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Piano Studio Concerts and Exams – What Works Best?

By Roberta Wolff | Exploring Exams and Recitals

Apr 05

What is the best way for you to use piano studio concerts? Should teachers play at these concerts? How do you deal with pressure from parents who just want their children to do exams? 

These are all queries that arise when discussing and planning performance opportunities for your students. When running a studio with numerous students, it can be difficult to find that perfect balance when it comes to recitals. Students are at different levels, some may be struggling with nerves, and others may not want to perform at all!

It is important to encourage all your students to perform, even if just one piece, so they can experience it and slowly begin to build confidence.

We are so lucky today to have Roberta Wolff providing her insights on piano studio concerts, exams, festivals and more. She is a renowned music educator from the United Kingdom and author of Music Me Piano Practice Resources. Roberta has written for us in the past, so it’s great to have her back. 

Keep an eye out for another post from Roberta soon, when she tackles that challenging topic of performance nerves and anxiety. Thanks, Roberta! 

The Performance Conundrum

Exams and recitals have one thing in common, and the utterance of that word, ‘performance’, is enough to induce a variety of nervous symptoms in any nearby student.

The irony is that most pupils were inspired to take up their instrument after watching friends or family perform. Students are attracted to the piano because they want to share music.  

How can teachers nurture this early, natural response and develop it into positive attitudes towards performance? What can teachers hope to gain from organising regular concerts? How can you use exams and recitals to get the best out of your students? 

Piano Studio Concerts

“Regarding the end of term concert, I am not available until 2054″. 

This is an actual reply from one of my adult students and trainee teachers.

As a private piano teacher in a new area, when I started up my studio I had very little support.  

However, I seem to have attracted considerate families and good students. Building a community around your studio, rather than a base of paying customers, is a great way to ensure your business grows. 

Organising end of term ‘concerts’ is a good way to transform your studio into a community. Here’s why:

  • Professionalism – End of term recitals say this studio is a place to progress and learn many useful skills. They also show that the teacher is a professional who considers every aspect of musical development.  
  • Good Business Sense – A weekly lesson fee includes more than just contact time, for example; planning, invoicing and end of term recitals. Parents will prioritise an event if they think they are paying for it. In turn, the studio will attract committed students and parents who value the teacher. In the case of missed lessons, it is useful to remind parents that as well as receiving work for their child by email, they will also still receive the extras, such as studio concerts.  
  • Goodwill – Taking time to build up good relationships during these events results in much fewer quibbles and great word of mouth advertising.
  • Developing Musical Skills – Students develop their listening skills, as well as performance skills and confidence. 
  • Ambition – Students are motivated by hearing pieces they wish to play in the future.
  • Increased focus – Students (often with the support of their parents) will increase and prioritise practice before a performance.  
  • Fun – If students feel they belong to a community and enjoy the connections this brings, learning piano will have a positive impact and association for them.
  • Performance Practice – These regular, ‘safer’ events take pressure off the performer, thus providing space for performance skills to develop.

End of term concerts can take any format, large and formal, smaller groups per age, with or without parents in the audience. I choose a mixture of the above to fit in with my other commitments.

To Play or not to Play?  

Should teachers play at their own end of term concerts? Consensus is split.

However, I do play. Here’s why:

  • To teach by example. I discuss my preparation and nerves so students can learn to manage their own.
  • To show what a real-life, first-take performance is like, and to highlight the importance of communication
  • To expose students to a greater variety of musical styles
  • To improve critical listening
  • To inspire
  • To foster a theme of openness and honesty in my studio, showing we are all going to be learning forever

Festivals

“A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are made for.”  John A Shedd

For students who are more inclined to perform and those eager to push themselves, festivals are a great experience.

However, do take care to choose the ‘right festival’, one which supports your teaching ethos.

I prefer not to focus on the competitive element, and rather focus on what the student will gain. A festival piece will need to go through several practise performances before the day. Also, the young performer will require coaching and careful performance preparation.   

Exams

“Teaching that tells the student exactly what to do and how to do it is not teaching at all but cramming”.  Tobias Matthay, Musical Interpretation (E Baldwin, 1913)

There are endless arguments both for and against exams.  If a student is progressing, being exposed to a wide curriculum and performing regularly, then exams are not essential to the process.  

However, parents do love them.

Unfortunately, the pressure to progress through exam grades can inadvertently become downright destructive to the development of an independent, rounded, musician.

Exclusively following an exam syllabus is a limiting musical upbringing.  

So what can teachers do to gently and regularly divert those parents/students who risk getting caught on the ‘exam-express’?  

It is important to have your own set of expectations for pupils to fulfil at each stage. This ensures you get the chance to teach deeply and consolidate your student’s learning.  

Here are some other useful diversions, (sorry if the grading terminology is not the same):

  • From the beginning, discuss the 3 stages of skill; elementary (grade 1-3), intermediate (grade 4-5) and advanced (grade 6-8). Set the expectation that extra time is required to move confidently from elementary to intermediate and intermediate to advanced.  
  • Run studio-wide termly projects in topics like composition (all students write a piece, learn to use free notation software and then share their music), improvisation (each student prepares an improvisation for the end of term concert), duets and accompaniment (team up with a violin teacher so students can play together). These projects are great fun and teachers get to indulge their own interests whilst broadening students’ musical experiences. [You can use the search function at the top right to find help on these topics].
  • The 10/20/30/40-piece challenge, this is popular in the UK now. Rather than focus on just three or four exam pieces, set many pieces for the students to learn, starting below their current level. This encourages independent learning and consolidates skills.
  • Do a theory exam, or just complete the workbook.
  • Ask for scales to be learnt before exam pieces are started. Engage the student in a wonderful non-exam piece which they don’t want to stop playing.
  • Choose exam pieces and then ‘realise’ that one piece has a new technique which will require a study first, and one is in a new key, making it necessary to experience that key in a non-exam piece first.
  • Do a pop song that your student loves.
  • Keep up with what’s going on at school. Are there talent contests or opportunities to play that you could help your students prepare for?
  • Educate parents on the place of exams in musical tuition.
  • Tell parents that the exam syllabus can be started and that all they need to do first is find ___minutes, 6 days a week for their child’s practice to take place. Tell them you are sure that with support the exam will be a positive experience for their child.

Conclusion

Creating opportunities for students to perform will realise rewards for every student and your studio as a whole.

Exams and recitals, when used correctly, can be beneficial and motivate your students.

What do you think about exams and recitals? How do you use performance opportunities? How do you get creative with your piano studio concerts?

Let me know in the comments!

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About the Author

I am a piano teacher, mentor and writer based in Surrey, UK. I am also author of the "highly recommended" Music, Me, Piano Practice Resources. My students cover a wide range of ages and abilities; there is something new to be learnt from each of them. I love finding unique ways of inspiring each musician I meet and sharing ideas with others. You can visit me at my website by clicking here.

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