This article about choosing repertoire for your piano recital was written by Joanna Shiel. Joanna currently runs her piano studio online whilst travelling the world. In addition, she loves to write and is a keen filmmaker and photographer. Her dessert of the month is ice cream with fresh strawberries.
Finding the right pieces for your student’s piano recital can feel daunting. 😬 But don’t worry! This article will give you the top tips and tricks you need to select recital pieces that will make your student want to perform again and again.
Recitals are part and parcel of learning to play an instrument. However, performing is often a skill that is not practised nearly enough, making repertoire selection crucial for a recital that inspires students to keep on performing.
How do we walk the fine line between giving our students pieces that will sound great and look impressive without being too challenging? That will stretch their performance skills, but not devastate them when they inevitably make a mistake?
Here are 3 steps to work through to find the perfect repertoire selection for each student, while making your recital sparkle.
Step 1: Assess the Student
Ability and Skill Level
It’s important that the student feels comfortable performing their recital piece. In general, this means choosing a piece that is one or two levels below their current ability.
This is a fine line: If the piece is too easy, then your student won’t be motivated to practise…too difficult, and they could feel overwhelmed. So make sure it’s a piece that your student loves!
Consider what your student has going on outside of school. Are they about to take some important exams? Do they have a sports tournament coming up? Any other recitals? Perhaps they’re working through a particularly stressful time at home?
It’s important to regularly communicate with parents and your students about what’s going on in between lessons.
You don’t want to assign a difficult piece if they have school exams scheduled the day before your recital.
Practice and Support at Home
Some children have families who support them with setting up regular practice time and going through their weekly assignments together. Some families might even have someone with musical training who can give extra help.
However, we know that’s not realistic for a lot of families. So it’s important to know what kind of support your student has at home.
Also, consider whether your student is slowly learning to become more independent – I’ve had many a child transition into a teen, where parental practice support has been given up in the name of granting more independence.
Response to Challenges
If your student is particularly motivated by a challenge, make sure to give them ample time to prepare something challenging when choosing their piano recital repertoire.
In these cases, I recommend at least one semester for preparation with clearly set goals for each week, and no more than one challenging piece per year.
A Love of Performing
If your student loves to perform, perhaps there’s room for some performance “extras”.
- For example, could your student compose a poem or lyrics that go with their performance piece?
- Perhaps you want to select a piece from a musical or opera, so they could dress up as the character.
- Some students might love the history or composer of a piece and want to share this with their audience.
The possibilities are endless!
Step 2: Identify Potential Piano Recital Pieces
Here are some types of piano recital pieces that work really well.
Characteristics of a Good Recital Piece
Strong recital pieces tend to balance impressiveness with musicality. These selections typically:
- Have a well-thought-out structure
- Sound interesting by balancing tempo, dynamics, range and harmony
- Have a character, story or feeling to convey
- Include some element that allows the performer to show off their skills
- Are solos, but could possibly be ensemble pieces
What to Avoid
Counter to the above, there are certain types of pieces that I tend to steer clear of, such as:
- Technical studies and method book pieces that are not repertoire
- Pieces that are too easy or uninteresting to the student
- Pieces that get overused in a recital (looking at you, ‘Jingle Bells’ – unless there’s a unique take on it)
Sources of Great Pieces
Exam syllabi are also great places to look for pieces that have a great balance of everything above, and these lists are widely available online. Check ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music,) Trinity and MTB (Music Teachers’ Board) for some excellent suggestions.
I highly recommend rote pieces, especially if your student is a beginner. Rote pieces are built to sound impressive, have great character, often tell a story and are made to be memorised – they tick all the recital boxes!
Involve Your Students
Always, always, always make recital piece decisions a partnership decision between yourself and the student.
Ask your student if there are any pieces (or types of pieces) they would love to play but just haven’t covered in piano lessons. If they don’t have anything in mind, give them a selection box of pieces to choose from.
If you want your student to perform well and have a great recital experience, they need to love what they’re playing.
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Step 3: Curate Well-Balanced Recital Repertoire
When choosing piano recital pieces and assigning them to students, remember that you’ll want the recital to sound cohesive as a whole, rather than a bunch of random pieces strung together.
Later, if you have more experienced students who are ready to give their own recital as a single performer, you could involve them in the process of helping to curate a well-balanced recital.
A Varied Collection
If the audience has to listen to 25 slow, lyrical, emotional pieces, they’ll probably be asleep by no. 8 even if the performances are the best in the whole entire world.
The important word here is…balance.
Next time you go to a live music event, make a note of the performance. Notice how it’s a good mix of a hit song, followed by a slow emotional ballad, followed by something upbeat, followed by something new or experimental.
You could mix things up in a similar way, balance historical periods, and moods or even tell a bigger story within the recital.
Consider the Audience
What do you want your audience to feel during the recital? Do you want them to feel amused, happy or emotional? Is there anything important about this recital that you want the audience to know, for example, is it a charity event?
Do you want the audience to be involved in the recital, and if so, how? For example, do you want them to get up and dance, clap to the beat, sing along or stay seated?
I’ve seen many different approaches to recital lineup.
Some successful lineups have been via ability level, where beginners would go first and advanced players later. This is useful because it shows progression and your recital will end on a high note with the most advanced, flashy piece.
However, it can sometimes be tedious to listen to 10 newbies in a row. It also points out to the students where they fall within the skill range, which might be discouraging in some cases.
Mixing up the levels can work well if you want to really diversify your program and create something more balanced recital for the audience.
Perhaps you might prefer to take student sensibilities into account, placing more nervous students towards the beginning so they don’t have to sit and stew about it for an hour before it’s their turn.
Whichever approach you take, have a think about what you’d like to convey about your studio, Do you want to showcase your recital to highlight progression, fun, variety of learning or as a supportive environment?
There is no wrong or right answer here.
What do you prioritise when choosing piano recital repertoire?
Let me know in the comments below. Then visit Nicola’s Planning Lessons hub page for more repertoire awesomeness!