Fashioning a program out of distinct pieces is the necessary first step towards a successful performance, yet as a process it is often overlooked. Giving thought to “what to play” and “when to play it” can lead to more and often better gigs, such as those promoted by cultural associations and concert series. Perhaps even more importantly, a carefully constructed program enables you to turn your performance into a more meaningful listening experience for your audience. Think of it as your chance to make a point, to tell a story, to put things in a particular light through placement, pacing, and juxtaposition.
Today’s guitar field is replete with swarms of technically polished and musically inspired players. I would argue that by giving your next program a little more attention, you are improving your chances of standing out in the crowd.
Programming constraints and considerations
First off, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t lose track of external constraints when considering a recital program. If you need to put together 30 minutes of music for a junior recital, you probably shouldn’t spend 25 of them on an entire Bach cello suite. Undergraduate recitals tend to emphasize breadth before depth, and as much as I love complete works and big pieces, I would ultimately defer to departmental and teacher guidelines when preparing such a show. On the other hand, Master’s, and Doctoral recitals often encourage (if not altogether require) specialization and cohesion, so some of the things I’ll be talking about apply more properly to them.
Balancing a Performer’s Needs…
Programming is first and foremost a balancing act between what you can do and what you’d like to do. Consider the technical, musical and physical demands of your pieces as you put them together: by way of example, I prefer to start somewhat easy, but I’m confident enough in my physical and mental endurance not to be too worried of putting two longer pieces back-to-back. Through years of dealing with performance anxiety, I have discovered I can stay in the zone more easily than I can get into it—because of that, I prefer to arrange shorter pieces in suites (more on that later), as opposed to having to acknowledge applause between each of them. Another example: I don’t love to start with complex polyphonic or otherwise “mnemonically treacherous” music. That’s a personal preference, but I am aware of it and keep it in mind when choosing program order—adhering to a strict chronology is not necessarily the way to go, especially considering how complex and intricate a lot of Early Music can be. Through an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses as a performer, you can use program placement as an extra “lifeline” and make life on stage just a bit easier.
…with Your Audience’s Needs
Similar consideration should be given to those loving and supporting souls who chose to spend their evening listening to you. You should remember that your experience of the performance is going to be significantly different from theirs, and that although time is likely to fly by for you, it might feel more like it’s grinding to a halt to them (this is assuming the canonical, audience-sitting-in-silence, recital-hall kind of setting. Perhaps we’ll talk about bringing “classical” music to unexpected places another time.)
To cut to the chase: attention can be sustained for 40 minutes at best, a timeframe that’s likely to be shrinking in this age of sound bites and tweets. I try to keep my programs to two halves of 25-35 minutes of music, which usually translates to 45 minutes with tuning, bowing, and talking (you can and should talk; more later). The second half should be shorter, especially if you’re planning to play any encores.
Keeping this simple physiological tenet in mind gives me the confidence to present more complex and challenging music to my audiences. I’ve actually found that people react positively to all sorts of music once the proper context is in place and the pieces are presented with care—which also includes being mindful of the limits of the human attention.
In the next part of this article we will explore some components of a successful and communicative recital program.