By Bernadine Johnson
Immediately after our most recent spring recital, one student came rushing towards me and posed the question: “What is our theme for next year’s recital?” I was quite happy with the student’s enthusiasm and concluded that the recital we had just performed was a success for more reasons than just the perfected performances.
I enjoy collaborating with my students to create experiences that are both educational and enjoyable. By working alongside students on establishing a theme for each recital, it brings an extra sense of excitement and creativity to the overall experience—beyond just learning a new piece for the skill—and gives them some ownership over the entire process. It’s also an opportunity for students to explore different types of genres, art, poetry, and history, and to even collaborate and compose their own pieces. It all depends on the theme! These experiences have the added benefit of being entertaining for family and friends and are very fulfilling for me as a teacher, making learning, teaching, and playing more fun for everyone involved.
Here are some ideas for themed recitals that I’ve tried with my students, and you may want to try as well:
1. Movie Music
Kids love playing pieces from their favorite movies. A PowerPoint presentation was included on a screen above the piano with a picture representing each song. Students were encouraged to wear a costume representing their song, or bring a stuffed animal to put on the piano. I also had cartoon characters hanging from the top of the grand piano. There are so many movie-themed products available that it was easy to decorate the refreshment tables with these items (tablecloths, balloons, napkins, plates, etc.).
2. Music Inspired by Poetry and Paint
This recital used the music and books of two composers: Museum Masterpieces, by Catherine Rollin, and Poetry at the Piano, by Martha Sherrill Kelsey. A PowerPoint presentation was used as students performed showing either the picture or poetry associated with their song. Students were also encouraged to learn about the artist or poet and present an interesting piece of information to the audience before performing. Did you know that Leonardo da Vinci worked on the Mona Lisa for (possibly) over 14 years?
3. Patriotic Music
This recital was presented in our local performing arts center on the big stage in order to use a stage-sized American Flag as the backdrop for our performance. Use this theme as a history lesson, and have your students research the history of each patriotic song!
4. Original Compositions
This was definitely one of the most complex recitals I have ever put together with my students. Each had to write an original composition for the piano (with or without lyrics). Some wrote about vacations (“Silver Dollar City,” “Legoland”), their pets (“My Dog, Caramel”), sports (“Soccer Game”), and emotions (“Broken Heart”). Others honored someone (“Song for Shannon,” “My Friend, Emma”). Each student then had to decide if and how to “orchestrate” using the other students in my piano studio. We incorporated lots of singers, many instruments (especially those who also were part of a band or orchestra), Orff instruments, more keyboards, and directors (when needed). Each student could choose how he/she wanted to participate in their own composition. One of my students, who is an Irish dancer, wrote an Irish jig which I played while she danced and another student played drums. Others chose singers to perform their composition with them. Throughout the year the students learned how to write out their compositions – a great theory lesson! As John Williams once said, “Composing is hard work.” My students learned how true that is, but they also experienced the joy:
“There is nothing greater than the joy of composing something oneself and then listening to it.”—Clara Schumann
For exercises and tips on teaching composition to your students, check out the Composition Tips video series from composer Wynn-Anne Rossi!
5. Opera Music
Not all students actually played the piano in this recital. Those who did play either learned an arrangement of an opera piece or created their own arrangement. Other students read story summaries, translations of arias, composer information, a short history of the opera, and interesting facts about the various opera selections being performed. One student even provided a little comic relief by telling opera jokes! I also invited two musicians who sang the arias in the original languages. More advanced students had the opportunity to accompany vocalists. All students were asked to dress “fancy” (prom dresses, suits, etc.). Refreshments included “opera food” such as Italian cookies (representing Puccini), Spanish peanuts (Carmen), an assortment of rice cakes (Madame Butterfly), and Swiss chocolate (William Tell).
6. A Night at the Concerto
Every student performed a movement from a concerto with teacher accompanying on the second keyboard. For the very youngest students who were not able to play a published concerto, we created our own from folk tunes! This recital required a lot of student help: two stage managers, page turners, music carriers (for students using their music), a student to put the music rack up and down, and dressing room assistants. We also used this concert as a fundraiser (through donations) for our local “Save the Steinway” project (the complete rebuilding of one of our local performance instruments). Special shirts were also made for this project with parental help for selling the shirts and taking donations. This recital was a huge collaborative effort with the students learning more than music to perform: They learned what it takes to run a major stage production!
7. Two-Piano Concert
Combinations from two to eight people performed only music for two pianos, using two grand pianos on a large stage. Several years later, a non-solo recital venue was revisited only this time everything was performed on one piano with combinations of 2-4 students.
Students played compositions about animals. They could also bring a toy to place on the piano, or dress as the animal. Each student did their own artwork representing their animal and that was used on the PowerPoint presentation. Of course, we included “animal crackers” on the refreshment table!
9. Seasons & Weather
Most recently the students in our town came together for a recital that featured all songs about weather. We used this recital as a fundraiser for students and teachers who lost music and instruments as a result of the recent hurricanes. Money was gathered to be sent to the MTNA Benevolent Fund. Students enthusiastically participated because they felt like they would like to do something to help other musicians who lost so much.
10. Additional Ideas
Also consider themes such as “A Night on Broadway,” “Sacred Music,” or a wild card recital where each student chooses their own individual themes and pieces to play!
So, you may be wondering how I answered the student’s question from the beginning of this article? I didn’t announce it at that time, but instead at our next group lesson (to help ensure a little extra attendance). We will be doing a recital of all John Williams music! Throughout the year, the students will be learning the biography and music of this composer which includes some great YouTube interviews on how he creates his music. Educational as well as enjoyable! I am sure the audience attendance will be high for the music of John Williams. And, of course, we will probably have at least one Harry Potter and a Darth Vader at the piano bench!
Whatever theme you choose, be ready to receive thanks for a memorable, educational, and entertaining recital. The rewards of creative recitals are well worth the effort for students, those in attendance, and for the teacher!
What types of themes have you used for your recitals? Tell us about your experiences the comments below!
Bernadine Johnson earned her Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from Indiana Wesleyan University. She has been teaching privately for over 40 years in Fremont, Michigan, and has been an Alfred Music author for 20 years.