Recitals are a wonderful opportunity for students to share not only how they’ve progressed, but also the music they love! However, the first step of choosing piano recital repertoire can be a challenge. Finding level appropriate music that can be learnt before the big day can make it feel like hair pulling is in your near future. With these 5 steps, you can help students choose music they love & can stay excited about during those many, many practice sessions.
In my studio, students choose their own songs for the recital. While they get a say in what they learn throughout the year, this is their chance to get 100% say on the song choice. And each year my students wow me.
They choose classical, pop, rock, oldies, blues, jazz, movie soundtracks, & folk songs. Sometimes they want to be part of a duet, other times students have surprised me with wanting to perform on their own … even though they get really nervous. Sometimes, they choose a song that is above their level … no matter how hard I’ve looked to find something easier. But, they are determined & they get there.
Using a 5-step process ensures that students choose their own music in a way that honours their playing ability. All while avoiding the dreaded hair pulling because you’re frustrated beyond belief. (We’ve all been there.)
Step 1: Ask them
The amazing music I have been introduced to through my students has always been one of my favourite parts of recital prep. Students that have shrugged their shoulders all year at anything that might seem “old” (as in from 1990 o early 2000’s), surprise me with wanting to learn “Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison.
So, ask your students if there are any songs they want to learn. It may be new to you, but it has sparked an interest in your student … and, isn’t that what we all want?
Sometimes, students will ask for an original song about something they love. This was the case for “Jake Meets The Jack Rabbit“! One of my students wanted to celebrate his dog, Jake, who wants to make friends with everyone. The song was created after we had laughed over Jake’s attempts to become friends with a local jack rabbit.
Step 2: Research options
Once you have an idea of what your students may want to play, do your research. Do you have any books or sheet music that are at the right level?
If I don’t have a copy of a song, chances are we have already taken a look during their online lesson to see what options there are out there. Whether you teach in person or online it’s important to reduce prep time. Taking a quick look at what options are available might show that this might not be the best option right now … or it’s a very enthusiastic “yes”.
If your student is unsure about a specific song, but tells you their inspiration you can use this as a starting point. For example “A Life Lived” was inspired by the music of Paul McCartney, Elton John, & Billy Joel. I didn’t have a specific composer or song in mind when composing, but I knew the mood & feel of the song.
Once you have a specific book or sheet music chosen, email the link during lesson with a quick note letting them know their child is super excited about learning ‘x’ song & asking they please purchase the song before next lesson.
Step 3: Give them more options, if they need it
Sometimes, a student may not know what they want to perform for a recital. That’s okay. Bringing (or having on hand) level appropriate & age appropriate material to go through during lesson time makes this easier.
When choosing which books to bring, I think about:
- Leveling of the book: If I am teaching siblings, could they possibly choose songs from the same book?
- Style: Based on what I know about the student, will they like the repertoire? Sometimes my students have shook their head at the cover, but once I have played a few songs they are surprised to find they like what’s inside.
- Goals from the year: This is more geared towards my adult students. They typically do not have as much time to practice as my younger students, but want to still play beautiful music. I tend to choose repertoire that looks & sounds hard, but has lots of patterns which make it quick to learn. Duets are also another popular option for this group since they can shine … without being in the spotlight alone.
- Something of interest: Whether it is a quirky take on a classic or taps into a specific interest my student has, the songs need to give the student a reason to get excited.
Perhaps a student has talked about a particular movie, but doesn’t have a particular song they like. The playful nature of “La Valse d’Amelie” was the foundation for Waltz Under The Stars. Finding out what they like about the music can help you give options that have the same “feel”.
Step 4: Choose more than one song
I have a small studio & students typically do 2 songs during the recital. Not only does it extend the length of time we get to be together, but it has several other benefits:
- Exposure to different style of music: I tell my students to choose separate styles or moods to keep their audience’s interest throughout the performance.
- Interest while practicing: We tend to get very focused on recital repertoire, so it is nice having different pieces to work on during those weeks.
- Stretching their abilities: Typically, I get students to choose one easy piece & one harder piece. This lets them stretch themselves musically at a time of year when they want to take it easy. But, also gives them a chance each practice session to also work on a song that doesn’t require quite so much of them.
- Practice increases: Double the excitement, double the practice. At least that’s the plan!
- More chances for parents to brag on their kids: As parents, we love to have bragging rights. But, listening to the same song over & over for weeks can get boring. Having 2 (or more) songs, keeps the excitement alive.
This extra piece may be a backup piece if you have a large studio & students will only be performing one song. Having both songs going gives the student the opportunity to push themselves musically, but ultimately choose the best song for their performance.
If you have a student that typically doesn’t practice much & you are concerned the song they choose will not get learnt in time … give them a chance. They may surprise you. However, I always get those students to choose a backup song that they already know & love (i.e. “The Rabbit In The Garden” for younger students). This way neither you or your student are stressing out in the weeks before the recital.
Step 5: Praise, praise, & praise some more
Every year, I tell my students & piano parents that our recital is a time of celebration. I used to get stressed out about student progress & whether or not they were truly ready … & to be honest, there will still be an element of that for any students who don’t practice.
The biggest motivator I have found, after selecting the right repertoire, is praise. Each week, give your students specific praise about their repertoire. As you get close to the recital, tell them what you think the audience is going to LOVE about their performance. For example, “I can imagine the Fellowship Of The Ring mourning Gandalf in ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ as you played ‘Farewell, Old Friend‘!”
Be sure to brag about their progress to their parents. You need to train your piano parents to have the vocabulary to praise their child(ren) as well. Using terminology along with definitions gives them a framework on how they can motivate at home during the week.
Step 6 (Bonus): Explore the music
You & your student had fun choosing their piano recital repertoire. But, as students master different aspects of their songs, remember to guide them in ways they can change the song.
What happens when they:
- Change the dynamics?
- Speed up the tempo?
- Modify the rhythm?
- Change the key or mood? (depending on their level)
- Play higher or lower on the piano?
This is the perfect opportunity to review theory concepts in a creative & sneaky way. Is it still “The Grand Entrance” if the dynamics are played opposite or the tempo is much slower or faster?
Students enjoy changing up the music. But, they don’t realise they are learning & reviewing while they do it!
Choosing Piano Recital Repertoire
There is a lot that goes into choosing the best piano recital repertoire for each student. But, I would argue that it’s well worth it when they & the audience are smiling at the recital!
Which part of choosing recital repertoire is the hardest for you?
- Get song names options from students.
- Find appropriate levelled music for your students.
- Choosing more than one recital song option.
- Experimenting with the music.
Let me know in the comments!
NOTE: This article was originally published on May 5th, 2017. It has been updated to build on the tips from the original article!
Great steps to think about. My students are able to choose all their music with all the piano performances throughout the year except one, my spring recital. And the only reason for that is that it is a themed recital. Technically, they still choose their music but from particular choices that go along with the theme. I will usually play anywhere from 5-8 pieces from them to choose from and if they still don’t like any of those I will dig for more options. We are usually able to find something they like. The trick is finding the right balance between way to easy or too hard. I have a couple students who will choose their piece simply because it’s short. Nothing else. I strive to find options that are “just right” and give plenty of time to learn. (About 6-8 weeks depending on the level)
I totally agree, Jennifer! I love that even with a theme you are still playing those 5-8 pieces for each of your students! That’s a great selection to choose from! We haven’t done a themed recital in my studio yet … though this year it looks to be a lot of movie themed songs.
For my students that always want to choose something short or looks really easy, I usually make them face away from the piano so they have to choose a song they actually really like the sound of. Then, when they ‘panic’ over the song looking hard we break it down into patterns so they see it isn’t so hard after all! It’s been a great way to break them out of choosing a song they will be bored of after the first week of the 8 weeks of prep.
What is your spring recital theme this year? They are always so creative & I love reading about them!