Once upon a time, I heard a professional in the musical world scoff, “Nobody makes a living being a recitalist!” Fast forward through time just a bit to me sitting in a beautiful recital hall meeting the professors that I would study with at the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University. One after the other described their professional work which ALL included recital programs. (This is a quick plea, before we go on with the rest of this post, to not simply believe someone when they tell you, “that doesn’t happen” or “nobody does it that way.” More often than not that only means, “I don’t know anyone who does that” which is not the same as “it’s impossible” or “you shouldn’t do it.”) Fast forward a wee bit more to me now getting ready to go on tour for multiple recital programs that I’ve curated and for which I get paid well to perform.
You don’t have to want to focus on recital programs for your career to realize how special and important these opportunities can be. I know tons of professionals in the opera world that always have a song program on the back burner so that they can offer it at any opportunity.
Your 29 Days to Diva – Day 19 Assignment: Plan a recital program
Recital program ideation stage
Your experience with recitals heretofore is likely tied to your training and academic experience. You prepared to play with your studio peers in an end of the year recital. Then, you prepared music for juries. Then, you worked toward a senior recital and/or a masters recital. Perhaps you’ve done some doctoral recitals. Repertoire was often assigned to you for pedagogical reasons for those performance experiences. Read this one twice: YOU DO NOT NEED TO CONTINUE TO PROGRAM RECITALS FOR PEDAGOGICAL REASONS. Your job as a recitalist is to transport your audience through the power and intimacy of song. Please do not just toss a bunch of things onto a program and call it good. Also, please for the love of God, no more greatest-hits-in-chronological-order recitals.
“The principles of constructing such a program are something like writing a play: you need a beginning, a good first half closer, and a trajectory through the second half that clinches the story. Using several singers rather than just a single artist, we are able to consider a wider range of songs for the program; and having more than one vocalist instantly creates a sense of drama. If you do them right, thematic recitals focus the audience’s attention where it belongs — on the words and music at hand, rather than on the diva’s dress, or on comparisons with past performances. The rapt concentration of the audiences, their willingness to take a musical journey into parts unknown and their discovery that songs can teach you about history and expand your horizons have vindicated my original belief: people have an intrinsic need to be sung to, and song recitals should address that need as directly as possible.” – Steven Blier
Mr. Blier certainly knows his stuff when it comes to constructing an art song recital. After all, he is a pianist, recital accompanist, musicologist, a faculty member in the Department of Vocal Arts at The Juilliard School, and the artistic director of the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS), which he co-founded in 1988 with Michael Barrett. In the quote above he makes a strong case for structuring a recital like a play or even with a narrative concept. Use all of those creative skills you have been honing for years to make a statement (that statement doesn’t always have to be serious or fully narrative, though.) Pick a topic that you are passionate about (remember our Branding 3×3 exercise? That could be useful here…) and comb your repertoire list as well as catalogs for musical works that tell the story. Or, start with a piece of music that you desperately want to share with listeners and build out your idea from there.
Don’t forget: program diversely. Avoid focusing (whether intentionally or unintentionally) on a single type of composer identity. Be the person who introduces your listeners to a diverse range of composers and musical styles.
I encourage you to do some research on story arcs to help give you some guiding shape to your programming. What kind of story do you want to tell? Remember, as I mentioned before, it doesn’t have to be serious or explicitly narrative. I love to create abstract recital programs. The difference is that I am always deeply aware of what story I’m bringing to the stage. If you want some help, think about a movie that you really love. Identify the narrative or dramatic arc of that movie. Can you challenge yourself to come up with a recital program that truly inhabits that arc?
“I am glad to see that the old-style graduate-school recital (Handel-Schubert— opera aria-contemporary piece— Faure-“charming” ender) is less in evidence than it used to be.”- Steven Blier
Profile of the audience
It is of utmost importance to program the music that you love and perform superbly. It’s also great to think about your potential audience. The truth is that you will probably know 90% of your audience if you are programming a hometown recital. Do not wait until the publicity stage to think about who you want to connect with. Start with the creative process now. Who will want to hear this work? Is there something else in your repertoire that goes hand in hand with this that your friends, family, coworkers, and their connections will want to hear?
Have you ever heard that advice to write for a really specific reader? Well, take a moment and think about crafting a recital that is specifically FOR someone you know and love. What journey do you want them to go with you on? If they love certain aesthetics or pieces, include them! If their breath is taken away by a certain poet, figure out how to include their poetry in either the musical works or weave it throughout the performance. Are there themes that they just love to consider? Revel in that space and craft a musical love note/thank you card to them.
“It is often humbling to learn of the efforts and sacrifices people make to attend concerts and recitals: they deserve the best we can give.” – Stephen Cleobury
Share your artistic voice
Recitals offer another benefit. You have so much more control in expressing your creative and artistic voice through your programming and performance. Even if you primarily desire to work in an ensemble setting, please consider having a recital program in your back pocket that allows you to share this point of view and your creative urges this way.