Perspective on Performances for Elementary-Level Piano Students

By Burnham, Ruth | American Music Teacher, June-July 2003 | Go to article overview

Perspective on Performances for Elementary-Level Piano Students

Burnham, Ruth, American Music Teacher

Like all the arts, music is a source of pleasure for many people, not only musicians. Unlike the other arts, however, it generally must be performed to be enjoyed by its audience. Thus, public performance has become an unquestioned and highly prominent aspect of music study at every level. Kindergarteners are taught to sing songs for their parents; elementary school bands perform at school functions; high school orchestras give public concerts featuring solos by their most accomplished players. And, every spring, countless piano teachers present recitals, marching their students out on stage, one by one, to play from memory in front of an audience. The piano recital is, in fact, a long-standing tradition. Yet many students find the prospect of performing alone, on stage, before a crowd filled with unfamiliar faces intimidating, to say the least. The nervousness that can result from such intimidation often negatively affects the performances of those new to the stage. Sadly, one bad experience frequently is enough to deter many children from further piano study, thus robbing them and others of musical enjoyment.

One might legitimately question the necessity of public performance for elementary-level students. To most children, the typical recital setting--a large stage, empty except for a piano--is unfamiliar, unnatural and, thus, confusing. Stephen Zolper, a piano teacher, recalls an elementary student, in dress rehearsal, who was quite taken aback by the unfamiliar instrument on which he was to perform. "This piano is different from mine," he said. "Where do I put my hands?" (1) Zolper also addresses the precarious position in which children are placed when they are put on stage He likens public performance to driving down a narrow, winding road. "The process of publicly navigating a musical roadway places enormous pressure on students.... The event often becomes a trauma rather than a celebration of achievements." (2)

Because public performance is just that--public--students, at their teachers" urging, may devote so much energy to polishing their performances that the rest of their musical education suffers. Keith Swanwick, in Teaching Music Musically, cites a study undertaken in 1997 at a private music school in Brazil. Twenty students, ages 11 through 13, recorded three of their musical activities: individual verbal responses to and discussions of three pieces of music; performance of three of their own musical compositions; and performance on piano of three memorized pieces by other composers. The judges assessing these recordings found, in every case, that students scored much higher when playing their own compositions or discussing music than when performing from memory. Swanwick reasons that, after practicing a set program for so long, the students may have become bored with the music, they may simply have ceased really listening to their playing or they may have focused principally on technical issues. He concludes, "Music decision-making often seemed to go underground when they played their prepared piano pieces from memory." (3) This same phenomenon was observed as early as the sixth century. Apparently tired of mechanical performances by virtuosi, the scholar Boethius made a distinction between performers and those who were truly musically astute. "But the type which buries itself in instruments is separated from the understanding of musical knowledge. Representatives of this type devote their total effort to exhibiting their skill on instruments. Thus, they act as slaves, as has been said: For they use no reason but are totally lacking in thought." (4) The observations of Zolper, Swanwick and Boethius all suggest that public performance can have a negative effect on young musicians, both psychologically and musically.

Nonetheless, many psychological and musical arguments can be made in favor of public performance. Some piano teachers cite increased poise, confidence and motivation as benefits to students, (5) while others assert that successfully dealing with the rigors of recital preparation and performance equips children with skills they will need as adults, when they may be faced with equally intimidating situations, such as making speeches or interviewing for jobs. …

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