I can’t program concerts to save my life. At least, I’m sure my students feel that way!
One thing I’ve tried to do as a bass teacher, with varying degrees of success, is to have an annual recital for my students. This is something that is really important to do as a private teacher–it gives students an event, a public performance for their family, friends, and peers. The knowledge of this upcoming event helps provide motivation and incentive to practice and learn assigned repertoire, and it helps provide structure to the private lesson experience, which can all too often devolve into sporadic tutoring rather than a core component of one’s musical education.
The problem with putting together recitals is that they take work, and while organizing this kind of event may not be a big deal for someone who teaches full-time, those of us who balance 10,000 disparate part-time jobs and tenuous faculty affiliations at various music centers, high schools, colleges and universities often have a tough time sitting down and figuring out where, when, and how to put on such an event. Freelancers like me resemble musical vagrants, wandering from institution to institution, teaching a few people here and there, and must find a way to provide our own structure to this series of seemingly unconnected events.
Some people in my situation have no problem at all banging out a recital here and there for their students. I’m always amazed when I see busy teacher/performer/road warrior folks weave student and faculty recitals into the fabric of their patchwork freelance quilt. For me, a recital (whether or not I’m playing on it) requires an enormous amount of planning and attention to detail, requiring time that I simply do not have (pre-blog, at least–I’ve got a lot more discretionary time on my hands these days with all my Web 2.0 goofery).
As a result, many of my student recitals ended up being hastily arranged affairs, with a lot of "well, uh, the program says Mozart, but it’s actually going to be a free jazz improvisation…" coming from yours truly. Here are a few of my favorite recital bungles from over the years…all of which were completely and totally my fault!
1. Who’s playing what? – For many years I put on a festival at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where I taught bass. Organizing a festival with a dozen faculty and staff members plus 60-70 middle and high school students at an institution 95 miles away from me at which I only held an adjunct position was a complicated affair, to say the least, and the concluding recital tended to hang together with masking tape, twine, and a prayer.
I’ve probably got a never-ending series of amusing stories from these events, but one that sticks out in my mind is the wacky dance on and off stage that I unwittingly made one of my key clinicians do for one of these finale recitals.
Programming for these recitals was often finalized during the event itself, with clinicians that had often met each other for the first time the day of the event being thrown together into a bass ensemble and forced to perform ensemble music with between 10 and 15 minutes of rehearsal. And this rehearsal often occurred in a crowded and noisy roomful of students! Ahhh, bass festivals….
The player roster for these various ensembles was always somewhat… er, flexible, and it was always a challenge to remember who was playing what part for which piece…
One year found the faculty members alternating between quartet and quintet for a section of the program, trying to include all the classical "headliners" while accommodating player preferences (or simply who was or was not at our frantic 10 minute rehearsal). I remember waving one faulty member onstage:
"Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome…..Al Steiner!"
….only to realize that he wasn’t actually playing that piece. Al comes onstage, waving cheerfully to the crowd, only to have me turn and whisper to him:
[sorry, Al…not yet. My fault.]
Al turns around and walks back into the wings, smiling good-naturedly. A weird sight to the audience, especially after the big welcome I gave Al, but not the end of the world.
We finish our piece. Al comes back onstage, smiling and waving to the crowd. I realize, to my horror, that he wasn’t on the next piece either.
I turn and whisper to Al.
He walks offstage.
The next piece comes up. You guessed it. Al comes onstage, but it was still not quintet time yet. This time I’m too chagrined to let him know that it’s not time yet, and we just play the quartet while he stands there, looking puzzled.
I’m an idiot.
2. Same Piece in a Row – A huge faux pas that I have unfortunately made several times in the past is to program the same exact piece in a row. I’ve done this a few times, usually due to scheduling conflicts with students (one has to get to soccer, another is coming late from confirmation class). I remember slotting a high school junior with a Marcello Sonata movement, then accidentally putting a middle school kid after her playing the exact same movement. Talk about a tough act to follow–no matter how good you are, most middle school bassists are simply not going to be able to play as well as high school bassists.
Luckily, the middle schooler was a bit of a ham. He got up there and said to the crowd:
"Uh…. I’m basically playing the exact same piece that she just played. So don’t expect too much."
Big laughs from the crowd. He also did a little dance in the middle of the piece for some reason (don’t ask me why–bassists love to dance!).
3. Same Piece in a Row…and it’s way too long! – I made the same exact programming mistake one time with a 20 minute bass concerto. Again, the high schooler got up and played all three movements of the Dragonetti Concerto for double bass.
Applause all around.
Then a 7th grader got up and played the same exact piece. I remember looking around the room at parents who had kids that only played 30 second solos, visibly deflating in their seats at the prospect of another 20 minutes of the same exact thing.
Fortunately, the 7th grader was an absolute bass demon, laying this piece down like nobody’s business, completely from memory and with great bravura. It was a blast to watch, and it doubtless kept the high schooler up that night pondering how he could have been shown up so handily by this eager little beaver.
Nothing like 40 solid minutes of the exact same material to make you rethink your programming. I like to think that I’ve gotten much better and this and have learned from my past missteps. You’ll have to ask my students after this spring’s recital!