Behind-the-Scenes at Our Silent Film Piano Festival

Last November I ran the first ever Silent Film Piano Festival in Dublin. This was a completely unique experience for my piano students and so much fun to put together. 

A silent film event like this is such a different performance opportunity for students. No one is watching you while you play; they’re watching the film, which can make students more relaxed. 

But it’s definitely more challenging in other ways, as they have to adapt their playing to fit the scene in the film. It requires a lot of flexibility and focus. 

In this article, I’ll give you the inside scoop on our Silent Film Piano Festival in case you want to try one for yourself – or just have a sticky beak at ours.

Silent Film Piano Festival Inspiration

This event is not at all my own invention! I got the inspiration for my festival from seeing the Silent Film Celebration booth and showcase at MTNA last year. 

I adapted things a little and did a few things my own way. But the basic structure of each student playing for one scene and having two pianos to alternate between (so the music is uninterrupted) comes from Silent Film Celebration. I also used a few of their resources such as the incidental music and the scene breakdowns for each film. 

Preparing for the Silent Film Piano Festival

8 Months Out: Venue Search & Budgeting

This idea for a silent film event was percolating in my mind after the MTNA conference. When I got home, I started with the question: What would my dream version of this event be?

My Dream Venue

The presenter from the Silent Film Celebration had described doing events in art galleries and other alternative venues…but personally I thought it would have more wow factor in an actual cinema. So I set about contacting some of the independent cinemas in Dublin just to get a ballpark figure of the cost to hire one.

Not cheap at all, as you might expect. 😅

All the cinemas I got in touch with quoted about the same rate. (I won’t give you specific numbers here as I don’t think it would be helpful. The rates will be wildly different where you are.)

Since they were all roughly the same, I decided that if I was going to go ahead with the event in a cinema, I might as well pick my ideal choice…which was the gorgeous Stella Cinema in Rathmines. This theatre originally opened in 1923. It fell into disrepair and closed but then was restored to its 1920’s glamour and reopened about 6 years ago. Too perfect to pass up for a silent film event!

Read up on more advice and ideas about recitals and other unique performance opportunities in the ‘Recitals’ section of our Music Teaching Studio Business hub page.


I’m not one to jump in without considering the budget, so I got to work crunching some numbers. The venue was the biggest cost. We also had to pay to license the films since they are not out-of-copyright yet in Ireland. 

I decided to open up this Silent Film Piano Festival to other teachers’ students for a small entrance fee to help cover the costs. So, I ran the numbers based on the estimate of a dozen or so outside students and confirmed that the studio could support the rest of the cost.

Personally, I felt it was worth it to provide this amazing opportunity to my students. If you’re considering doing a Silent Film Piano Festival of your own – please know that it doesn’t need to be expensive! I could have done this in my living room with a projector for almost nothing. 🤑

6 Months Out: Tell Parents & Outside Teachers

After deciding on the venue, I needed to set the date. I put this to a vote with the parents in my studio, giving them 3 options:

  • Weekday during midterm break
  • Saturday morning
  • Sunday morning

We simply couldn’t have afforded the evening rates, so these were the choices available. The most votes went to Sunday mornings so I set the date for Sunday, November 12th. 

I made the announcement to my piano parents in our May newsletter. They didn’t need to sign up at this stage (they couldn’t know that far in advance if they would be available); this was just to start to get everyone excited. I did let them know right away that this would be only for ages 7 and up, though, so that we could avoid any disappointment later on.

At the same time, I opened the registration form for outside students and sent it to a few teachers I know in Dublin.

4 Months Out: Audio Test

Over the summer, I went in to test the audio set up with our digital pianos. I basically have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to audio cables and connections, so I had to go in a couple of times to get it all sorted. We got there in the end! 🤪

2 Months Out: Student Signup

The deadline to sign up was the same for the outside students and my own: September 30th. Any later than this and they wouldn’t have had enough time to prepare their music for the event. 

Once I had the final student list, I got to work assigning the scenes. I had the scene list from Silent Film Celebration so I didn’t have to work out the start and finish times for each scene – which was really great. I just copied them over from their document to Google Sheets, as that’s where I prefer to work.

Matching the Students to the Music

I started by assigning the first and last scene of each film, giving those to a student who I knew to be a confident performer. (Not necessarily advanced, just not easily rattled!)

Next I plugged in their buddy back-to-back with them if I could, so that they’d be able to rehearse their scenes together in lessons.

Then I put in the outside students. As much as possible, I kept them together in the running order just in case they wanted to get together to rehearse on their own.

Finally, I filled in all the gaps by assigning longer scenes to my more advanced students and shorter scenes to beginners. 

I lucked out in that I had nearly the perfect number of students for two films – I just had to divide one scene into two parts to make the numbers fit exactly.

Navigating Copyright Concerns

Now that I had all the scenes laid out, I went to work assigning pieces to each student. I had already contacted several independent composers to get their permission to use their music in this event, so piano students who weren’t able to play the arrangements from Silent Film Celebration were given one of those composers’ other pieces for our festival.

6 Weeks Out: In-Lesson Rehearsals

At this stage, students had their assigned pieces. Most of these were pieces they had already started or ones they had learnt previously and just needed to refresh. If they were starting a brand new piece, we made sure it was something they could learn quite quickly.

Even if they hadn’t quite mastered their piece yet, we still started rehearsing with their scene. I popped my iPad up on the piano and started the film a little before they were supposed to come in. Their job was to start on time and finish on time – even if they didn’t reach the end of their piece, or even just looped one part again and again. The most important thing when accompanying a film is to keep playing!

We rehearsed in this way at every lesson for the six weeks leading up to the Silent Film Piano Festival. Alongside this, we went over what to do if…

  • The person playing before you doesn’t stop on time = Start anyway and interrupt them
  • The person playing before you stops too early = Start playing – we’re all on the same team and need to keep the music going no matter what!

At every lesson, we also described how the event would work. I explained how they would get a sticker with their scene number when they arrived (more on this below), whether they were in the first or second film and when they needed to line up in the piano area.

This kind of discussion is really important for managing nerves. The better you can picture the event, the easier it is to play your best on the day. 

Visual Scene Guide

As we started to prepare students for their scenes, I quickly realised that a visual reference would be handier than the timestamps of their scenes. It was great that I had the scenes already divided up for myself, but students weren’t going to be able to see the timecodes on the performance day. They needed to know the exact frames of when they were to start and end.

I went through each film and took screenshots of the starts of each scene and put them together in a simple sheet. That way, we all had the same frame of reference for the exact moments they would start and stop playing.

4 Weeks Out: Extra Tickets

Every student had a ticket for themself and one guest. If they wanted to bring more guests with them, they needed to purchase extra tickets for them. 

I charged €15 for each extra ticket. To give you some context, seeing a regular film at the Stella is €21 at this moment, so I think €15 was quite a reasonable rate. 

I set up a link to purchase extra tickets and sent it to parents in my studio and to the teachers of the outside students. I also scheduled a couple of reminder emails about the tickets in case parents missed the first one.

3 Weeks Out: Programs and Stickers

A few weeks before, I started to prepare the program. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I always have to force myself to wait to do this until closer to recitals and events. I know that it’s a waste of time to do it too early because things change…I’m just always itching to get in there and get these jobs done! 

(So it is just me? OK, fair enough. 😝)

I based this largely on previous recital programs I’ve done and just updated the cover and styling, then plugged in the students’ names and pieces. 

At this stage, I also prepared the stickers for students. These said the student name, film and scene number, making it easy for us to line them up and keep track of the performance flow. I set the stickers up in the template I have for standard address labels.

2 Weeks Out: Seating Plan

Since each student had 2 tickets allocated to them and the option of buying extras, I had to manually assign seats. I took the seating plan from our cinema and had that up beside the Google Sheet with the student names and numbers of tickets. I then allocated seats and wrote them in the spreadsheet, while also marking off on the visual seating plan. 

I did my best to seat families together and managed it for this first round. As more extra ticket orders came in, however, some parties did have to be split in two. I think this is fair as it was first-come, first-served in terms of sitting together. 

1 Week Out: Tickets and Reminder Emails

I scheduled an email to go out on Monday before the event reminding them of start times, venue and link to purchase extra tickets one more time.

I waited as long as I could to set up the tickets with the seat numbers, as I knew I was going to have to make last-minute changes. A little over a week before the event, I set these up for each student. The tickets said the students’ names and the seats for their total party (rather than having tickets for each attendee). 

I then printed these and organised them in envelopes along with the student’s sticker. I sorted the envelopes in alphabetical order as I knew we’d have to get people in and seated quickly on the day.

Venue Setup and Packing List

Here’s everything I packed into my car to bring to the venue (it was a tight fit!):

  • 2 digital pianos and stands (disassembled)
  • Screwdrivers (to reassemble)
  • 2 duet benches
  • Clip-on lamps (so students could see what they were playing!)
  • Extension cords
  • Cables to connect pianos to the cinema sound system
  • iPad (in case anyone forgot their music…some of it I could look up online)
  • Programs
  • Tickets and stickers organised in envelopes and in alphabetical order
  • Spare labels and markers (in case someone lost their sticker)
  • Tape (I bring tape to every event!)
  • Camera, tripod and microphone
  • Second camera for photos

When we arrived, we got straight to work putting the pianos together and plugging them in to the sound system. We did a quick sound check and then I set up the video camera beside them with the microphones. 

Lessons for Next Time

Overall the event went extremely well! The students and parents were delighted, and the day ran very smoothly. This is all down to the planning and organisation I did beforehand, which was well worth it.

There are just a few things I’ll try to improve if we do this again.

I don’t think I was quite as clear as I could have been about the drills other teachers should do with their students to prepare them for the “what ifs” (like what if the student before you stops early, and what if you have extra time). Next time I’d prepare some clear videos that explain what I’m doing with my students to get them ready.

The films used in the festival were actually slightly different versions than the ones we’d been preparing with. This is because the licensed films had been remastered and had some extra bits and scenes. With the way licensing works I’m not sure if I can get access to these remastered files ahead of time, but I’ll see what I can do.

I manually allocated the seats, which wasn’t the most fun job I’ve ever had… I’m not sure if I can let families pick their own seats, though, as our system is a little complex. But I could possibly design a new system myself.

Finally, now that it’s a proven success, I’d like to mix it up with some ensemble pieces next time – possibly for the opening and/or closing scenes of each film.

Videos About the Silent Film Piano Festival

Want to hear more about the Silent Film Piano Festival? I did two live YouTube shows about it. 


…and After

Are you inspired to try your own Silent Film Piano Festival?

It doesn’t have to look like mine! But I would love to hear if you’ve done or plan to do an event like this in your studio. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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