For piano students, the opportunity to share what they've learned with friends and family can be a fun and rewarding experience. Often, these opportunities come in the form of formal piano recitals. While many parents and teachers view formal performances as an important part of lessons, some see them as nerve-wracking rites of passage that suck the joy out of music.
Parents may wonder whether formal performances are going to motivate and inspire their child, or simply cause unnecessary stress. Even piano teachers sometimes struggle with whether or not to hold formal recitals. More controversial still is the question of whether to enter students in piano competitions.
There are no simple answers, because every child and every situation is different. However, before you decide, consider the pros and cons of each option. It will help you think about what's right for your child.
Here are a few questions to consider:
Are you and your child happy to focus on the same few pieces for a long time?
One thing that recitals and competitions generally have in common is the expectation children play one or two pieces - from memory - with minimal mistakes. To do this under pressure means practicing pieces until you can almost play them without thinking. In fact, at least one participant in a high-stakes international piano competition has even reported experiencing a blackout on stage, and only discovering later that he hadn't actually stopped playing.
You can expect your child to practice the same few pieces for weeks or even months to prepare for a formal performance. Some really value this opportunity to really polish their performance of a few pieces. Working on difficult passages until they become easy can give you a wonderful feeling of mastery, and lets you make deliberate choices about how you're going to play something.
On the other hand, many students get bored with a piece well before they've mastered every passage. We're all familiar with the kind of robotic playing that suggests that the player has learned the notes, but is no longer getting any joy out of them.
Memorization can also be painful. It's a valuable skill for a concert pianist, because turning pages in the middle of a performance is a pain. However, many casual pianists get more benefit from being able to read music fluently, so if your child is more inclined to read through new pieces than polish old ones, it may make sense to leave them to it.
If your child wants to participate in the recital, but really doesn't want to hammer away at the same piece for weeks on end, have them choose easier pieces that they will be able to play well with less practice. Make sure they're pieces that your child enjoys playing and can have fun with. We're often tempted to try to show off the upper range of our technical skills, but we usually sound more impressive when we're playing something we enjoy.
How do you want your child to measure themselves against others?
Whether it's a competition or a recital, formal performances will usually put your child in a situation where they're comparing themselves to their peers. Many see this as an important opportunity for students - listening to less advanced players reminds them how far they've come, while listening to more advanced players inspires them to get better.
Others see formal performances - which implicitly expose performers to the judgement of others - as inherently stressful, and simply not worth it. Even if everyone is very nice about it, participants will likely feel pressure not to embarrass themselves in front of others. While some performers do their best work under this pressure, performance anxiety can be a source of real misery for others.
Piano competitions are even more controversial. High-profile competitions are supposed to be a means of launching musical careers, but professional musicians often hate them (Glenn Gould used the words "spiritual lobotomy"). The problem is that music is inherently subjective, so to pick winners and losers you have to establish rules. Many argue that this leads to top competitors who...all tend to sound the same.
If you do let your child enter a piano competition, it's a good idea to make this subjectivity absolutely clear: in music, there are no objective rankings. If your child enjoys the drama of shows like American Idol, you can easily point out that there are always disagreements over who should win. Piano competitions are the same: winning and losing don't really mean that much.
One thing that people sometimes like about competitions is getting feedback from experienced pianists other than your teacher. If the feedback and performing experience are appealing but the rankings are not, look for non-competitive piano festivals in your area.
Is your child going to have fun?
If participating in a formal performance is important to your child, great! You can help them overcome all the obstacles described above, and they can reap all the benefits.
However, the problem with many formal performance events is that many people - students and parents alike - find them boring. People who enjoy performing usually love the energy that comes from an appreciative audience - and if the energy isn't there, the magic of performing isn't there either.
Creative piano teachers sometimes try to shake up the usual student recital routine. For example, themed recitals can both create a more relaxed atmosphere than the traditional recital, and also help knit everyone's playing into a unified performance that the audience will enjoy. Wendy Stevens at Compose Create has compiled an impressive list of 44 recital themes for the benefit of piano teachers - or perhaps for motivated parents who are able to work with a piano teacher to create engaging alternatives to the traditional recital.
Playing in front of people can be rewarding, or very stressful (sometimes both). It is entirely possible to enjoy playing piano without ever performing in public, and that may be the best choice for a child that finds performing stressful. Confidence in front of people is an important skill to develop, but it can be done in ways that are more universally applicable, such as public speaking practice - there's no need to impose it on music-making, which should be fun and enjoyable.
However, performing in front of others can also be an inspiring challenge. If you start with the question above, you can decide how to approach formal performance opportunities in a way that benefits your child and enhances their enjoyment of music.