How to Host an Online Music Recital on Zoom

May 4, 2020, 2:53 PM · I usually hold my spring and fall violin studio recitals in a beautiful, familiar little chapel with nice acoustics and a grand piano. In the Spring 2020, with in-person gatherings on hold during the pandemic, this was not possible. So I decided to hold the spring recital online, via Zoom!

online recital on Zoom

Since many teachers and students are facing the same limitations on gatherings, I'd like to share what I did and what I learned, in case it can help you hold a successful online recital. I'm also including some specific guidelines that I communicated to parents and students, and I invite you to adapt and use those if you wish.

There are many options for how to do this, so please share your ideas in the comments section at the end.

Purpose of a Recital

First, it's important to remember why we give recitals, so that we can aim for the same goals online. I invite you to make your own list, but here is why I feel recitals are important for my own students:

These became my goals for giving an online recital.

Preparing Musically: Piano Accompaniment

First, I knew that having piano accompaniment would be a challenge for an online recital, and that I needed solve this right away.

For four of my students, their parents were able to accompany them on violin or piano, so I provided duet parts where needed. I saw this as a really nice opportunity, for students to perform with their parents! (This could also work if a sibling could play with them.)

For the others, I wanted to give them the best accompaniment possible. At this point, two musicians in different locations cannot play together live on Zoom or on any platform, due to the inherent lag time on the Internet. I'd already lined up my go-to collaborator, pianist Benjamin Salisbury, to play for this recital, which no longer was going to be in-person. So I called him up and said, HELP!" (or something along those lines).

We decided that the best option would be for him to create high-quality audio files (MP4s) of the piano part, that the students could play out loud on a speaker in the room where they were performing. They could also play the piano tracks from a computer, but it would need to be one other than the one they are Zooming with (as this creates some issues with input-output).

As always, I decided a month in advance which piece each student would play, in consultation with that student. (Ideally, the piece is already well-learned and memorized by that point.) I gave the full list of everyone's pieces to Ben the pianist three weeks before the recital, which was May 2. He recorded the accompaniment parts with a high-quality mic and had them back to me within a week. I immediately sent each track to each parent and student to download. MP4 tracks aren't actually huge files; in some cases I simply texted the track to the parent and that worked just fine!

This gave each student two weeks to practice with the "piano part," and we had two lessons to "rehearse" with the piano part before the performance.

NOTE: It is VERY different requirement, to ask a student to fit his or her playing to an accompaniment track, rather having a sympathetic and forgiving accompanist follow their playing, whatever happens. So it was important to have these two weeks to get used to the accompaniment and play it together many times. The good news is that the accompaniment track doesn't change, so a student who practices with the track can get used to tempos, pauses, etc.

It was very important to me that the students could use these accompaniment tracks without frustration. In some cases, I had to ask Ben to tweak the accompaniment. For example, one student was playing the third Seitz concerto in Suzuki Book 4 - a piece with a lot of rubato, starts-and-stops, and tempo changes. Another was playing violin version of an opera aria, something with sparse accompaniment and tricky entrances. For those, Ben just laid in another piano track, with the piano doubling the violin part. This helped immensely, and it also wasn't particularly audible in the final performance.

I'm happy to say that all my students were able to perform with the accompaniment tracks and make it work. One advantage was that they were able to "rehearse with the pianist" as much as they wanted to! (We have to take our wins where we can find them!) One parent commented on how beautiful the piano part sounded - so I was pleased that, aside from the stress of doing things so differently, students seemed to enjoy playing with the piano part.

Creating the Environment

I wanted every student feel supported by me, by the parents, and by the community of students. I also wanted to create the feeling of a special event for this recital. To this end, a week before the recital I sent the following guidelines to parents:

Guidelines for the Concert
  1. Please plan for the family to watch the Zoom recital together. If that's not possible, please have at least one parent present. You are welcome to invite relatives from afar (grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc.) by sending them the Zoom invitation.
  2. Set the stage for your performance: Hold it in a nice room in the house, on the best computer you are able to use. Dress nicely and position the computer's camera so that we can see you play. Make sure you are well-lit, with light in front of you rather than behind you. If you want other "props" just for fun, that would be great!
  3. Be ready to play the piano accompaniment track (if you are using one), if possible on a speaker. Have a parent be able to start the accompaniment track, so the student does not have to juggle playing with starting the track. Practice doing this.
  4. Zoom has a "chat" feature, please use this to send encouraging messages to performers during the concert. (Performers, don't read the messages until your performance is completed!)
  5. Stay for the whole recital, to create a supportive audience for each other. I will be doing a virtual version of the "awards" at the end!
  6. Consider making a special snack to have together afterwards. We are all going to miss the yummy reception!

* About the "awards" at the end. I always acknowledge every student individually, at the end of every recital. I point out something concrete they have done over this term, something I authentically want to hold up as an accomplishment. It might be something like getting into an orchestra, but it also might be something like being a champion every-day practicer, getting to a new book, marking a new milestone, learning second position really well, etc. etc. Publicly celebrating these kinds of achievements seemed more important this spring, with students not necessarily receiving the affirmation from the group activities they would otherwise be doing.

Specific Logistics for Parents and Students

The day before the recital, I sent parents a recital program to print out, as well as the Zoom invitation to the concert. I also gave them specific instructions for the recital:

Please give yourself a good 20-30 minutes before the recital to set up the following things:
  1. The placement of your computer in your house
  2. Where you will stand when performing, where you will sit when watching others perform (In both cases we'll need to see you)
  3. Your violin - tune it! (to 442 for those using the piano accompaniment tracks)
  4. How you will be handling the piano accompaniment recording (best if someone other than the performer can start piano track, but make sure you coordinate that clearly)
  5. Phones - silence phones. If you are using a phone to play the piano track, check settings and make sure the phone will not turn itself off ("auto-lock").
  6. Once signed in, use Zoom in "Speaker" mode, so you can see the person who is playing as being in the large window. You will be on "mute" when not performing. At the end I'll un-mute everyone and keep the Zoom going for 15-20 minutes to allow people to talk if they wish to do so!

Specific Logistics for the Teacher

As the teacher, you will have to juggle a lot for the Zoom recital. You are the Master of Ceremonies, the director, and techie. Accept this and be ready!

Here is some advice:

I was pleased to see families together on couches, watching the recital. Everyone stayed until the end.

A Final Note for Teachers:

As the teacher, you must resign yourself to the fact that you will not have the same experience as everyone else. Ideally, each student gives his or her performance, then they can see the full performances all the other students and feel the connection with you, etc. You the teacher, on the other hand, have to keep an eye on all these little tiles of people, get the spotlight to the right place. If you want to look everyone in the eye and speak as directly to them as possible, you actually have to look straight at the camera, which means you are not actually looking at anyone. It feels weird, it feels disconnected, it's definitely not as fun as looking right into your student's eyes and telling him or her how proud you are.

But you are still still proud of your students, and you are doing everything you can to support them through this time when everything is so different. The more we can create opportunities for them to continue learning, continue playing and continue to have some sense of "normalcy" in their lives, the better!

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May 4, 2020 at 08:13 PM · Wow! This is an impressive effort! I wonder if the students learned anything that they would not have learned in a conventional recital. Besides how to play with recorded accompaniment, of course.

May 4, 2020 at 08:27 PM · Using the chat feature was the best part of our recital - it was really hopping and the families were very supportive

I had students announce themselves - say their name, the piece and the composer. Besides being good practice for presenting themselves, it allows the microphone time to adjust to who the "spotlighted" member is so you dont lose any of the beginning of their piece

One other thing I did is I offered some time before the recital for families who needed help tuning their instruments to guide them through it

And I scheduled three short (30 min) recitals back to back - so that no family had to be staring at a screen for too long

May 5, 2020 at 12:57 AM · this is so well written and shared. thank you in advance!

May 5, 2020 at 10:27 AM · Yes, I concur. This is impressive and an excellent write up. Thank you!

May 5, 2020 at 12:45 PM · Laurie, I don't even teach and I read every word of this article. Great summary! I suspect you created something that in many ways involved students and their families more than ever. I'm sure it was very well appreciated by all who had the pleasure of participating.

May 5, 2020 at 01:54 PM · Those are all great ideas Laurie. This is what our program ended up doing:

May 6, 2020 at 07:27 AM · These are great suggestions, Laurie.

Another good source of ideas is Nicola Cantran (Irish piano teacher specialising in preschool and young kids) who has just put up a youtube chat on online recitals:

She has a fabulous blog (free) and lesson/activity bank for teachers (by subscription) and since lockdown has been doing lots of support for online music teaching. If you're struggling in this area - especially if you have younger students - there are quite a few helpful videos on her channel now, and she's holding live Q and A sessions with guest speakers three times a week. It is piano, not violin, but the online-ness is the same.

Down here is Aussie-denial-land they're sending us back to school on Monday, so I think I can look forward to seeing my violin students again on the weekend. Driveway lessons, I think for now, but it will be good to be teaching music again, instead of just the online "instruments of the orchestra in film music" course that I've been writing for the school music teacher (Happy to share it, but you'll need to pm me for codes as its on a subscription platform).

Good luck, to everyone in the process of of planning online recitals. At the moment I'm still trying to talk my school into allowing students to film themselves for inclusion in the instruments unit (so much more fun than a youtube clip of adults) because of the department's safety protocols. Once we get pass that, we'll start planning for a recital...

May 6, 2020 at 03:10 PM · This is extremely helpful. Thank you for 1) giving this wonderful experience to the students and their loved ones, and 2) writing such a detailed and well written description that the rest of us can learn from. Your description is a blessing to all of us. You created the wheel and now the rest of us can roll with it! Blessings to you!

Bob Gillespie

May 6, 2020 at 04:27 PM · This is great, with many wonderful suggestions. However, I just cannot bear to have everyone play through Zoom and everyone have to listen to it. The sound quality that is available to my students is just too painful. We are doing a video recital. Everyone uploads a video to Youtube and then we gather via Zoom and watch them together. Students will be announcing their pieces, bowing and playing either alone or with a family member. I feel there is something also to be learned by making a quality video and playing unaccompanied. After we watch them all, we will give out our usual awards and recognition via Zoom and students can chat or congratulate each other. I will also be encouraging them to leave comments on each of their Youtube posts, as they would if we were together and having refreshments. Just another way to do this.

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