Recital Preparation

The Studio Recital for my students is this week and we’ve been talking about recital preparation.

Mental preparation in the two weeks leading up to a performance is critical. By this stage, you should have all of the notes, rhythms, and expressive elements under control. Most of the technical difficulties should be mastered. In the final stretch before a big performance, attention will shift from hewing out the difficulties of the piece to polishing for the audience. I touched on these ideas a bit in the blog post “Mental Practice” but here’s another look with a keen focus on recital preparation. Since I am a woman who plays flute, many of the suggestions below are based on my experiences. In the comments, please let me know if there are other things you consider before a big performance.

The flute and recorder students of Marlene Hartzler, 2013

Studio recital 2013

Recital preparation has mental and physical aspects.

You must practice like you are performing.

  1. Play through your piece often without stopping. Push yourself for high accuracy in notes and rhythms while maintaining musicianship. Make sure that transitions of dynamics and tempos are smooth. You should still leave time in your practice for woodshedding, but play through your piece in its entirety once a day,
  2. Try messing up on purpose and improvising your way through the mistake. Keep your fingers moving until you get back “on the rails.”
  3. Find opportunities for playing your piece for other people. This can be as simple as asking a friend or family member to listen to you play the piece all the way through, or as formal as organizing a pre-performance concert (at a nursing home, your church, etc.) Young children may enjoy performing a concert for their stuffed animals. Set the critters up in front of the music stand and have fun entertaining the furry guests. Don’t forget to bow at the end!
  4. Record yourself performing. Listening to an audio recording will help you refine your musical ideas. If you are able to videotape yourself, watch for excessive body movement. Pay attention to your face when you make a mistake. Do you grimace when something goes wrong or do you have a “poker face?”

Mental preparation goes a long way toward a positive experience.

  1. Visualize the room in which you will be playing. Imagine people sitting facing you. If this is a space you are familiar with, make the mental picture as vivid as possible by adding details about the size of the room, the color of the walls and flooring, the temperature of the building, the lighting sources and quality, the smells, the height of the stage, and so forth.
  2. Create a mantra that you will use during your final preparation and on the day of the recital. You might say to yourself “I am prepared. I am strong. I love this music.” or something similarly affirming. Practice this positive self-talk while you are practicing and whenever you feel nervous about the upcoming performance.
  3. Consider this question: what is the worst thing that can happen if I mess up? Perhaps you will have a bruised ego for a little while, but you will not be irreparably harmed. In the worst case scenario, you will have a juicy story to share with friends and laugh about in the future. In a recent post on this blog, I shared a link to a story about a woman whose skirt fell off during a performance. She didn’t die of embarrassment. In fact, she continues to teach and perform with a good sense of humor.
  4. Practice concentration exercises. Find ways to redirect a wandering mind.
  5. Notice when you are engaging in negative self-talk. Counter it with positive affirmations. Visualize yourself feeling radiant after a perfect performance.

Consider the physical and logistical aspects of a performance.

  1. Knowledge is power. Ask your teacher about any details that confuse you or create anxiety. Perhaps you want to know where you should warm up or if you need to bring a music stand. Although it’s not possible to know every detail of the day, see if you can get more information about the things that worry you.
  2. Know where you are going and how long it will take you to get there. Plan your route the night before and leave lots of extra time for travel. It is far better to be early than late to a performance! If you arrive early, you will have time to practice your concentration exercises, get a full warm-up, and have a few moments of quiet. Running late can be very stressful and will deprive you of the time you need to prepare fully.
  3. Practice in the shoes and clothes you will be wearing. Make sure your shirt allows for easy breathing. Are your shoes comfortable? Ladies: Is your neckline OK for bowing? Take a look at the hem of your skirt. It should be at least knee-length for standing, floor-length if you are sitting on a stage. Can you safely balance in heels?
  4. If you have hair that can reach your mouth, consider how you will wear it away from your face. Headbands, hair ties, bobby pins, and/or barrettes are good items to keep in your instrument case.
  5. Lay out your clothes the day before. Are you missing anything? You don’t want to have to make an emergency run to the drugstore for tights/hose/dark socks on the way to the recital.
  6. Watch what you eat on the day of the performance. Be especially mindful of caffeine and sugar, which can make you feel jittery and leave you feeling low later. Wind players need to be aware that salty foods can make the mouth dry and spicy foods can make the lips and tongue swell. Dairy products can increase the amount of mucus in your throat. Try to avoid eating a meal one hour before the performance. Normal nervousness can be upsetting to the stomach. Eating too close to the performance can also make your mouth water.  Bring a water bottle, but be sure to not drink too much! It’s disgusting, I know, but these things can make a difference!
  7. Get a full night of sleep. Just as cramming the night before a test is unproductive, staying up all night practicing will not make your performance better. Research has shown that sleep is essential for brain function. (How We Learn is a great book detailing this research.)
  8. Eat a banana to help quiet the nerves. (This is the one exception to the “don’t eat before a performance” rule.) Maybe you think I’m crazy, but check out these articles on the effect of bananas on anxiety: “Banana Natural Beta Blockers For Anxiety” and “Best Foods For Calming Your Nervous System” and “Got Nerves? Eat A Banana.

It’s totally normal to be nervous about a performance. Nervousness is your body’s way of being excited.

Performance anxiety is a whole other topic, on which many good books have been written. My favorite is A Soprano On Her Head by Eloise Ristad. I’ll post more on this subject in the future.

However, I believe that proper recital preparation can alleviate some nervousness. Being super-prepared with the music, practicing like you are performing, using visualizations and affirmations, working out the logistics, and preparing your body all contribute to a successful performance experience.

Break a leg!


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