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Coping with a Recital: Some Tips

Laurie Niles

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Published: May 1, 2010 at 2:44 PM [UTC]

"You know that it's always like this, don't you?" said one of my colleagues, handing me some banana as I fretted a little, trying to wish the butterflies away before stepping onstage for my recital last week.

I do, actually. I know it's like this and ever will be. The difference is that this time, I didn't let a bunch of butterflies scare me away from playing a solo recital. The potential for having a really fun time was just too alluring – and I'm really happy that I did it.

It all started a few months ago, while I was watching my son do push-ups at his jujitsu lesson, way too early on a Saturday morning.

"We need somebody to do the next McKinley Salon," said Buddy Zapata, whose son was also on the mat. He's a fellow parent at McKinley School, the big Pasadena public school my kids have attended for the last eight years. Our "McKinley Salon" series is a fundraiser in which various parents perform, or show artwork. He played with his band for the last one.

"That sounds like a solo recital," I said, "No."

Jujitsu class lasts for two hours, and Buddy is a sweet-talker. By the end of it I was agreeing to maybe think about it.

So I tried not to think about it.

Oh what the heck, I'll call a pianist I like to play with, he is a doctoral student at USC. There's no way on Earth he'll have the time to do this thing. Thank God.

"I would love to play with you!" he said. Turns out, his doctoral recital was scheduled for a week before this date, so he'd be free of that pressure.

Well, that changed things. What could I do with piano? Hmmm, I could do everything I've been hankering to do for years. I smiled. Okay, maybe I wanted to do this after all!

I called up Buddy. "I'll do it," I said. "I'll make it about the violin, and showing people what it can do. It might actually be fun!"

Fun! I decided to dust off my Saint-Saens "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso," the "Blues" movement to the Ravel Sonata; the first movement to the Prokofiev Op. 94 (because I'd just heard Augustin Hadelich play it and fell back in love with it). And a few new things, Rachel Barton Pine had sent me her wonderful new book set of Maud Powell transcriptions and notes (we'll feature an interview about this next week on and so I decided to try performing one, the spiritual "Deep River," a version by Samuel Coleridge Taylor that was transcribed for violin by Maud Powell. And last but not least, I'd wanted for a very long time to play Mark O'Connor's Blackberry Mull, a trio for violin, cello and viola, and two colleagues, Carrie and Dane Little made that very fun project possible.

I practiced like I know you practice (a lot), and I publicized like I know you publicize (a lot) – though this time I had two amazing people help, photographer Elizabeth Jebef took this miracle picture of me that makes me look 20 years younger, and graphic designer Loren Roberts created posters and postcards.

Here are a few things I re-learned along the way:

You have to publicize a concert or recital long before you are ready to play it. The publicity has to begin at least a month and a half, maybe two months, before the concert, and you have to paper the town. You also have to spread it by word-of-mouth, and you have to start doing so before you feel 100 percent great about how the music is coming along. It's a little painful, but you must do it! There is nothing more heartbreaking, for me, than to go to a recital in which the performer has practiced and prepared, agonized over the music, only to find that I am one of 14 people in the audience. Not right! By the time you step on stage, you are ready.  You want everyone there. So tell everyone, become a fountain of "please come to my recital." With huge efforts, I had an audience of about 80. I'm happy with it, but I would have loved about 250!

Perform for people beforehand. Running through pieces in front of friends and colleagues, like a performance, can be very revealing. Things that never seemed to go wrong in the practice room can sometimes rear their ugly heads during a run-through, and those are the areas where you should direct a laser beam. If I'd had more time, I would have had more run-throughs and taped at least a few, so I could really analyze what was going right and what needed attention and get deeper than the obvious things.

Always keep your audience in mind. This is what made this recital so fun for me; I wanted to show my friends that the violin is more than a squeakbox with which kids attempt to make noise. Also, I wanted to show them that the music written for violin is engaging and fun. I played pieces I loved, but with restraint, and with a thought to what I wanted to convey to my audience. This gave me a sense of purpose that went beyond proving something to myself – it was more about giving something.

Commitment helps. If you can nail down what you are going to play, with whom and exactly when, you'll have certainty about what direction you are going and exactly how to prepare. Also, getting postcards and posters up and distributed a month in advance made me feel completely committed: there's no backing out, this thing is happening. I was on board with it, and somehow this took away some of the desire to run away when it came time to play!

Be able to perform every piece a month before the date. If something is going to be memorized, it needs to be fully memorized a month before the performance date.

And eat a banana. I think maybe it helped!

From Brian Hong
Posted on May 1, 2010 at 2:56 PM

 Mrs. Niles, you are a huge inspiration to me and my studies...hearing about this just made me fueled to go and work even harder!

Congratulations for a successful recital, and if I lived in LA I would have been there.


From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 1, 2010 at 3:12 PM

 This was so much fun to read, and so interesting. More details, please! I'm all ears!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 1, 2010 at 3:16 PM

 Did Elizabeth Jebef take the photo of you you're using here, then? Love, love, love it.

From Margaret Lee
Posted on May 1, 2010 at 8:35 PM

Very helpful and inspiring! Violin has often seemed to me too much just something I do for myself--my hobby, my therapy, etc. It'd take too much to prepare something where other people could enjoy it, is what I've thought before.

From Becky Jenkinson
Posted on May 1, 2010 at 11:02 PM

Thanks for sharing the process, Laurie, and also the tips.....not that I am planning a recital any time soon, but this is good to know.  Thanks also for posting the recital.  I have enjoyed the great music!   I am inspired!  

From Gerald Klickstein
Posted on May 2, 2010 at 1:36 AM

Congratulations, Laurie, on presenting a successful recital! And thanks for sharing your insights. I applaud your recommendation regarding preconcert run-throughs - tremendously valuable, especially when recorded. In fact, on The Musician's Way Blog, my article "Practicing Performance" describes three types of run-throughs that help us be in top shape for concerts. I invite readers to take a look:

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on May 2, 2010 at 4:49 AM

Laurie, that was really inspiring.  I could feel you going from hesitant to enthusiastic about the recital.  I think you are a born performer and teacher.  Those two roles are similar.  You are giving something to the student or the audience:  enjoyment, understanding, excitement, curiosity, desire to hear or learn more, and/or some basal, human connection.  Just reading about your recital got me excited.  Bravo!

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on May 2, 2010 at 7:55 AM

Like all other said, Laurie, you are our inspiration!Brava!!  I'm going to two summer camps this year and will try to do as many performances as I can because like you said, the fun time is just too alluring to miss. I will keep focusing on musicality, especally when things go shaky technically. I believe that people come to listen to me usually want me to do well and those who don't, they shouldn't be there to waste their time.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 2, 2010 at 7:17 PM

Great blog, Gerald! Thanks for your supportive comments, everyone. Terez, yes, Elizabeth took that picture, she is great!

I look forward to hearing about everyone else's recitals...'tis the season!

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