Cringe. That was what I was doing during most of last Sunday afternoon. I had entered some of my students into one of the spring recitals sponsored by a local music association. Yet again, I was witness to what seems to still be an endemic practice with some private music teaching studios: lack of contemporary music and bad programming. Out of over 20 pieces performed only two were by living composers, one being me. Save for two pieces by Kabalevsky everything else was written before 1900. As for the program order, no concern was taken for how to place the individual works. Rather, the program order was dictated by the age of the player, with the youngest starting the concert and the eldest ending the show. The result was a collection of pieces that tended to dull one another, regardless of when they were written. Parents and students alike were disinterested, awakening only when their “chosen” performed.
Why is it that we take such care programming a concert by professionals, yet often fail to take the same approach with our students? Part of the problem seems to be the way many music organizations craft their competitions and annual evaluations. Teachers are required to select pieces from an approved list for each period of music. As for the contemporary repertoire, most selections offer little to choose from beyond Bartók and Kabalevsky pieces. Works by living composers that are offered tend to come from the staple of pieces published by the big educational publishers. Except for a few, most of the pieces are derivative of earlier periods of music and could easily have been written before 1945. It is from these lists that many teachers rely on for finding contemporary music for their students. Add that to poor concert program order and you have a perfect recipe for presenting both new and old music as boring.
How can we as composers help change this situation? The American Music Center has a great project to help people program concerts for kids, called Music for Young Audiences. Lyn Liston and her crew have done an excellent job of making it easy for composers to list their works composed with the young listener in mind. Similar to NewMusicJukebox, educators and concert programmers can go to the Music for Young Audiences, type in their parameters for a concert (orchestral work for high school listeners, chamber work for elementary outreach program) and up comes a list of pieces fitting their needs.
What about using this as a model and create an online catalog of new music for young players? It could work exactly the same way, except the focus is on music for young performers. That way, teachers could explore and find on their own pieces for their students’ recitals. Indeed, they can even use these pieces for competitions, as most associations allow teachers to select an alternative contemporary piece that is not on the recommended lists as long as it is of the same level of difficulty. Indeed, the programming committees would have a much-needed resource to help them select recommended works for student evaluations and merit concerts.
As for concert programming, whether it be a 30 minute student recital or a 10 hour marathon I live by my husband, composer Dan Becker’s mantra: context is everything. In this case, program order is everything. Focus on ordering pieces by how each reflects on one another: think of variety, length, and instrumentation, not difficulty level. Likewise, put a five-year-old beginner next to a sixteen-year-old advanced performer. Both will shine even more than if they perform next to students that are playing at similar levels and similar pieces. Add to this thoughtful selection of contemporary music and you have a much better chance of presenting an engaging student recital that will also offer an opportunity for the audience to hear music written by their contemporaries.