With schools back in session around the country, professional performance venues re-opening to in-person audiences, and the pandemic not yet over, music teachers are faced with the question: how do we facilitate meaningful, safe, inclusive performance experiences for our students this year? I have mostly questions and a few answers drawn from my own experience this fall - and fully expect this will differ from teacher to teacher and situation to situation. Hopefully my ideas will be either directly helpful or help teachers consider what setup might work best for their own studio.
1. Safety First
Consider first what local and federal public health ordinances are in place, your own personal safety requirements, and the requirements of the venue. To consider: indoors vs outdoors, masks, distancing, sanitizing, vaccination requirements? Should students bring their own stands? Will programs be printed or sent digitally to avoid shared materials all together?
Communicate these to your students and their families clearly, and in writing, long before the recital, and again right before. You may also want to post signs at the entrance of the venue (if they don’t already have them), to work with the venue to pre-set seating to facilitate distancing, and to use tape to indicate where performers should stand.
2. Core Values and Goals
What is your goal in having the recital? What values of your pedagogy and studio community do you most want to shine through? If scheduling an in-person recital, what have you and your students and their families been longing for the most while online, and how can you incorporate those elements into your performance?
For me, my main values are facilitating a sense of community both among my students and their families, and ensuring that my students can play their solos fluently and with an audible piano part.
This means that I give some structured socialization activities during the recital - for example, on Zoom, I encourage them to write supportive compliments to each other in the chat, and to use the applause emojis liberally. In-person, I recently asked my students to find one person they knew AND one person they’d never spoken to and tell each of them something they enjoyed about their performance. And, for in-person recitals, I include at least one group piece so my students have the experience of playing together.
It also means that if a piece is composed with piano, I make sure there’s either a collaborative pianist present in-person, that a recorded piano part is available. We have been longing for the ability to make music together, so it was important to find a pianist who could play with our in-person students, and to incorporate some group pieces so we could all play together.
3. What options are there for families with different needs?
It’s important that the recital first and foremost be something that is safe and feasible from a teacher's perspective, but we also need to consider the different needs of families in different situations during the pandemic. If you’re planning an in-person recital, but there are families who are not yet comfortable being at an in-person event, will you offer an online option as well or will those students need to wait to perform until they feel safe attending in-person? If a student just can't stand Zoom anymore, will you allow them to sit an online recital out until in-person can happen again? If a student has an un-missable schedule conflict, will you allow them to submit a pre-recorded video in lieu of coming to a live event? I think all of us have been much more flexible out of necessity because of Covid, but as we move into the next phase of the pandemic, it’s important to decide which boundaries to hold and where we can flex.
4. How the heck do you schedule this thing?
It seems like no matter when I schedule a recital, someone has a conflict or needs to leave early. (I solved the leaving early problem for in-person recitals by always scheduling a group piece that every student plays in last on the program. Magically, I had no more requests for early departures).
I try to be mindful of school holidays, weekends for school orchestra events (district or regional auditions, district assessments), and I completely avoid the month of May because it’s testing mayhem and I don’t want to add to my students’ stress. I of course excuse student absences for major family events such as a milestone wedding anniversary, but due to some of the video possibilities that have become possible, they may be able to attend an online recital even while out of town, or to submit a video so they still have an opportunity for a polished performance.
For the rest of it, I make it clear in my studio policy that recital attendance and participation is a requirement for being in my studio, and I give dates and times a minimum of two months in advance to give families plenty of time to plan. My studio is pretty high-intensity in terms of performance, so we do four recitals a year (in various formats) in addition to monthly studio classes, so my students know from the day they join that performance is a priority for us.
If it’s hard to find that perfect date that everyone can attend, it might even be possible to do a recital as a pre-recorded video, then to schedule a “premiere” that students attend online and type compliments in the comments to each other, either watching live or after the fact.
When offering multiple options, it's helpful to try to keep it all to one day so that all the students are in a similar place where it comes to preparation, and that a teacher can be in recital mode for one event, vs several over a longer period of time. Consider your own energy and bandwidth as well when scheduling, so you can be fully present for each of your students and really show them how important their performance is to you.
5. Room Capacity and Audience
Covid has changed literally everything about the way we gather. Check with your venue to find out what their new room capacity is, and decide what your audience limit is for in-person recitals. It may be necessary to divide your studio into smaller groups and have a series of mini-recitals, or you might need to limit students to a maximum number of guests who attend with them. As with other Covid safety precautions, communicate these clearly and in writing to your students and their families well in advance. Consider recording either an in-person or online recital and providing the video to families to share with extended families who aren’t able to attend.
For online recitals, numbers don't tend to be a problem, but online safety is needs to be a consideration - while rare, Zoom bombing does happen at times. Create a new link exclusively for your online recital, share it via email with your students only (don’t post it publicly), always enable the waiting room, and ask students to have their guests name themselves “Mary’s Aunt” or send you the names of who they’re expecting to attend so you recognize them in the waiting room.
How will rehearsals take place for your recital? Will there be practice recordings? Will students rehearse with the pianist individually? How and when will group pieces be rehearsed?
For a recent studio recital, I asked our collaborative to make recordings of my students’ pieces about a month in advance so that my students could rehearse with the piano recording any time they wanted. This was a Covid-adaptation that I fully intend to keep. It is so much better for my students to be able to listen to and practice with the piano part as many times as they want, and to be able to use an app like the Amazing Slow Downer to even practice under tempo, rather than just to be able to run through their piece once. Any students who wanted to rehearse in-person with the pianist coordinated that directly with the pianist, and then we checked in and set tempos immediately before the recital. I also created practice tracks for all the group pieces for the recital, and built in rehearsal time immediately before the recital to rehearse the group pieces rather than asking my students to come in-person on an additional day and time for a separate rehearsal.
6. Back-Up Plans
Even the best laid plans can be disrupted by, say, a global pandemic. An outdoor recital can be eradicated by inclement weather. Consider having an online recital plan in the event of a new government lockdown, or a student or family needing to quarantine because of a positive Covid case or potential exposure. For my studio’s recent recital, I offered a Zoom recital for those who preferred it, and had piano recordings for everyone for rehearsal anyway. While we were fortunate enough not to need it, it would have been an easy pivot for us, and as a teacher organizing the event, I felt better knowing that plan was in place. For outdoor recitals, select an inclement weather back-up date and having students reserve both dates on their calendars, or have an online recital as a back-up if it’s not possible to play outside.
7. Community and Inclusion
Especially with so many different options, it can be challenging to have a sense of community and togetherness. Think about how you share the recital among your studio. Consider listing both online and in-person performances on the same program, and sharing recordings of both recitals with your whole studio so they can all see each other’s performances.
I think especially with a studio with a very enthusiastic return to in-person, it may feel isolating to those still online, or even like the online experience is a lesser one. Including recordings from both recitals, and creating a combined program can help build that sense of community and inclusion.
I hope these thoughts are helpful to anyone planning a performance - and if you have additional things to consider that I haven’t thought of, or suggestions for recital planning these days, I’d love to hear them in the comments!
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