Re-Imagining the Music Degree Recital

Music school curricula are filled with requirements. And all requirements show bias.  As a result of these rules, students’ priorities are heavily influenced (whether they know it or not).  So what lessons are being taught?  Are expectations likely to cultivate savvy entrepreneurial artists with the maximum potential for professional success?  Let’s consider the degree recital.

Degree recitals are a staple of every music performance program.  The following requirements are typical:


  • Artistic excellence.  High level performance is mandatory.
  • Specified solo literature.  There are often repertoire regulations ensuring a well-balanced event featuring pieces from different eras.  For example, violinists may be expected to include a Bach solo suite, classical sonata, Romantic work, and something contemporary.  Each piece must feature the recital giver, whether on a single instrument work, composition with piano accompaniment, or concerto.
  • Venue.  The performance must be held in a pre-determined hall, usually in the music building.

So what does our current degree recital teach young musicians?  Playing a standard and balanced solo program in a pre-determined space at a high level equates to success.

The problem—it’s not true! 

Now consider the outcomes if we were bold enough to re-imagine the degree recital. Obviously, artistic excellence should remain top priority.  But what if one or two additional aspects were stressed?  Below is a sampling of the types of expectations that could be incorporated.

  1. Attracting audiences. If musicians can’t pack a free recital, how will they ever attract paying customers down this road? With this requirement, 100 attendees equals an A, 80 results in a B, and so forth. It doesn’t matter who’s in the audience— fellow music students, school children, church members, senior citizens bussed from a nursing home. Just fill the seats.
  2. Attracting new audiences.  A twist on the previous point. Performers specifically seek and engage audiences not typically involved with the musical genre they perform.
  3. Off-campus show. Students are typically required to perform in a given on-campus venue. Consider the lessons learned if students were asked to identify an off-campus venue or series, coordinate efforts with the presenter, and follow through on all logistical concerns. This could be anywhere: public school, library, park, museum, private residence, etc.
  4. Multiple performances.  Another possibility would be requiring both on and off campus performances. This also provides students more than one opportunity to perform music they have worked so diligently to prepare.
  5. Revenue generation. To succeed as a professional, we must be able to exchange art for income. A recital presents an opportunity to sell tickets, merchandise, and related services. And it’s easy to apply quantitative standards–$200+ is an A, etc. Money earned could be applied to some kind of meaningful project related to the music school.
  6. Public relations. A recital is the perfect occasion for learning how the media works, both mainstream and Internet. Students are asked to imagine a newsworthy angle for their show, write a press release, and pitch it to actual media sources. They register their concert with Internet event calendars, and approach radio stations.   
  7. Marketing. Performers are required to draw up and enact a multi-faceted promotional plan, which includes branding, buzz marketing, social media, traditional advertising, and other techniques.
  8. Chamber music. Most school recitals focus on solo literature. Yet professionals are more likely to perform chamber music.  Why not allow the option of a chamber recital, even if none of the pieces specifically feature the degree recipient as a solo voice? They are responsible for organizing rehearsals, shaping interpretation, and leading the efforts.
  9. Unique programming.  While balanced literature requirements ensure that musicians become familiar with a range of musical styles, they often result with concerts that are generic and lack unity or “brand.” Instead, students can be asked to create programs with a central theme, compelling angle, or unusual approach. In the real world, niche programming is expected for recording and performing artists.
  10. Your own voice. Each student is required to include at least one element completely unique to them: an original composition, premier, new arrangement, interdisciplinary adventure, combination of instruments, secondary skills, etc.
  11. Collaboration. A recital is the perfect opportunity to work collaboratively, and not just with musicians. Possibilities include student/professional dancers, film makers, actors, visual artists, writers (to compose program notes), costume designers, lighting designers, stage designer, marketers, publicists, individuals connected to concert theme, etc.
  12. Audience engagement. For most student recitals, the audience is completely ignored.  The soloist doesn’t speak a word, and hides backstage during intermission. Why not require some kind of engaging and interactive activity that draws the audience in?  (“Lecture recitals” don’t count—they are often as dreadful and academic as the title suggests.)  
  13. Education. Students are required to design and administer an educational teaching artist event at a local school or community built around one or more of their recital pieces.

Obviously, it’s not possible for every student do all these things on each recital.  But focusing on just one or two elements in addition to performance excellence would have a huge impact.  Perhaps the students themselves could decide which challenge they’d like to conquer. 


Who cares if these are official requirements?  Why not impose a few on yourself?

True, incorporating additional challenges like the ones outlined above is time intensive. But it also offers experiential and real time lessons, emphasizing that success requires a whole lot more than great playing on a formulaic program. Re-imagining the music degree recital presents an exciting opportunity to better prepare students to thrive as professionals.

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