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Preparing your Child for Performances and Recitals 

 April 22, 2023

By  Kale Good

This article summarizes daily practice techniques and strategies that I've used to improve my guitar students performances in our Philadelphia-area recitals. These methods improve performance and describes specific and progressive practice routines and games to help you prepare your child or yourself for a successful recital. An approximate time-line is given for these games; however, you may find it more useful to bounce around or do them out-of-order.

These activities will provide robust recital preparation to help your child develop confidence and have an outstanding performance experience. Theses routines have had an immense effect on both my classical guitar students and my suzuki guitar students. 

1. Build Confidence with TestS

Recital Minus 5 weeks

Inevitably, your child will make a mistake when practicing their recital piece. In fact, for some students, even practicing for a recital will create such stress that they'll start making unexpected mistakes. These mistakes typically sap confidence; the more mistake areas, the more confidence will be sapped. And the stress your child experiences is an inherent part of a recital. Fortunately, confidence can be rebuilt, and a recital can be an experience of positive stress.

To rebuild your child's confidence in problem areas, all you need to do is solve the problem area and test your child on those problem areas. Taking a test is inherently stressful, and this will prepare your child for the recital. And passing the test is inherently confidence-boosting.

You can use any Competition Games listed in my practice games guides. The most common competition game I use is The Race Car Game. Note that, for a recital, I would increase the difficulty for your child. For example, I might make my track 3 spaces long in the racecar game, while the child's would be 10. 

Improving Memorization

There are many ways to memorize a piece of music; most musicians typically only use melodic memory (remembering how it sounds) and muscle memory (an unconscious sequencing of movements). Unfortunately, when one of these goes, the other usually goes with it and a big chuck of notes can go missing. 

Improving memory will increase your child's confidence, which will result in better performances. Here are some ways you you can improve it:

Plus 1 Fret: (guitarists only) Move positions 1 fret; all notes previously played on the first fret will be played on the second, etc (as we did for Halloween Twinkle). When playing this way, a student can not rely on muscle memory.

Air Guitar/Piano/Violin/etc: Perform the movements required to play the piece without the guitar in your hands (or turn strings to the belly).

Sloth in Molasses: Playing incredibly slowly (about than 1 note per second) forces one to think about how they are moving. Muscle memory will not work at this speed.

Reverse Play Through: Play the sections in reverse order; ABCD becomes DCBA.


2. Mix It Up Practice

Recital Minus 4 weeks

The most common practice advice for beginners is to practice by solving the technical or musical problem and then repeat it many times to secure it. Repeating things leads to rapid improvements. This is useful for beginners learning a piece. However, this often leads to students saying, "I play it better the 2nd (or 3rd or 4th time) time". This needs to be solved for performance readiness; students only get one chance at a recital.

Fortunately, you can do some simple things to improve your child's First-Time-Play-Through Ability. The easiest to implement is Mix-It-Up Practice. The most significant benefit of Mix-It-Up Practice is that it gives students a chance to forget, making each play-through closer to a "first-time play-through" experience. As an added benefit, having a "forgetting" stage can improve memory: Studies show that struggling to remember something creates stronger memories than easy repetition.

The basics of Mix-It-Up Practice is to play your recital piece in between all your other normal practice routines. Below is an example of how a Mix-It-Up Practice Session for recital preparation would look for my Suzuki Guitar students. This same routine can be used for new skills by replacing "Recital Piece" with whatever skill you are developing.

Mix It Up Practice Routine

  1. Recital Piece
  2. Scales
  3. Solve & Test any Recital Piece Problems
  4. Recital Piece
  5. Review
  6. Recital Piece
  7. New Material
  8. Recital Piece.

The downsides to Mix-It-Up practice are that progress feels slower and is more mentally demanding. However, this tactic yields quicker improvements, durable skills, and inherent performance preparedness. It should be the default practice mode for students who have moved past the absolute beginner stage and have some motivation-momentum. Practicing in this way develops your child's ability to instantly recall skills. In addition, it builds confidence as they notice their instant-recall ability increasing.

Maintaining Focus

When a piece is performance-ready, playing it should be an automatic ability that requires no mental processing. However, even automatic experiences are prone to lapses in attention that result in seemingly random mistakes. Maintaining focus requires training that engages the mind; here are some valuable ways to engage your child’s mind that can be done with any review piece and recital pieces.

Sing Solfege: Sing the Do-Re-Mi syllables for the song. This helps your child think about what note comes next. It also prepares your child for Deaf Psychic practice.

Deaf Psychic Practice: Have your child perform the piece while imagining audience members who are deaf but also psychic. The only way these audience members can hear the performance is if your child imagines every note while they play. The goal is to imagine in as much detail as possible (dynamics, articulation, etc).

Pulse: Tap toes to a steady beat while playing. When that is easy, shift to using a nonsense syllable (ta, dum, bum, etc) to track the pulse. Finally, practice keeping track of the beat with an internal, non-vocalized nonsense syllable. 

3. On-Stage Preparation:

Recital Minus 3 weeks

Most students go on stage, sit down, and start playing immediately (some bow first). This is a rather jolting experience for both the audience and the performer. It can lead to the most avoidable mistake: getting your hands in the wrong place for the first notes. This sit-and-play-right-away method of performing can result from either stage fright or simply a failure to be taught otherwise.

Fortunately, developing a simple On-Stage Preparation Routine can help students manage stage fright and helps students create an incredibly compelling performance experience for both them and the audience (I'm not joking. When I started teaching this, I immediately noticed it at the next recital and many students mentioned how it helped them and parents noticed improvements in their child's performance).

What is On-Stage Preparation? When your child walks out on stage, they'll likely feel a burst of energy, nervousness, excitement, and disorientation. Failure to prepare for this tsunami of emotions can and does derail even the most prepared students. It's easily visible when a student sits down and plays without even taking a breath; sometimes, students play before the audience is ready to listen! This invariably leads to a tense performance.

To avoid this, your child needs to develop and practice a quick and reliable On-Stage Preparation that helps them manage these emotions and prepare for the battle of performance.  

On-Stage Performance Preparation

  1. Place your fingers on the strings and look at both hands, confirming accurate placement
  2. Take a deep breath; exhale and relax your muscles.
  3. Hear the first few notes in your imagination; imagine them filling up a balloon as they sound.
  4. When the balloon fills the room, POP! Start playing (or, if with an accompanist, give them a nod).

Like any other skill, developing this skill requires practice. Going through this routine with only the first few notes or phrases is an incredibly valuable recital preparedness practice routine.

The most Common and Avoidable Recital Mistakes: 

Placing your hands in the wrong place spot for the first notes. Follow the On-Stage Performance Routine and look at your hands. 

Stopping the last note before the audience feels the ending and/or having a sloppy stop. Let the final note ring out for extra long before giving a clean and crisp ending (right-hand karate chop on guitar).

Playing with an out-of-tune or poorly-prepared instrument.

4. Under Pressure

Recital Minus 2 weeks

As mentioned above, a recital is a stressful experience. Recitals are much higher stakes due to the once-and-done nature of the practice. Finding a way to practice with heightened stakes can help prepare students for the positive stress of a recital. As mentioned above, testing problem areas can be incredibly helpful for small areas. However, when a recital is approaching, it is helpful to slightly increase stress levels for the entire piece.  

These games and tests work well for small areas but are too time-intensive for larger sections or entire pieces. There are better ways to induce positive stress for the performance practice of entire pieces. Some of these will work better than others depending on your child's personality and experience:

  • Record child playing (one chance only per practice session)
  • Smaller-stakes performances: for stuffed animals, family, or friends
  • Imagining the audience can work for very anxious performers
  • Playing in front of a video audience
  • The Distraction Game (prepares a child for mental or audience distractions)

5. Instrument Preparation

Recital minus 1-2 weeks

After all your child's hard work, you'll want to ensure your child's instrument is ready to create the most beautiful sound possible. For my guitar students, this means putting a new set of strings on 1 to 2 weeks before the recital (The Classical Guitar Store in Center City Philadelphia will change your strings in 24 hrs).

Also, remember that students' fingernails are part of their instrument; fretboard-hand nails should be clipped short. If the student has begun to play with nails, nails should be filed and polished to be smooth and shiny as glass.

Ask your child's teacher what you need to do to ensure your instrument is in good playing shape.

6. Recital Practice

Recital minus 1 week

Recital practice must encompass as much of the actual recital performance as possible. When practicing for a recital, 99.9% of people skip the beginning and ending of their performance. Remember, the performance begins when a student walks on stage and ends when they exit.

Full Recital Practice

In the week leading up to the recital, students should practice this routine multiple times.

  1. Student starts "off-stage"
  2. Parent announces them; they walk on stage.
  3. Bow to audience (either imagined, virtual, or real) and sit.
  4. Do On-Stage Performance Routine
  5. Play. Let the final note sound for 2-3x its written value.
  6. Stop the sound  (karate-chop on guitar)
  7. Stand, bow, and walk off stage. 

7. Improv

Continuous

In 2008, Charles Lib and Allen Braun used the fantastic technology of functional MRI machines to monitor Jazz Musicians while they played memorized and improvised passages. What they found suggests that improvisation can be helpful for musicians, whether they perform improvised or memorized music. Their study showed that during improvisation, the self-monitoring part of the brain is less active. Additionally, the self-expression part of the mind is more active.

Regardless of experience level, many performers have experienced the distracting and snowballing effect that judgemental thoughts can have on their performance. And, if they are lucky, they've also experienced the flow-state of a performance where they were immersed in musical expression for the entire duration. This study suggests that improvisation can help develop the parts of the brain that control flow-states while inhibiting their judgemental mind.

But improvisation can help in more concrete and practical ways, too. By practicing "making things up," students can develop the confidence to improvise their way out of any technical or memory mishaps that may happen on stage. Inevitably, unintended notes will happen in improvisation, and students keep playing notes and make them work as part of the improvisation. Developing these abilities can decrease anxiety about on-stage mistakes and positively affect confidence.

There are a plethora of improvisation games students can play. One that works particularly well for recitals is "Counter-Melody ."This is where another person or recording plays the recital piece. The student improvises a new melody that "counters" the other melody. In a broader musical context, this helps students understand how harmony, melody, and counterpoint interact. In a recital-specific context, it helps prepare students to improvise their way out of a mistake in the recital piece.

Where Can I find the Best Kid's Guitar Lessons?

You're in the right place. For more information about the best kid's guitar lessons online and in the Philadelphia area, read this page

Select Testimonials

Emily Collier

Parent 

Our older kid has been taking lessons with Kale Good for 3 years now, and our younger could not be more excited to start this week. Both my husband and I are classically trained, former-professional musicians, and we can say hands-down that Kale is the best music teacher we've ever encountered, anywhere... 

Ted Wongcini

parent

Kale is a fantastic teacher. He seems to know how to attune to each kid, figuring out the balance of challenging and reassuring his students. His lessons have helped our daughter grow tremendously, especially her confidence. We highly recommend Kale.


Complete testimonials here.

Conclusion:

To circle back to the first suggestion on this list; Tests are an excellent way to build your child's confidence and prepare them for a recital. However, they need your help. 

Are you confident that you are ready to help your child prepare for their upcoming recital? Take this review quiz to find out (bonus: just taking the quiz will help you remember the information better. And that's really the point). 

Kale Good


Educator and Founder of Good Music Academy.

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