There's a wonderful chapter in my current book - "The Piano Shop on the Left Bank" by Thad Carhart - that in six charming pages lays out the prototypical nightmarish piano recital that haunts the memories of so many people I know. These events, hosted by the author's piano teacher Miss Pemberton, were "half exam, half carnival." Let us examine several passages to see if we may identify the elements key to this anxiety-inducing tradition.
The first year that I went through this ordeal – I was nine years old – I didn't suspect what was in store until I actually entered the big room that was called the parlor, dressed in a blazer, with my hair slicked down. Then and only then did I experience the controlled terror of my peers: the stiff-legged walk to the front of the room, the explosion of sound from the big piano against a soundless gathering, the smattering of applause, and the rapid repetition of the sequence with the next student.
In this passage we find the following four key elements:
Key Element #1: Unsuspecting youth
Key Element #2: Formal dress
Key Element #3: Tepid audience
Key Element #4: Assembly line production
Let us read a bit further:
I attacked the keys as if they were the enemy, playing the piece straight through without a mistake. That is, I played all of the notes, but I must have taken it at double the usual tempo with no regard whatsoever for phrasing, much less interpretation. When I finished I felt the way a circus animal must feel that has just successfully performed a particularly difficult and silly trick, and my sense of disappointment was commensurate with my surprise that such a big deal was made of this strange ceremony.
I played in two more of Miss Pemberton's recitals, but each time it was like holding my breath and swimming underwater until I reached the other side, the end of the piece.
This is trickier. The author is writing about fear, the fear that paralyzes and turns our brains (or large portions of them) off. Of course it's scary to perform at first. But, the idea goes (and for me this was true), over time you get used to it and can focus on the music instead of the feel of all those eyes on you. Is it wrong to make kids do tricks with the hope that eventually the performances will become sincere? Fake it 'til you make it, right? I'm trying to put my finger on what bothers me here. I think it's this: we ask kids to do things that we ourselves often won't do. How often have I heard parents say, "Don't ask me to get up there!" And this seems unfair somehow. I'm gonna say that the silliness, the carnival quality, of the classic piano recital comes from the fact that, generally, adults don't participate. So let me distill what I claim is Key Element #5:
Key Element #5: Do as I say, not as I do
So now let me go out on a limb and imagine an ideal piano recital. What would that be like? Let's see... In my ideal world (where ice-cream is also free and everyone has a pony) kids would have attended a couple recitals – for friends, the boy next door, an older sibling – before being bamboozled with their own. Both performers and audience would dress up, because this is festive and signifies a special event, but everyone can define "dressing up" in their own way. The audience will hoot and holler when the mood calls for it – both during and after a performance. The mood is jovial, and we're-all-in-this-together. But most importantly, there would be adults performing too – whether adult students or parents and family and friends participating – so that we lead by example, which is, I believe, the best way to lead. (Yes, I do always perform at my studio's piano recitals!) And yes, there would be free ice-cream for everyone at the end.
Addendum: I must mention that 1) I think it's a miracle that parents do everything they do for their kids – lovingly and (mostly) patiently. A genuine, beautiful, miracle. Having parents, in addition to all that, play music and be happy to perform in a recital is part of a wild fantasy of mine and I want to acknowledge that there are lots of incredibly practical reasons this doesn't happen right now (e.g. it's hard to put dinner on the table when you're working on a duet of Turkey In the Straw). Also, 2) in the recitals I've hosted since becoming a piano teacher I have had some truly wonderful and memorable parent and adult participation - adult students (THANK YOU for getting up there!), moms, dads, grandmothers, family friends... Please keep it coming!!