Creating Meaningful Performance Experiences for Students, During The Pandemic And Beyond

February 9, 2021, 2:30 PM · Since the pandemic upended our world, artists around the world have been navigating the question: How to we create meaningful performance experiences for ourselves and our audiences?

online recital

Studio teachers, too, have grappled with the question of how to hold recitals that allow students to maintain a sense of progress. How do we create online recitals that are musically effective and personally meaningful? As more people are vaccinated and the demand for a return to in-person events intensifies, the question we have to ask ourselves is, "Why?" Why are we having this event? Who is it for? What will we get out of it?

In my own studio, recitals are a major priority, with four formal recitals a year, two through Mason Community Arts Academy, where I teach, and two with just my own students. Additionally, students sometimes perform separate solo recitals, participate in honors recitals, and perform in community outreach recitals. In other words, we perform a lot in my studio. Frequent performance builds confident performance skills, so that students can share their music - which is the ultimate goal, after all. Performing also gives students the opportunity to connect with and support others who are on similar musical journeys, and for their families to come together and create a community.

The recital, however, should not be just an item on a long to-do list. Certainly, students and their families have a lot of activities and events, and sometimes they conflict with the recital. Ideally though, the studio recital would be *the* event of the weekend, so students can be in a great mental and emotional place for their own performances, with their families fully present to support and connect with their fellow violinists - not dashing out the door as soon as they’re done performing to get to the next event.

We have experimented with a number of recital scenarios since last March, including pre-recorded videos, live performances on Zoom and in-person (small groups, masked, distanced, outdoor) recitals. Through my own experiences and hearing feedback from my students and their parents, I’ve found that what students enjoy or really hate about each of these experiences widely varies, and that this is connected to what they enjoy and take away from our traditional in-person recitals.

I’ve put together four profiles of recital performer personalities and what motivates them. Which one resonates most with you? If you’re a teacher or parent, which one matches your student or students? If we can identify the various elements of a recital that motivate different students, we can create an experience that is meaningful for all.

1. The Final Project

This student is focused on presenting a final performance of his or her piece. Whether it’s in-person, live online or pre-recorded, the student's focus is on preparing the music to the highest level possible and doing it well. The student is motivated simply by having that performance or recording date on the calendar and most satisfied by the performance experience itself. This student may feel the most overwhelmed if his or her preparation is shaky or if perfectionism keeps them from enjoying the music.

2. The Celebrity Experience/Special Occasion

This student loves the entire experience of a recital, which is a special occasion for both the student and his or her entire family. Getting to perform in a new location adds to the excitement, and this student is often the best-dressed in the crowd. This student may appear to have his or her very own "paparazzi" in attendance, with multiple family members jostling to get a great camera angle for photos and videos. At the reception, this student may be balancing flowers with along with the plate of cookies. He or she may not be especially aware of how well the performance actually went (especially if the student is very young) but definitely absorbs and enjoys the atmosphere and the attention.

3. The Squad

There are students who just love getting to see their violin friends at any event. They break away from their parents and head toward their friends as soon as they enter the room, warming up together and taking selfies. They are just as intent on their friends’ performances as they are on their own. In studios with the same core groups of students, these can be very special friendships. For example, I have students who are now in middle school who have known each other since kindergarten or first grade. This community connection can also be very life-giving for their parents, as they celebrate their children’s progress and connect with other musical families.

4. The Foodies or, "I’m Just Here For The Food."

Inevitably, at least one student always asks me the essential question: "Will be cookies after the recital?" The fancier the food, the more the excitement. At one special event a few years ago, we ordered pizza for the kids after the recital, and they talked about that event for weeks afterwards.

* * *

So, how can our understanding of our different students’ motivation inform our event planning for pandemic recitals and beyond? We can use it to shape experiences that meet their needs, define a clear purpose for each event we have, and help prepare our students for the event.

In The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker writes, "Having a purpose simply means knowing why you’re gathering and doing your participants the honor of being convened for a reason." Once we clarify our specific purpose for an event, online or in-person, we can clearly share that with our students and their parents. When they understand the purpose and their essential role in the event, they will be much more likely to buy into the experience, even in the age of Zoom fatigue.

Based on our four types of recital personalities, here are ideas to incorporate into your next virtual event.

1. The Final Project

For this student to feel comfortable and confident, preparation is key. They need to have adequate time to learn, polish, and memorize their piece and practice with any piano tracks. At the online event, a polished product - good, flattering photos and a high quality video recording (if you have a second device that can be recording them in the room rather than relying on the Zoom recording this is best) can help them feel seen. And finally, they need specific, affirming feedback on their performance. They need to know their effort mattered.

2. The Celebrity Experience

This is a tricky one online, but can still be done! Zoom filters or backgrounds can add a festive atmosphere to the Zoom room. The "Spotlight" feature makes it so one performer is highlighted for every audience member. Encouraging students to dress up as they would for an in-person performance will also help it feel like a special occasion rather than just another Zoom class.

Parents at home can help create the atmosphere of a special occasion. Family and friends from around the world can attend a live Zoom event, or can receive videos after a performance. Students can dress as they would for a live performance. If parents would normally give their child flowers after recital, that can still happen. Parents can take photos and post them on social media (with permission!) or share them in the family album. And, if the student wants even more live performance opportunities, parents can arrange a special video call to a family member or even an outdoor performance for neighbors, to make the day feel more special.

3. The Squad

For creating community and bringing friends together, the Zoom chat is your best friend. Encourage students and families to use the chat throughout the event to share compliments and support with the performers. Once the performers finish, they can scroll back through the chat and read their messages. Emoji reactions also provide a fun way for students to respond in real time to something they love in the performance.

Hints: It might be helpful to engage a few students who are particularly outgoing and who have been in the studio for awhile to be the instigators in the chat to help get it going. Also, in a very large studio, it can be overwhelming to be expected to give every single performer a compliment! Splitting the students into groups before the concert and asking them to look out for everyone in their group can help prevent chat fatigue and ensure that each performer gets an equal amount of compliments and attention.

For after-recital festivities, smaller groups of students could check in with each other via group text or a small video chat (or even an outdoor meet up) to have even more social connection.

4. The Foodie

This is purely up to the students and their families. Teachers can encourage students to share what their post-recital treat is - or, families could make the recital like a movie night. Have snacks ready to go as soon as the performer finisheds (or, if the videos are pre-recorded, snack the entire time). Having special snacks or even a celebratory meal after the recital will help even a Zoom recital feel like a special event.

A final, important aspect of any online event is anticipating technical difficulties and communicating procedures in advance so the students and their families feel safe and secure in the room:

We’ve all become more adept at creating online performances, and I hope these ideas help you make your own next performance more meaningful for everyone involved.

And, as an in-person performances return, it’s more essential than ever to create experiences that are safe and meaningful - not just "in-person" because that’s what everyone says they want. Any musical event can have clear purpose and create a sense of community and belonging for the audience. We all need that now, more than ever.

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February 9, 2021 at 10:17 PM · Well written. These are great suggestions, and very useful.

As far as things go around here, I'm participating in an Adult Zoom Valentine Violin Soiree this Saturday. We'll all dress up and play romantic tunes. There will be wine, cheese, and chocolate cookies!

February 10, 2021 at 02:06 AM · Okay I'm in that for the food, Michael....

February 10, 2021 at 02:26 AM · Michael, that sounds so fun!

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