Part I: Critical First Steps
Why is self-planning both rewarding and difficult for musicians?-
During most of my career I have had many opportunities to perform solos and chamber music outside my regular playing position. Usually, I was invited to perform a concert on a series organized by someone else.
In a few cases I organized a recital on my own. But even in those cases, I played in someone's home, and they took responsibility for publicity, by inviting the audience from their circle of friends.
This past June I planned, publicized and performed 2 recitals. Even though I did most of the work, I was still indebted to several supporters who organized a reception for one of them.
Each new self-organized performance event demands new planning to create the program, hire the players, plan rehearsals, designs fliers, publicize, publicize and publicize, hire a hall, make sure the piano is tuned, print programs, research what to say to the audience about the program, and of course, the performance itself.
The first one took place at my home on June 5th. Though I have given several recitals here in the past, the amount of work required never eases up. Beyond all the steps mentioned above, I had to move furniture, clean house and garden, and check with neighbors to warn them about all the cars parking on the street, among other things.
Needless to say, I have learned a few things from the experience. I have the upper hand in my next recital. Overall the experience was rewarding. I offer the following steps to plan and perform your own recital.
Attracting and engaging musicians-
Luckily this recital was planned around a particular pianist, Ahlin Min, whom I had worked with before and whose playing I loved. If you don't have a pianist in mind, it may be best to schedule an informal "reading" with one or two before deciding. Try asking at your local university for possible pianists. Unless I know someone's playing from my own experience, I don't necessarily trust just anyone's recommendation. You need to feel comfortable with whomever you work with. I have performed with pianists who I never gelled with, despite great abilities on the instrument.
It always helps round out a program to have some variety of instruments. Even when just playing with piano, I may do an unaccompanied piece for a change of tonal color. If you know of some friends or colleagues with whom you would like to share music, it really helps to have more than just you and piano. Even if you are a pianist doing a recital, adding another instrument, or more to the program will enhance the whole event.
Above all, seek out people with whom you would enjoy working, not just "the best" for its own sake. Good chemistry between musicians is much more rewarding in performance than note perfect accuracy or reputation.
iAdvise: Pick reputable musicians you enjoy working with and who respect you. They will be more willing to go the extra mile.
Picking a concert date-
Pinning down musician's schedules for rehearsals and a performance is especially difficult when they are playing gratis. I made the mistake of picking a perfect date for a performance, only to learn that several of the musicians I wanted to work with preferred a date which lined up with a week of regular work, so as not to disturb time off.
I also learned to check ALL other performing organizations schedules before picking a date. Unfortunately, I had committed too a performance date before I found out that the symphony woman's association had chosen the same weekend months before for a fundraiser. Oops. One of the dates I chose also had a performance by a much more established chamber music group in the area. Not a good idea. I had committed to the dates, but I was already swimming upstream. Careful planning of dates cannot be over-emphasized. It may be agonizing, but picking a good date pays off.
Ultimately no date will be perfect for everyone. But a little research goes a long way to making a successful event.
Churches are often wonderful places to plan music programs. But I also learned that some churches require liability insurance and prepaid fees to keep the building open. Still, cheaper and more accessible than a real hall! Again, ask around, call around, do some research.
Whew! Though not perfect, I had the dates pinned down.
iAdvise: Research numerous possible dates carefully, double checking any possible conflicts with other performances.
Choosing the program-
This should be relatively easy for a musician. Though some are intimidated by the task of mixing and matching music, believing there are some magical patterns to create a balanced program. But my father always nudged me to play and share what I enjoyed, rather than try to fill some abstract idea of what makes a good program.
I started with what I love to play. Since I had a good pianist which I wanted to feature, I knew I could program more challenging pieces for the piano part. I also wanted to feature musicians from the Columbus Symphony. And I wanted a little edge to the music, to challenge the listeners a bit, but not too much.
I listened to recordings of any new piece I thought I would like, and eliminated ones which did not appeal to me.
For the opening work I chose a piece I knew well, the Debussy Rhapsodie. It would appeal to the audience for sure, and it has a fairly challenging piano part. But the Debussy has also haunted me with its breathing problems, something I have been working on for awhile. So it still contained a challenge for me. Check.
I chose the Stravinsky L'Histoire because, again, I love the piece, and wanted to play it again. I also had in mind one particular violinist in the orchestra whose playing I thought would be perfect for the piece. Check.
The final work would be a larger ensemble featuring my close colleagues in the woodwind section, the Columbus Symphony Woodwind Quintet. I listened to several works for piano and WW quintet, finally deciding on the Poulenc Sextet, not often performed, and a lovely piece by one of my favorite composers. Check.
I didn't want the program to be too long. My personal taste as an audience member is to attend a short, well planned concert. The three pieces only constituted about 45 minutes of music. But I also had plans to talk extensively about the music, so the event would last at least an hour, perhaps a bit more. Check.
iAdvise: Choose music you personally enjoy. Keep the program reasonably short. Allow time to talk to the audience.
Deciding on a program theme-
Beyond choosing music which will fill out and balance a program, I suggest choosing a theme, including a title for the program and a style. Programs with themes are easier to sell, especially if the theme is inviting.
Along with the dreamy mood of Debussy's Rhapsodie, I was inspired by Stravinsky's famous Tango, Waltz, Rag to name the program "Dances and Dreams". Any simple, catchy description which reasonably encompasses the program will do. Again, something which speaks to you is better than not. I could have called this program "Developments in musical style from 1910 to 1940" but I personally would be daunted by such a program description if I were thinking of attending.
iAdvise: Have fun with your program theme. Keep it simple and catchy.
Designing and creating a flier and image theme-
After I had set the dates and chosen the program, I needed to begin thinking about publicity. I wanted a flashy flier to catch the eye of the public where ever they might see it. A simple one color flier might have been okay, but I already knew I was competing with other more established and better publicized events, so I decided on a more expensive multi-colored design.
After sifting through a bunch of paintings from around the period the music was composed, I decided instead to create my own original design. Cubist styles dominated art around the 1920s and 30s. So I searched the Internet for free picture of each instrument on the program and then manipulated them into my own "cubist" musical picture.
I used Photoshop Elements to manipulate the images. (Photoshop Elements has 90% of full Photoshop power at 1/4 the price) To make it cubist looking, I cut and rearranged all the instrument pics into a choppy pattern, with a close up of piano keys as the main background. After all, the piano, and pianist, is featured in all three pieces.
After saving the edited image, I added text. It was tricky to squeeze in all the pertinent information onto a half sheet sized flier, including date, time, location, program, performers, theme and a link to more information. I had to let some things go to be sure it wasn't too crowded obscure. Through trial and error, I came up with an eye catching design with all the necessary information, and shaped it to fit onto a half sheet of paper. Then I duplicated the flier image and copied it to the other half of the design layout, so I could print two to a page and cut them.
Instead of printing on my home printer, I thought it better to pay a bit more for professional printing. (With home printer ink prices being so high, it was an easy decision.) I chose Fedex-Kinkos. For about a dollar a copy (two fliers when cut), they were able to print the fliers on fairly heavy semi-gloss paper.
One bit of advice if you are designing your own flier like this. Most printers leave a default white space around the design, and cannot print to edge, at least not without special, more expensive manipulation. After taking it to be printed, I realized I had to design a space BETWEEN the two fliers at the middle of the page, so that when cut in half, the white border would go all the way around the image. Otherwise the image would bump up against one side, with the other three sides bordered by white, not very attractive. Below is gallery of pictures showing the various stages of design I went through, including several illegible experiments.
One new item to add to this list of suggestions: consider making two similar designs, one in color and larger (half-page or full) and one smaller and with only one or two colors (cheaper to print). You will learn in the next article how the two designs will come in handy.
iAdvise: Try to come up with an original flier design to attract someone's attention. If you don't feel comfortable with doing it, ask a friend who might enjoy the process. Create two designs, one flashy and one simple.
In Part II - Publicize, I'll discuss the various steps you can take to effectively advertise your planned recital.