How do you know when a student is ready to perform a piece?
One of my studio recitals just ended. As I write this, I am eating a leftover brownie and may snarf down a couple more. Would wine be better? Probably, but it is only four in the afternoon. The recital went well. For one thing, everyone showed up. This doesn't always happen. For another, no one was wearing a sports uniform. While I am not a stickler for a recital dress code, it is easier to pedal without cleats.
Did I think my students' performances would go well? As of this morning, I would have said, "No."
Ingrid's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" required some judicious editing at her lesson last week, meaning I removed some of the left-hand accidentals on the third beats, hoping the simplification would help her create a flowing tempo in time for today's performance. Ingrid, who is ten and a serious ice skater, aspires to skate the Sugar Plum Fairy role. When she saw Tchaikovsky's music in her Christmas book, she chose it without hesitation. I knew that the piece, even in Mona Rejino's excellent simplified arrangement, would stretch Ingrid's ability to move around the keyboard, a skill she was just beginning to master in her lesson book. I also knew that her practice time would be limited, because she would be skating a duo in five performances of "The Nutcracker" and then going on a two-week Christmas vacation with only two remaining lessons before the recital. Yet her eager smile inspired me to let her take the leap.
To add to the pressure, Ingrid's mother wanted her to play two pieces for the recital, as she had always done before. I held my ground, pointing out that her daughter had taken on a challenge and was meeting it. I sat down and showed her mother the music's difficulties and praised her daughter for her courage and her progress. Would Ingrid come through?
Ten-year-old Charlie had tackled "The Entertainer" in Denes Agay's wonderful intermediate version, which includes all the sections and has a challenging accompaniment. He had flown through it last week, even though he had been exhausted at the 7 a.m. lesson and was feeling anxious about the upcoming performance. I also knew that Charlie was going to compete in a swim meet this morning (Junior Olympics) and play an ice hockey game in a far suburb this afternoon before arriving late to the recital. "Can you put him at the end?" the parents asked.
Thirteen-year-old Corey was ready for the recital a full three weeks ago with Andrew Linn's fantastic arrangement of "Peter Gunn" and Grieg's "March of the Trolls." He even played the bird-song middle section of "The Trolls" with beauty and lightness. Then last week, like a melon that has sat out on the counter for too long, his performances became overripe. He began rushing. The crystal clarity of his technique began to blur, and he was slamming the pedal down as if it was the accelerator on an Indy car. We again listened to Lief Ove Andsnes perform the Grieg on YouTube and to the original version of "Peter Gunn," but no teacher can completely rein in a thirteen-year-old boy's enthusiasm for speed. Part of me didn't want to (even though the other part of me did it anyway).
Six-year-old Olivia was playing her first recital. Olivia will play for anybody any time, and she could have played twelve pieces or more. We chose three. Wouldn't it be wonderful if all of our students could maintain the confidence and less-structured lives they have at six? On the other hand, this was Olivia's first performance for a larger audience—would she stay centered?
Twelve-year-old Mimi had created her own difficult arrangement of Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off." No "Easy Piano" version would have kept it in the original key and asked the student to play all the notes in the highly syncopated left hand. Mimi captured them all and amazed herself that she could play something so difficult. She practiced this piece so often that her parents started closing the kitchen door, especially during the times Mimi played along with Swift's video booming on the iPad. While this isn't a selection you are likely to find in the Illinois MTNA syllabus, it worked wonders for the fluency of her playing. I was wary, though. Would one of the parents in the audience, a renowned violin teacher, be horrified at the choice of this less-than-inspired music? I tried to stifle my fears and my ego. Mimi had mastered consistency, something we had been struggling with for the last year. And it translated to her classical piece! Her performance of Pachelbel's Canon in D was going to be glorious—wedding-worthy.
So why did the recital go well? Ingrid practiced like a fiend all week and nailed every tricky accidental; Corey not only slowed down, he played with a newfound maturity; Charlie flew into the room at the last minute and did Joplin proud; Olivia offered to play two "encores" to the audience's delight; the violin teacher commented on how much Mimi's playing had come to life. My students Owen and Claire, sturdy sorts who always play well, came through, too.
I think I will have another brownie now. Tomorrow I will go back to the drawing board with each student. You know how it is. We try to choose repertoire our students will find emotionally meaningful, music that will be the exact level they need—neither too easy nor too difficult. We try to present this music in a way that makes certain every detail of fingering, rhythm, phrasing, and architecture is in place. We teach them how to improvise their way out of any nervous slips. We try to do all this in a half-hour or forty-five minutes a week and despite the many other activities that vie for our students' time. Then we step back and let go. How exciting it is when they succeed.