree in the 90’s.
Preparing was delicious. And terrifying. Performing was delicious and terrifying, too. The deliciousness sometimes won out over the terror. But sometimes it didn’t. And in my most anxious moments, I wondered what on earth I was doing. I wondered why I was training another generation of students to face that same terror. Is the potential gorgeousness worth the misery?
Well, yes, of course.
And also, maybe not.
Last year, after a festival season that pushed many of my students well out of their comfort zone, I decided our May recital would be strictly for fun. Students could choose whatever type of performing they would like to do: Traditional classical and memorized repertoire, pop songs, original compositions, duets, trios, classical but not memorized repertoire, whatever they most wanted to play.
It was a little sloppy. I’m not going to lie. But it was super duper fun. And everyone left happy.
So maybe the answer is that performing at a high level is a wonderful skill to have. But maybe it’s not the only type of performing that we should all do.
Diane Hidy just wrote a wonderful post on being true to the teacher we most want to be (continue to the questionnaire at the end. It’s very helpful.) I want to continue to teach students to reach for the stars by having them learn and polish beautiful music. But I also want them to have a dang good time. So maybe we’ll keep doing a little of both. And maybe sometimes (hopefully often) we’ll be doing both at the same time.
(And in honor of festival season, here is another post by Diane Hidy with a helpful adjudicator vocab list.)
How do you help your students handle the increased stress of performing, especially from memory? Have any of you given up memorization for your students or yourselves? How do you balance the drive for excellence with the joy of exploration?