Help! My Student Doesn't Have Their Recital Song Mastered

Get A Recital Song Mastered With 10 “Last Minute” Ideas

It’s that time of year and many studios are working towards one goal.  Making sure students have their recital song mastered.  Or, songs depending on the size of the studio.  Sometimes I wonder who is more stressed before the recital: the teacher or the student. And, I think that it all depends on how soon the recital is.

Do you have a student that procrastinates on their songs until the last minute?  And, then struggles to master them in the last week or two before the recital?

We all know how that turns out.  The student typically chokes during the performance, audience members try to be supportive (though with all the stops and starts it’s a challenge), and the recital starts feeling like a chore to everyone that attends.


I’ve tried everything from one week to one month before the recital for when songs need to be mastered.  Making the deadline earlier has by far been the most successful in keeping stress levels low in the studio.

Back in 2018, we aimed to have songs learnt (correct notes, rhythm, dynamics and articulation) at least a month before the recital.  Many of my students were able to reach that goal.  A few took a week longer and were able to accomplish it 3 weeks before the recital.  (While, we weren’t that on top of things during the pandemic, we quickly returned to this goal.)

I’ve learnt the hard way that many students WILL procrastinate if they can. The problem is that it’s stressful for everyone.  The student because they genuinely want to do well.  For parent(s) as they try to get extra practice times into an already busy schedule.  And, us as teachers because we also genuinely want the student to shine as well.

Give yourself and your students a buffer before the recital of when a song must be mastered.
Spend the rest of the time on high-level skills such as interpretation and performance strategies.

By setting the deadline much earlier, we save students from themselves (as my husband puts it when the twins seem set on making bad choices all day).  Procrastinating means a different song choice, instead of a recital performance the student isn’t proud of.

The bonus is that the remainder of the time before the recital is for interpretation and getting student performances solid.  When the day of the recital comes, students have worked out all the kinks, they have played under pressure, and they have had time to make their songs truly their own. It also means I’m not scrambling to get my own recital prep done in time.

Why It’s Not Mastered

What happens if a student REALLY wants to learn a piece for the recital, but doesn’t learn it in time?  Typically a student has not mastered a song for one of the following reasons:

  • Piece was too challenging
  • Cramming practice at the last minute
  • Student chooses not to use practice aids

The first reason is a tough one.  As the teacher, we need to find a way for our students to play the songs they love while also keeping things within their playing ability.  It’s a tough balancing act.

Students who practice regularly throughout the year typically continue that habit as they get their recital song mastered.  Students who don’t practice regularly won’t start now.  

And when a student chooses not to use practice aids, it’s often for the same reasons as not practicing.  If the habit isn’t there, a recital isn’t going to make a miraculous change.

But, there are ways to guide our students into better choices in the weeks and months leading up to the recital!

How to Get That Recital Song Mastered

As frustrating as student procrastination can be, I try to remind myself that students really DO want to well on their pieces.  It’s up to me to figure out how to help them.

When you have a student procrastinating, you need ideas that fit where your student is at. Rather than trying to make them into an ideal student at a stressful time.

Idea 1: Simplify

Simplify an arrangement so it becomes a little easier than the student’s level.

You can:

  • Remove a section from the song: easy when it’s pop music.
  • Take out some notes in a more complex section.
  • Simplify a rhythm, especially when it’s clear the student wasn’t reading it anyway.

In “A Life Lived“, the student could rock between the octaves rather than play the harmonic octaves. When it comes to small hands (like mine) and a song with plenty of octaves converting them to melodic intervals is an easy and effective strategy.

A Life Lived: Tip To Get Recital Song Mastered

When composing, I do this experimentation all the time. Sometimes a song needs more complexity. And, sometimes I need to be honest that the extra “stuff” isn’t adding anything to the overall picture.

The key to simplifying is to keep it simple for both the student AND you.
Find the least solution that requires the least amount of work to implement.

Idea 2: Link

Link the arrangement to previous patterns or concepts they have already covered.

Some of those patterns can be:

  • Rhythm,
  • Motives,
  • Chord progressions.

For a song like “Jake Meets The Jack Rabbit“, alternating between harmonic 5th and 6th intervals is a very common accompaniment pattern at this level. However, linking playing these chord bridges on strong beats (what student is familiar with) as well as weak beats (this arrangement) can make a big difference.

Jake Meets The Jack Rabbit: Tip To Get Recital Song Mastered

Idea 3: Divide

Divide the song into smaller sections with weekly benchmarks/goals for each. Sometimes students just need a step-by-step guide for when sections need to be mastered. This is typically goal-oriented students that are involved in many different activities.

An example would be mastering the accompaniment pattern of “Waltz Under the Stars“. Half the week would be on just the left-hand accompaniment pattern. The last half of the week would switch to hands together. The right-hand is fairly simple so it makes good use of what students need extra practice on.

Waltz Under The Stars: Tip To Get Recital Song Mastered

We’ve all had students that “sort of, kinda, but not really” know an accompaniment pattern so this is a good way of getting in the extra practice for that particular section. Another option to this would be have the student play the accompaniment pattern 3 times for each 1 time they play hands together.

While this is something you probably already do as a normal part of teaching, take it a step further with a breakdown of the weekly benchmarks/goals on the student’s practice page. Seeing this each week keeps it top of mind and can be the difference between falling behind (again) and learning the song in time.

Idea 4: Demonstrate

Practice IN lesson the way you want the student to practice during the week. Again, I know this is something you probably already do during lesson time. But, recital practice can be a bit different from “regular” practice.

You may be working on recital songs much longer than the regular repertoire your student plays at a recital. The songs may be more complex. Or, your recital prep happens to fall in months when everything else is ramping up in their family life as well.

That’s when you need “Fun Activities To Prepare Students For A Piano Recital” to stave off boredom and make those practice sessions count! These should include both at the piano and off-the-bench options.

Idea 5: Videos

Provide weekly practice help through videos your student can access throughout the week.

This could include:

  • Practice video
  • Link to YouTube performance

When a student is performing their first recital and playing something like “The Rabbit In The Garden” it’s so important to provide extra support during the week! Both student and parent might be quite nervous.

Thankfully, music at this level tends to have phrases written out as one per line. Create a separate video for each line with new material. Run-through the section at tempo, then play again slowly with light-up keys so parents can see and help as well.

Rather than take extra admin time to do this, here are 2 options:

  • Online lessons:  Make a quick recording that is uploaded for the student either during lesson or right after.
  • In-person lessons:  Use the STUDENT device so there is no excuse for not having access during the week.

Something I’ve started doing more often is:

  1. Pull the recordings that were made
  2. Upload them to YouTube as an unlisted videos (respects copyright)
  3. Add all links to a templated Doc for the song.
  4. Send a copy of the Doc to the student or embed the links onto their digital practice page.

This last option means that I am creating tutorial videos as we go and am building a library of tutorials. And, I’m not overloading my online storage because the videos are stored elsewhere!

Idea 6: Communicate

Let parents know which practice aids their child has access to during each week. As a parent, I know how frustrated I’ve felt when my child is struggling and there doesn’t seem to be any help coming.

This idea can be as simple as:

  • Talking to the parent at the end of lesson or
  • Sending a text or email.

Training parents to check the practice page and help folder in their family’s online piano folder each week is a long-term strategy that has worked wonders in my studio! It’s helped them feel confident during the week. And, I get less stressed out communiques which means more downtime instead of admin time.

Idea 7: Student Videos

Encourage students to send videos during the week if they would like extra feedback. Most students won’t take advantage of this, but it’s up to you if you are okay with getting a few videos.

My students and families know they can text me videos and questions any time. They also know they won’t get a response until I’m back in the office. My clients have mentioned that they liked knowing they could send the text when it was top of mind and didn’t have to worry about trying to reach me at a specific time!

Idea 8: Friendly Challenges

And, a little fun is always a good thing.  Instead of endless repetitions on the piano, practicing for the recital can be fun!  A friendly studio challenge like students vs. the teacher is a great one for community building.  

If you want to do something more personalized, it could be “who can make me feel the most?” challenge. Students playing “Farewell, Old Friend” will be aiming to get tears out of your eyes. The sparse chords and simple melody mean students have a lot of artistic license to pull on those heartstrings!

Idea 9: Backing Tracks

There are many ways to give a little extra incentive including the studio challenge I mentioned above.

Maybe you realized that several students are addicted to stopping and starting again if they make a mistake as they perform.  Get them to play with backing tracks!  Not only will it solve this problem, but the students are excited about choosing the style of the backing track.  Plus since they have already mastered their songs, they have several weeks of practicing with the backing track before the big day. 

I shared a tutorial on how I created backing tracks for my students using 2 apps!  It was a fun learning curve and I’m glad that I took the plunge.  It was a lot easier than I had originally thought and could see do more of this for my students (or myself as I practice).

While I absolutely love iReal Pro, GarageBand is another app that I use all the time and may be easier if you’re on a “I need to get this done and don’t have time to learn” timeline.

Idea 10: Fun Activities

With their recital song mastered, students may get bored playing the piece for weeks before the recital.  But, there is a way to keep practice new and fresh!

When my students have the chance to get off-the-bench and do something fun, they love it.  Thinking back to how much they had enjoyed using a choice-based system for practice activities, I created a new, shorter set that focused only on recital songs.  And, it was a hit!  In fact, the first student to send me videos of the “5 Ways Recital Activities” was my senior high student.  I had thought that only my elementary-aged students would be into it, but gave her the option to do these if she wanted.  A couple of days later, she texted 2 videos!

Multi-sensory Recital Prep Activities - “5 Ways To Get Ready For Your Recital”

It didn’t work … now what?

What happens if you do all of this and the student STILL does not learn their song by the deadline? Barring family emergencies …

It’s time for a hard conversation with the student about how they prepared for their recital song and why the song isn’t mastered.

Students, even the youngest, usually are very honest about how they could have changed their practice to be more successful.

One of my clients said that it was an eye-opener for her daughter to see how her lack of or inefficient practice (depending on the week) had meant that she didn’t get to perform her first choice.  Her daughter realised that because she hadn’t put in the effort beforehand, the cram sessions at the end didn’t get her the result she had wanted.

The week before the deadline, this student had been very motivated and had made great progress … but, it wasn’t enough to show me the song could be learnt in time.  Thankfully, the parent was very supportive of this life lesson, the student chose an alternate song to play for the recital, and we will continue working on the song she really wanted … but, only on a minor basis until after the recital when we can put our full focus on the piece.

If you, as a teacher, have done everything in your power to help a student master their recital songs … at this point, it’s up to the student to take responsibility for their practice.

In my studio, my students know that I want them to have the BEST performance at the recital.  It’s their chance to show off for their parents and family!  I’ll help them every which way I can to master the song they want.  But, if they choose not to practice or not use the tools I’ve given them … they need to choose a new song that they have already mastered.

10 Ideas To Get A Recital Song Mastered

There are many ways to get a recital song mastered. Which is great because students need variety and different approaches!

Which is your favourite idea to get a recital song mastered?

  • Simplify
  • Link
  • Divide
  • Demonstrate
  • Tutorial videos
  • Communicate
  • Student videos
  • Challenges
  • Backing tracks
  • Fun activities

Let me know in the comments!

Resources Mentioned In This Article

If a resource grabbed your attention, rather than scrolling up again … I’ve listed them all here for you. Enjoy!

P.S. These all make for great social media posts for your studio! If you decide to post them, can you tag me ? I’d love to cheer on your students.

NOTE: This article was originally published on April 20, 2018.  It continues to be updated, but all the good stuff still kept here!

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