Piano Recital Time: 8 Tips to help your Beginner students play their very best

What do you remember about your earliest performing experiences? Likely you remember more of the bad experiences (memory slips and mistakes) because somehow those are more memorable. I’m sure we can all relate!

Now that you’re a piano teacher, you can ease your beginners into their first performing experiences, to make positive memories. With a few tricks up your sleeve, you can help them approach their first piano recitals with confidence.

1. Practice duets in lessons

As you teach your beginners throughout the year in your private lessons, play duets with them frequently, maybe even weekly.

This ensemble playing will help your beginners develop the aural sensitivity to stay in better time with your playing. It will also help them learn how to match you in tone and expression over a number of pieces.

When it comes to recital time and you want to play a duet with them, they’ll already have the required duet skills and be comfortable on the bench with you.

2. Practice the timing of hand lifts

It’s helpful to practice the finer points of duet performance.

Duet partners lift their hands up to the piano keys together (at the same time) prior to beginning to play.

This video shows how to lift hands at the same time for a simultaneous start. Whispered count-in.

At the end of the performance, partners hold their final notes for the same duration, then lift their hands off of the piano keys together.

If you leave this detail for the week or weeks leading up to the recital, often it won’t sink in. Your students may be too nervous at the recital to remember how to lift together if you only cover it once or twice.

It takes time to develop the peripheral vision or knowing how to look to one another for timing checks. It also take time to learn the physical sensitivity to lift the hands together. It’s better if you create good performance habits all year.

In your lessons, once you and your beginners decide to play a duet, ask them to watch closely and lift their hands at the same time as you. It will become second nature by the time of the recital.

Exception: If one performer begins to play before the other, it is customary for them to lift their hands to the piano first and for the second performer to wait until their part begins.

This video shows one duet partner lifting and beginning before the other. They finish their last notes and lift from the piano together.

3. Count-in or gesture?

Throughout the lesson year, get a feel for how your students prefer to receive communication on tempo and starting to play at the same time. There are two ways.

The first gives more support, and that’s to actually whisper a free count-in measure before starting to play. This gives your students a no-nonsense cue for the tempo.

If the piece has four beats per measure, you’d whisper, “One, two three, four” in the tempo of the piece, then begin playing together on the next predicted downbeat.

This performance of Jolly Pachelbel shows me counting in a free measure before we begin the duet:

This performance of Jolly Pachelbel shows me whispering a count-in.

The second count-in strategy is more intuitive and artistic. I learned this technique from Mary Gae George.

Beginners can learn how to predict the tempo and downbeat of a duet simply from your upbeat gesture. It involves the same kind of body language and technique that conductors use.

With an upbeat gesture, you show the value of a beat before the predicted first downbeat of the piece. You do this by lifting your wrist or wrists, like taking a breath before singing. This nonverbal approach looks more polished.

Your students will learn to “read” this gesture and know by the speed of your movement how much time a beat will get. They’ll also learn to predict the timing of the first beat and when to begin.

If you keep developing this performance skill over time, eventually students will get better and better at following your lead.

This video shows a performance with a beginner in which we began to play together after only an upbeat gesture.

This performance of Three Little Bells shows how a beginner can start from an upbeat gesture.

4. Follow your student’s lead

If you look and listen closely to the video above, you’ll notice that our performance tempo ended up being slightly slower than my gesture. Sometimes this happens with beginners. (Maybe I was a little too optimistic about the tempo.)

But you’ll also hear that as soon as I heard my student’s first notes, I immediately recognized that she was playing slower than my upbeat gesture and adjusted, myself, so that I ended up playing in synch with her.

Beginners can’t be expected to adjust to you, so it’s your job to be sensitive and adjust to them.

You know how musicians are taught to keep going no matter what? Well, that rule doesn’t apply to beginner duets.

While we teach and aim for a steady beat, one thing trumps that in a performance. More important than a steady beat is musical togetherness and giving children performances that make them feel successful. Forging ahead without losing a beat is for pit bands, not beginner duets in a recital. 

So, if a student pauses or stumbles or outright changes tempo in the middle of a duet, find them where they are and keep the music together as best you can. It’s up to you to make them sound good.

5. Duet stage deportment

When two people perform a duet together, it simply looks more polished if the performers are in synch with each other from the moment they walk on stage.

In the lessons leading up to the recital, teach and review walking to the middle of the stage together (even if you’re only pretending in your studio). Review standing together as the name of the piece and composer are announced, walking to the piano together and sitting at the same time.

[Lifting hands together at the beginning and ending of the piece have already been covered.]

Then, review standing together, bowing together (which means the Primo performer will need to give the Secondo performer time to come around and stand side-by-side), and leaving the stage together. All of these steps simply make the performance look better.

This video showcases brothers Lucas and Arthur Jussen and shows how they work in synch with one another.

This performance demonstrates how good it looks for duet partners to be in step.

6. Program your beginners to watch and learn

Are you accustomed to creating a piano recital program that puts your beginners at the beginning, progresses through your students based on their level and ends with your most advanced students?

If so, your beginners, who have never performed in a piano recital (and may never have been to a piano recital), are asked to perform first. They will play before ever seeing for themselves what a piano recital looks and sounds like.

Instead, consider switching it up and programming your beginners a little later to give them a chance to watch and learn.

I choose my first performer very carefully, usually a second or third year Late Elementary student who is still on the younger side, yet is confident, knows their piece well and has a few recitals to their credit. This sets the entire student body at ease.

Page 1 of my 2014 Spring Recital shows that my entire first section was performed by experienced students.

This helps your beginners learn through observation how it’s done. They can watch more experienced students approach the stage, announce their piece, perform and take a bow. Once they see these steps enacted by several students, they’ll be better at going through all of the motions, themselves.

Another thing I do for all of my students is treat the recital, itself, as a learning experience. Part of my opening speech is a narrated demonstration to all students how to go through the steps of performance. This reminder helps.

7. Program one piece at a time

Do you program students to play all of their pieces in one trip to the piano? That’s a lot for any student to handle all at once.

Instead, consider creating themed sections in your program that sprinkle a student’s performances throughout the recital.

This has two benefits. First, it gives their family and friends a reason to stay for the entire recital. If the child performs one piece at a time in the first, fifth and seventh “themed” sections, their family must stay to hear them.

Second, it allows the child to focus on one piece at a time, which encourages the best performance possible. The child is usually able to focus better when performing only one piece at a time.

Pages 3-4 of my 2014 Spring Recital shows that my students play only one piece with each trip to the piano.

8. Duets before solos

Program beginner-teacher duets ahead of any solos they may be playing. This will allow your student’s first experience on the big stage to be by your side. With your support and help through possible mistakes and your cheerful reassurance, they will gain more confidence to perform. 

Then, if they’ve learned a piece that doesn’t have a teacher duet, program it later in the recital.

It’s also acceptable to program only duets for small beginners in their first recitals.

Page 4 of my 2014 Spring Recital shows that by this point all children are playing solos.

A piano beginner’s first recital need not be overwhelming.

Practice playing duets together each week in lessons.

Each time you play a duet together, go through all of the motions including:

  • Lifting your hands to the piano together,
  • Using a count-in or upbeat wrist gesture to cue the first downbeat,
  • Listening that you begin and end the music together,
  • Lifting away from the piano together at the end.

In the lessons leading up to the recital, teach stage deportment (how to walk on and off and how to bow). Also, review these steps in your welcome speech before the recital begins.

When you create your recital program, allow time for your beginners to settle in to the recital:

  • Program more experienced students to play first so your beginners can observe them,
  • Program one piece at a time to allow your students more focus,
  • Be sure to program duets before solos so they can gain confidence with you by their side.

Do you have any other tips you use to help your beginners with their first recitals? Please leave a note for other teachers in the comments!

Do you like this post and want more? In the side menu click “follow” to get notifications of my posts in your inbox.

I appreciate shares, comments and likes. Happy teaching! ❤

Rebekah Maxner, composer, blogger, piano teacher. Follow my blog for great tips!

Video of the Week

Baby Bird Blues (Early Elementary, Prep A), an early improvising piece that encourages confidence in kids to doodle around on the black keys! From the print and eBook Rock the Boat, 11 Early Elementary piano works with optional teacher duets. Or, Check out the studio-licensed Baby Bird Blues eSheet!

Listen to a sound clip of Don’t Hurry, Be Hoppy!

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