My studio had a recital over the weekend.cello recital

I hold recitals for the singular benefit of students- there’s nothing quite like the accountability of knowing your efforts will be heard by strangers to focus and intensify practice. The performance part is actually low on the list in terms of its importance. It’s the preparation and internal motivation that are the real jewels here.

A student with whom I had fallen into deep dysfunction fired me just before the recital, calling me with anger in her voice informing me that she “no longer had need for my services”.  Indeed. She never had need for my services. My services’ sole purpose are to explore and remedy weaknesses in technique and approach, two processes she was not able to handle without tears or defensiveness. When she RSVPed as a “no” to the recital, I called her on it, telling her it was a load of horse shit and that I had essentially planned the recital to get her over the fear, not add to the list of opportunities she’d punted on. She made some blustery comment about getting into therapy and I sort of knew I wouldn’t see her again.

As if on cue, Making Music Magazine published this piece, written by Frances Wilson, about why performing is essential for musicians, even those who do not aspire to play in front of large audiences. It is simply the most effective way to push yourself to the next level and get over the myriad issues of ego. Preach it!

“Whether a professional or an amateur, it is important to prove that you can actually do it, and for the amateur pianist the benefits of performing are immeasurable: you never really demonstrate your technique properly until you can demonstrate it in a performance. Music and technique are inseparable, and if you perform successfully, it proves you have practiced correctly and thoughtfully, instead of simply note-bashing. This works conversely too, for if you are properly prepared, you should have nothing to fear when you perform. Preparing music for performance teaches us how to complete a real task and to understand what is meant by ‘music making’. It encourages us to ‘play through’, glossing over errors rather than being thrown off course by them, and eradicating ‘stop-start’ playing which prevents proper flow. It also teaches us how to communicate a sense of the music, to ‘tell the story’, and to understand what the composer is trying to say. And if you haven’t performed a piece, how can you say it is truly ‘finished’?”

Absolutely on point.

Another student, an adolescent who is terrifically hard on herself, really got the full benefit of the recital experience. She’s got what I like to call a “malfunctioning tool kit”, where she hears all of the foibles in her playing, but her inner critic is so strong that she can’t even begin to analyze what’s going on. She’s been playing for less than a year, and is ahead of the pack in terms of progress and sound quality, but every scrape or missed shift is like a dagger to her heart. We’ve been working on her “inner game of tennis“* for the past few weeks, with the goal of setting reasonable expectations. The first example I gave her was myself. I routinely make scratching sounds and even play a note out of tune here and there. I’ve been playing for three times longer than she’s been alive, and she does not hold those things against me at all. So I asked her to try to put her goals into two buckets, one labeled “possible right now” and the other labeled “down the road”, and force her to be honest about where they go. Cultivating realistic expectations while striving for ever higher achievement is the recipe for success and balance.

It’s good to hear minute imperfections in the sound, but in the end I come back to the nature of being human: the only guarantee is imperfection. We can get pretty good and suppress the mistakes after endless practice and objective critique, but even still, there are always things that could improve.

Oh, and she absolutely nailed her piece. It was slow, sonorous and well-rehearsed. There were small mistakes that did not derail her, and that only a few of us even noticed. I was bursting with pride.



The blur actually conveys how happy we were.



*I find the original tennis-centered  book to be much better than the music-specific text.

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4 Responses

  1. What a great post! I only wish I had found it sooner – my teacher’s studio recital was this past weekend.

  2. I enjoyed reading this article. I own your cellist’s manual and Swan practice book and I think you would be a great teacher.

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