Starting a new recital program is so exciting.
I love selecting new music, picking a performance date, and imagining how thrilling it will feel to play for a hall full of friends and family.
But there’s always this moment of terror, right at the beginning of the preparation process, when I wonder if I’ll be able to manage all the unknown challenges of tackling such a huge project.
What if my program is too hard?
Will I be able to practice enough over the coming months?
Maybe I should pick an easier program…
Doubt always finds a way to creep in.
But instead of giving up on my ambitious goals as soon as I start to doubt my ability to handle them, I re-focus my attention on what I need to do to succeed.
Over the years, I’ve discovered the key components for successful recital preparation, whether it’s your first full recital or your hundredth.
Develop a Detailed Plan
It may seem obvious that in order to successfully navigate a months-long project, you need a detailed plan.
But I’ve seen so many colleagues skip this step…and the results are not stellar.
So, before you even start practicing your exciting new music, give yourself a few minutes to sketch your plan-of-attack.
You may adjust this schedule as needed over the coming weeks. But by starting with a detailed plan, the likelihood that you’ll have a successful performance is much higher.
Define Your Schedule
Grab your calendar and mark down each of the following dates:
- Dress Rehearsal
- All Music Memorized
This is the date by which you will have memorized all of the pieces that you will perform from memory. I usually aim to have everything memorized 4 weeks prior to the recital date (especially if most of the recital will be performed from memory).
- All Music Learned
This is the date by which you will have learned all of the pieces on your recital. Some pieces may not be memorized at this point, but you will have completely worked out the technical details of each piece.
During the first two weeks of recital preparation, you can supercharge your preparation by adding these dates to your calendar:
- First Performance of Each Piece
Find informal performance opportunities to “debut” each piece. The more of these informal performances you can get under your belt before your recital, the more prepared you will be and the better you will feel.
- Each Movement Learned
These are the dates by which you will have learned each movement on your program. I like to prioritize more challenging movements, so I usually focus on learning those first.
- Most Difficult Sections Learned
This is my favorite recital preparation technique. As I get to know my recital program during the first few weeks of preparation, I determine which sections will be the most challenging. I then set goals for learning these sections early in my preparation process.
I start by practicing challenging sections out of context, mastering the technical details of each section. Before long, the “hard” parts feel comfortable, and I can play them more convincingly in the broader context of the piece.
Putting dates on a calendar may not seem very important.
But by giving yourself a detailed set of benchmarks to achieve, you are much more likely to stay motivated to practice, even when you’re tired or feeling unfocused.
Most importantly, you will gain the confidence that only comes from excellent preparation.
A Little Progress, Every Day
I admit it – I struggle with this one.
Often, when I start a new recital program, I feel so excited that I throw all my energy into practicing, studying the score, and comparing recordings.
And it’s great…for a day or two.
But when the excitement wears off, I find it incredibly difficult to maintain my no-holds-barred approach to recital preparation. My energy wanes, I forget my motivation, and I suddenly feel like I’m making no progress at all.
So I return to the most important principle of long-term success:
Make small progress, every day.
Instead of setting unmanageable daily goals (learn a whole movement, memorize an entire piece, fix every intonation problem…), I set reasonable goals that will allow me to make consistent progress.
Instead of trying to take huge leaps forward every day, I simply aim to improve — even just a little — every day.
And some days I make more progress than others.
But I know that the work I do today brings me closer to my goal than I was yesterday. Over time, as dozens of successful days add up, I am able to make huge leaps forward.
Relentless Forward Progress
Making a little progress every day is key for long-term success, but sometimes it feels impossible to conjure the discipline that it takes to practice diligently.
When I feel exhausted or unmotivated, I remind myself of a phrase that is popular among ultra-marathon runners: relentless forward progress.
These runners complete incredible feats of endurance, sometimes running for 24 hours or longer, through sheer force of will. Sometimes they feel great and sometimes they can barely take another step, but no matter what they keep moving forward — maintaining relentless forward progress.
As musicians, we can learn a lot from this approach. When you struggle to find the energy or motivation to practice, just focus on moving forward. You don’t have to revolutionize your technique or learn a whole piece. Just move forward.
You are capable of incredible things. You don’t have to wait for your “musical inspiration” to strike to make valuable progress today. Be relentless. You know what you need to do. Get to work and you’ll be amazed by what you can accomplish.
Reflect and Adjust
Planning, preparing, and performing a recital is a major project.
And as with any major project, the plans that you set out to achieve at the beginning may need to change as you get closer to your goals.
You may need to kick your preparation into high gear if you’re not reaching your benchmarks along the way.
Or you might discover that things are going so well that you can set higher goals for yourself. Maybe you can add an extra performance, competition, or audition to your long-term goals for this recital program.
Either way, give yourself a few opportunities to reflect on your progress and make adjustments to your plan.
At least once a month, take a few minutes to consider how your preparation is going:
- Am I reaching the benchmark dates that I wrote in my calendar when I started this project?
- Do I feel like I can do more?
- Do I feel overloaded and/or exhausted?
- Am I maxed out or can I practice more?
When you pick an ambitious recital program, you will have moments in which you feel exhausted, unmotivated, and uncertain of your success. This is a natural part of venturing outside of your comfort zone.
But there will also be moments of sheer joy, excitement, and amazement.
Whether you feel tired or exhilarated, allow yourself to respond mindfully by practicing equanimity.
With calm focus, observe your progress and enjoy the journey.
What’s your favorite recital preparation technique? Share in the comments!
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