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The Big Recital

Patricia George | April 2011

   Sometime during your career you will present a solo recital. Whether it is to satisfy graduation requirements, part of a job application process, or just to expand your horizons, you want the recital to highlight your best work and entertain the listeners. Success begins with intelligent planning.

When and Where
   Most city arts councils and universities compile events calendars. This is a valuable asset to consult in selecting a date for your recital. Choose the date several months in advance to allow time to prepare thoroughly and organize a good publicity campaign. A 7:30 p.m. start time has become more common than the traditional 8:00 p.m. Late Sunday afternoon concerts are another excellent option.
   Choosing the location depends on the type of recital program you have planned. If you program pieces that require an organ, then select a church sanctuary or university organ recital hall. If the includes a piano, be sure there is a satisfactory one available. I mention this because I was once booked to play a recital with a piano that was quite old. The piano tuner decided it would be too much of a challenge to bring it up to pitch so he tuned it one-half step low. On top of that, some of the keys did not sound. I ended up changing the program at the last minute to play all solo works. The pianist rounded out the program by playing several selections alone.
   If you elect to perform a recital with chamber ensembles, your options for performance venues are more flexible. Last year, I attended a Henderson State University Flute Choir concert held in the university’s planetarium. A space show was presented as the choir performed music based on the planets. A creative location and novel programming may entice new listeners to your event. House Concerts have been a popular choice of location since the very first recitals were performed.
   Many locations, while free, require a signed contract. If possible, request time for at least one rehearsal so you can get familiar to the sound of the hall. Sometimes the location will arrange for a piano tuner; other times it is your responsibility. This is something that is better to know sooner than later. Make arrangements to pick up the key in advance of the concert and check any instructions regarding lights, heating, or air conditioning. Many locations own music stands and an audio/video recording system. If you wish to use any of their equipment, note these requests in the contract.
  The fee to rent the location is usually negotiable. Barter is alive and well. My flute choir gave five concerts per year in a local church in exchange for several members playing in the Christmas Eve service. Do ask because you may save some money.

What to Play
   Programming is always a challenge. The goal is to present an interesting, diverse program that allows you to shine as a performer and provide a great musical experience for the audience. Variety is the key. The variables to consider about the music are: programmatic or absolute, length of the program and of individual compositions, style period, genre, form, key, rhythm and tempo, and level of difficulty. 

Programmatic or Absolute
   The flute repertoire consists of two types of music: programmatic and absolute. Programmatic music is instrumental music that expresses a mood, an idea or tells a story. The title of the composition indicates to the audience what the music is trying to convey. Poem by Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Syrinx by Claude Debussy and Dance De La Chevre by Arthur Honegger are examples of programmatic music. Music that depends entirely on musical tones is called absolute music. Absolute music includes sonatas, concertos, and one-movement works that are titled by their tempo such as Allegro or Rondo. A well-balanced program will be a sampling of each. 

   Select compositions that vary in length. The modern trend in symphonic programming has moved toward shorter concerts. Fifty to fifty-five minutes of music is a good length for a flute recital. Time spent walking on and off, bowing, stage setup, introducing a composition to the audience, and a brief intermission will easily stretch the fifty minute program to an hour and fifteen minutes.

Style Period
   Planning a program that encompasses several style periods is similar to planning a multi-course meal. Many courses are more interesting than a plain meal of rice or beans. Music written just for the flute had its birth in the Baroque period (1600-1750). Baroque composers who wrote for the flute include Vivaldi, Handel, Bach, and Telemann. In the Classical era (1750-1827) Mozart, Mercadante, Devienne and Beethoven composed flute music. Schubert, Reinecke, Schumann, and many of the flute-playing composers such as Boehm, Soussmann, and Popp wrote flute music in the Romantic style (1800-1900). A recital that encompasses works from several periods, offers the opportunity for you to show how you can vary sound and phrasing styles.

Genre and Form
   Genre refers to a kind or category of music. The flute repertoire is rich with a huge selection of suites, sonatas, one-movement pieces, dances, marches, and fantasias. While some of the legendary performers chose programs in which they played all the Bach Sonatas or Telemann Fantasias, this is not the best choice for a novice. Pieces are also composed in a variety of forms including, sonata form, three-part form, rondo form, through-composed, theme and variations. Presenting an array of musical genres and forms keeps the listener’s mind fresh and alert.

   Program a variety of keys such as major, minor or modal. A concert in which all the compositions are in either D or G major quickly tires the ear. A few years ago I constructed a program titled “Homage to Bach.” The program played on the idea of relating Bach’s name to the musical pitches: B, A, C, b. (Capital letters for major keys and lower case for minor keys.) The first piece on the program was in B major, then A major, and so on. However, there were deliberately no pieces by Bach on the program. This led to a lively discussion after the concert about why the program was titled “Homage to Bach.”

Rhythm and Tempo
   Once again variety is the key. A recital in which every composition is in 68 becomes boring. Likewise a recital in which every composition features a syncopated rhythm is not so interesting either. Choose compositions that are in simple meter (2/4, 3/4, 4/4) and compound meter (3/8, 6/8, 9/8, 12/8 ) or with mixed meters. Select slower pieces to be played between faster compositions.

   Recitals presented to fulfill degree requirements often have such rules to follow as programming compositions from several style periods, composers from various countries and an ensemble piece. To satisfy these requirements, it is best to start with a Baroque (Handel or Bach) or Classical Era sonata (Mozart violin sonata or Devienne sonata), followed by a large Romantic work (Reinecke, Franck). After a brief intermission, perform a contemporary solo work followed by a chamber work such as the Doppler Andante and Rondo, Op. 25 for two flutes and piano, Kuhlau Trio, Op. 119 for two flutes and piano, or the Madeline Dring Trio for Flute, Oboe, and Piano.
   Historically violin recitals have been arranged to present the most serious compositions first and then after intermission the violinist plays a series of salon virtuoso pieces or bon bons. This type of programming works well for flute recitals also.
   When you have selected your concert order, check the key of each piece. If possible, arrange the compositions so there are not two pieces in a row in the same key. Tonic/dominant relationships are always an excellent choice.

Themed Programs
   Successful programs are often constructed around a central theme such as pieces by the French Six composers, pieces by students of Nadia Boulanger, early American composers, or compositions by Pulitizer prize winning composers. Many flute choirs give concerts based on holiday themes such as Halloween or Christmas.

Commissioned Projects
   A premiere performance of a commissioned piece is interesting to the audience. If the composer can be at the premiere, the audience will appreciate the piece even more. Many flutists pool their resources and jointly commission a piece. Each flutist gets to premiere the piece in his local venue. In many cases, the composition may receive five or ten premiere performances.

   Often my students want to program one difficult composition after another. One challenging piece per program is enough. Program selections you play well and can enjoy performing. A recital should be joyous event and not one where you are worrying about whether you will make it or not.

Select a Pianist
   I had a tennis coach who said, “Always play tennis with someone who is better than you.” The same is true for choosing a pianist for your recital. Many students wish to play with an aunt or sister. In all my years preparing students for graduation recitals, I have never had a relative play at a high enough level to be an asset to the performer. Select the best pianist you can afford and prepare to pay him extra. He is worth every penny. 

Attend Recitals
   I recommend going to recitals presented by singers, pianists and other instrumentalists before preparing for your recital. Observe how they deal with these topics. Steal the good ideas and leave the poor ones alone.

Recital Program
   Prepare a printed recital program in advance. The program may be as simple as a two-sided sheet. On the first side, list your name followed by a comma and the word flute. Then list your pianist’s name followed by a comma and the word, piano. List the names of the compositions aligned on the left and the composer’s name aligned on the right. You may list the entire composer’s name or if the composer is deceased, only his last name. List the composer’s birth and death dates after his name or directly underneath his name.
   Movement titles are placed under the composition title and are indented. Copy the movement titles or tempo markings from the piano score rather than the flute part. For compositions by J. S. Bach include the BWV number and for Mozart the KV number. Also include the date, time and location of the program on this side. The reverse side may be used for brief program notes. Write the program notes early in your concert preparation because information you discover could influence how you play the pieces. List the dates for future programs to develop continued audience support.
   Send publicity materials to the music editor of local newspapers. Most editors prefer receiving the information in an attachment to an email. In the email attach your concert program, a photo, a short bio and contact information. If your concert is free, include the statement, “The concert is free and open to the public.”

   Start your preparation early. If you have practiced well, the moment you walk on stage you can say to yourself, “I am well-prepared and this is going to be fun. I am going to share my insights into this music I love, with you, the audience.” If you have not prepared well, you will lack confidence and be filled with self-doubt. 
   Play several prerecital programs in a variety of locations before the big day. Assisted living facilities and hospitals are always looking for entertainment for their residents. These practice recitals will help you learn to perform and sell yourself. While you might not wear your evening gown for these concerts, wearing the same shoes for each program will help you know if you have selected the proper foot attire. Many opera divas wear athletic shoes under their ballgowns to gain the best body alignment and breath support. This is a great idea for us also.

Stage Hands
   If the stage setup requires a change during the recital, hire a stagehand. Practice the setup changes during the dress rehearsal. Professional stagehands mark the stage floor with tape indicating the position of the piano, each chair and music stand for the best sound and visual effect. A well-organized concert will move swiftly and effortlessly.

Sleep, Eat, and Hydrate
   Several weeks before your performance start adding fifteen minutes more of sleep per night until you work up to an extra hour of sleep. Storing sleep ahead has been proven to help you play your best and keep your focus. Obviously you should eat well and drink enough water as well. 

   Prepare payment checks for your pianist, guest performers and stagehands before the performance. Place the check in an envelope with a hand-written note thanking them for being part of your recital. Present the envelopes at the conclusion of the recital but before the reception if there is one.
   Your first recital is the most difficult one to give. There are many details to work out; however, every recital you present in the future will become easier and more fulfilling for you and the audience.