26 April 2016

The Diploma Recital - How Not to Do It

With the best part of 20 years’ experience in examining diploma recitals, I have long since learnt that just about any competent student can muddle through the notes of their chosen programme sufficiently well to pass.  Of course, it does depend so much on programme choice; and the diploma recitals which fail do so usually because the programme has not been well chosen.

The most obvious problem is the temptation to choose pieces which set out to meet some imagined (and totally non-existent) agenda set by the examiners.  Why students (or, as often as not, their teachers) feel that the same selection criteria exist in a professional diploma recital as in a grade 1 exam defies all logic.  There may, once, have been a time when a “balanced” or “varied” programme meant, exclusively, music written at different periods of musical history, but that certainly is no longer the case in real life.  By diploma time, a student should have sufficient experience to know in which areas of the repertory are their particular strengths and weaknesses, and to plan a programme which comprises the former and avoids the latter.  A student who does not know this, is clearly far from ready to tackle a diploma, no matter how fast or loud they can play.

A second programme-choice-malfunction, if you like, is to choose pieces which are already well known.  The obvious reason for failure here is that by the time the actual recital comes along, the student is so tired of the pieces, regards them with such familiarity, that they go through the motions and fail to realise that a half-decent examiner can sniff out a routine delivery from an inspired one before even the first note has been played.  Any recital should be, in part, a voyage of discovery not just for the audience but for the performer; for only then can the performer communicate that sense of wonder and awe which makes for a really satisfying performance.

And the third common error is simply choosing pieces which are not liked but are regarded as worthy; “I hate Beethoven’s late Sonatas, but they look good on the programme, so I’ll include one”.  Nothing communicates itself more than dislike, and no performer can hide a sense of disconnect from a piece, no matter how well they handle its technicalities.

But perhaps even more important than merely passing the test in a diploma recital is to make it memorable and distinctive, so that the examiners do not just award higher grades and distinctions, but go away with a name stored in the memory for future reference.  In many cases examiners have a life outside examining and can offer opportunities to performers whose work they have admired.
It is in this area that most damage is done by the culture of playing notes rather than delivering a performance.  I’ve sat through no end of good playing of well-chosen repertory and come away unimpressed.  Sometimes it’s a stage manner which repels, sometimes it’s the dress, but most often it’s a simple failure to understand the totality of the occasion.  Grim programme notes which sound like Grade 5 theory papers or read suspiciously like the half-baked ramblings of a Wikipedia contributor (something all too often revealed by the inclusion of comments on aspects of the work which are not actually played in the recital performance) are still, horribly, the norm; yet these are the one thing that the examiner will take away from the performance to revisit at a later time.

I often wonder how students prepare for their diploma recitals beyond practising on their instrument. Do they video record themselves giving a public recital, do they invite disinterested parties to comment (anonymously) on their YouTube posting, do they practice deportment and facial expressions in front of a mirror, do they ask friends and family to suggest how they might look better?  I have strong doubts in many cases that any of these are done.  Yet how else is a young performer expected to learn how to put on a show in public?  I have watched young boys in full evening dress make themselves look silly by clearly feeling totally out of their element in inappropriate recital dress.  I have watched teenage girls at a crucial moment become horribly conscious that their shoulder-less, strapless gown is not offering them the support it normally does at a party.  I have watched young and old people of both sexes wander on to stage completely confused by what message they wish to send out – and ending up sending a message of uncertainty and unease.
Sweaty handkerchiefs and cloths used to wipe the hands look awful if they are just carried on and off with as much care as the violin, horn or clarinet (and so do plastic bottles of water, especially when the sucked loudly during the performance), while a lovely dress covering the body is often spoiled by horrible shoes covering the feet.  On a personal note, exposed armpits are a major problem for me – I know some conservatories ban them from recitals – but if they have to be there, then a shave or a wax is really a pre-requisite, and if there is a tendency to sweat, it is immediately visible by the watery reflection in stage lights.

The walk on to stage or into the room, the bow (which must be given, even if nobody is applauding – you have to acknowledge the effort made by your audience even if it is just one miserable old examiner), the posture between movements or during introductions and bars’ rests, the smile or the frown, the look of agony or the look of ecstasy, they all have their place in a performance (which is often judged subconsciously as much on its visual as its aural appeal).  All these have to be practised and practised again until they become second nature.  If it looks right and natural, then you have the examiners on your side before you play a single note; if it doesn’t then you have an uphill struggle ahead if you to win the examiners over. 

Has your recital been properly timed?  Do not “borrow” timings from somebody else’s performance and never dig a grave for yourself by being so exact that the chances of your timing being correct are nil (how can a live performance always take 23 minutes and 42 seconds?).  Have you thought about how you should differentiate between the end of a movement and the end of a piece and the end of the recital?  Have you thought how you should prepare to play the first note once you are out there on stage?

All these elements are what makes the diploma recital so drastically different from the graded examination; yet still students seem to think they are just an extension of the same thing.  No wonder so many get disappointed when their results do not match their expectations.

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