Student Recital Song Not Mastered

It’s that time of year & many studios are working towards one goal.  Making sure students have their recital song mastered.  Or, songs depending on the size of the studio.  Sometimes I wonder who is more stressed before the recital: the teacher or the student. And, I think that it all depends on how soon the recital is.

Do you have a student that procrastinates on their songs until the last minute?  And, then struggles to master them in the last week or two before the recital?

We all know how that turns out.  The student typically chokes during the performance, audience members try to be supportive (though with all the stops & starts it’s a challenge), & the recital starts feeling like a chore to everyone that attends.


I’ve tried everything from one week to one month before the recital for when songs need to be mastered.  Making the deadline earlier has by far been the most successful in keeping stress levels low in the studio.

Back in 2018, we aimed to have songs learnt (correct notes, rhythm, dynamics & articulation) at least a month before the recital.  Many of my students were able to reach that goal.  A few took a week longer & were able to accomplish it 3 weeks before the recital.  (Unfortunately, we weren’t that on top of things during the pandemic but this is the goal going forward.)

I’ve learnt the hard way that many students WILL procrastinate if they can. The problem is that it’s stressful for everyone.  The student because they genuinely want to do well.  For parent(s) as they try to get extra practice times into an already busy schedule.  And, us as teachers because we also genuinely want the student to shine as well.

Give yourself & your students a buffer before the recital of when a song must be mastered.

Spend the rest of the time on high-level skills such as interpretation & performance strategies.

By setting the deadline much earlier, we save students from themselves (as my husband puts it when the twins seem set on making bad choices all day).  Procrastinating means a different song choice, instead of a recital performance the student isn’t proud of.

The bonus is that the remainder of the time before the recital is for interpretation & getting student performances solid.  When the day of the recital comes, students have worked out all the kinks, they have played under pressure, & they have had time to make their songs truly their own. It also means I’m not scrambling to get my own recital prep done in time.

Why it’s not mastered

What happens if a student REALLY wants to learn a piece for the recital, but doesn’t learn it in time?  Typically a student has not mastered a song for one of the following reasons:

  • Piece was too challenging
  • Cramming practice at the last minute
  • Student chooses not to use practice aids

The first reason is a tough one.  As the teacher, we need to find a way for our students to play the songs they love while also keeping things within their playing ability.  It’s a tough balancing act.

Students who practice regularly throughout the year typically continue that habit as they get their recital song mastered.  Students who don’t practice regularly won’t start now.  

And when a student chooses not to use practice aids, it’s often for the same reasons as not practicing.  If the habit isn’t there, a recital isn’t going to make a miraculous change.

But, there are ways to guide our students into better choices in the weeks & months leading up to the recital!

How to get that recital song mastered

As frustrating as student procrastination can be, I try to remind myself that students really DO want to well on their pieces.  It’s up to me to figure out how to help them.

Some ways to help students avoid procrastination & have great success with their recital pieces are:

  • Simplify an arrangement so it becomes a little easier than the student’s level
  • Link the arrangement to previous patterns or concepts they have already covered
  • Divide the song into smaller sections with weekly benchmarks/goals for each
  • Practice IN lesson the way you want the student to practice during the week
  • Provide weekly practice videos for each section
    • Online lessons:  Make a quick recording that is uploaded for the student either during lesson or right after
    • In-person lessons:  Use the STUDENT device so there is no excuse for not having access
  • Let parents know which practice aids their child has access to during each week
    • Examples: practice video, link to YouTube performance, colour-coded cues in music, etc.)
  • Encourage students to send videos during the week if they would like extra feedback (most students won’t take advantage of this, but it’s up to you if you are okay with getting a few videos)

And, a little fun is always a good thing.  Instead of endless repetitions on the piano, practicing for the recital can be fun!  A friendly studio challenge like students vs. the teacher is a great one for community building.  

It didn’t work … now what?

What happens if you do all of this & the student STILL does not learn their song by the deadline? Barring family emergencies …

It’s time for a hard conversation with the student about how they prepared for their recital song & why the song isn’t mastered.

Students, even my youngest, usually are very honest about how they could have changed their practice to be more successful.

One of my clients said that it was an eye-opener for her daughter to see how her lack of or inefficient practice (depending on the week) had meant that she didn’t get to perform her first choice.  Her daughter realized that because she hadn’t put in the effort beforehand, the cram sessions at the end didn’t get her the result she had wanted.

The week before the deadline, this student had been very motivated & had made great progress … but, it wasn’t enough to show me the song could be learnt in time.  Thankfully, the parent was very supportive of this life lesson, the student chose an alternate song to play for the recital, & we will continue working on the song she really wanted … but, only on a minor basis until after the recital when we can put our full focus on the piece.

If you, as a teacher, have done everything in your power to help a student master their recital songs … at this point, it’s up to the student to take responsibility for their practice.

In my studio, my students know that I want them to have the BEST performance at the recital.  It’s their chance to show off for their parents & family!  I’ll help them every which way I can to master the song they want.  But, if they choose not to practice or not use the tools I’ve given them … they need to choose a new song that they have already mastered.

Adding a little extra incentive

There are many ways to give a little extra incentive including the studio challenge I mentioned above.

Maybe you realized that several students are addicted to stopping & starting again if they make a mistake as they perform.  Get them to play with backing tracks!  Not only will it solve this problem, but the students are excited about choosing the style of the backing track.  Plus since they have already mastered their songs, they have several weeks of practicing with the backing track before the big day. 

I shared a tutorial on how I created backing tracks for my students using 2 apps!  It was a fun learning curve & I’m glad that I took the plunge.  It was a lot easier than I had originally thought & could see do more of this for my students (or myself as I practice).

The final weeks

With their recital song mastered, students may get bored playing the piece for weeks before the recital.  But, there is a way to keep practice new & fresh!

When my students have the chance to get off-the-bench & do something fun, they love it.  Thinking back to how much they had enjoyed using a choice-based system for practice activities, I created a new, shorter set that focused only on recital songs.  And, it was a hit!  In fact, the first student to send me videos of the “5 Ways Recital Activities” was my senior high student.  I had thought that only my elementary-aged students would be into it, but gave her the option to do these if she wanted.  A couple of days later, she texted 2 videos!

Using focused, but fun practice activities like “5 Ways Recital Activities” get students off-the-bench & doing those all-important repetitions in different ways.  Keeping it fun & light makes practice time something to look forward to.  And, it makes for great social media posts for your studio as well!

To get your copy of “5 Ways Recital Activities“, click below.

Get Your Copy of "5 Ways: Recital Prep Activities"!

NOTE: This article was originally published on April 20, 2018.  It has since been updated, but all the good stuff was still kept here!

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