Dr. Andrew Bova: presenting an enjoyable recital

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By DR. ANDREW BOVA.
Piping Today #97.
August 2019.

For most of us pipers, our performances are confined to a few standard stages. For some, this may be competition, either solo or band. For others, this may be playing in a ‘street band’, performing mostly at parades and social functions. Some pipers may find themselves at weddings and funerals more than anything, and, of course, there is the folky pipers who play sessions and concerts. However, I find that many pipers are, at one point or another, called upon to give some sort of recital. This may be at a local school, as a part of an arts series, or, for our professional readers, as a featured recitalist for a piping audience.

I’ve been called upon to give a few recitals and have been attending the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s end-of-term student recitals. This got me thinking – what makes a good recital? When I’m asked to give a recital, what goes into the process of deciding on a repertoire and how I will conduct myself? When I attend recitals, what do I enjoy as an audience member? It occurred to me that this is something we don’t often talk about in our community; we tend to focus on band craft or solo craft, but rarely talk about recital craft. In this article, I will share my reflections on and experiences of giving recitals, some dos and don’ts, and some thoughts on our responsibilities, or lack thereof, as musicians, so that the next time you are called on to give a recital you will have some guidelines to help you prepare.

•Dr. Andrew Bova in recital

Before we begin, I think it’s necessary to talk about what your role is as a recitalist. We are pipers, musicians, dare I say… artists. However, we are also entertainers. Ultimately, in my opinion, that’s what musicians are. I play music because I enjoy it, but I perform music because I enjoy entertaining others, providing an escape, and (hopefully) enriching the lives of my listeners. I heard a quote during my undergrad that has stuck with me (sadly I’m unable recall who said it): “Science will save the world, but the arts make the world worth saving.” That being said, while I do find purpose in my profession, I’m also not beguiled by delusions of grandeur. I’ve often been heard to say that, as an entertainer, I’m not that far off Schmucky the Clown. The point is, find purpose in what you do, but stay grounded when doing it.

But enough of the pretext. You’ve been asked to play a recital! How exciting. An opportunity to strut your stuff and show off all that hard work you’ve been doing in that sweaty, smelly practice room. However, there are some things that you should consider before rocking up and playing just whatever you want for however long you want. I argue that these things can broadly be broken down into venue, audience, and repertoire. These are listed as three separate subjects but all are intertwined and influence one another. As such, it’s impossible to discuss any one subject without hitting on at least one of the other two in some way.

First, what is the venue? Are you playing in a bar? A church? A concert hall? While this may seem trivial, it affects quite a few areas of your performance. Repertoire that’s appropriate in a bar might not be suitable in a church (I’m looking at you, Hellbound Train). Likewise, tunes that are appropriate in a church might not suit a bar (try playing a piobaireachd to a room full of non-piping drunks sometime and you’ll know what I mean). How big is the venue? Small venues invite the opportunity to create an intimate dynamic between yourself and the audience, while larger venues can make this more difficult, at times making a more formal environment appropriate. 

Does the venue have amplification that you can use to speak to the audience if necessary? If you’re playing to a large hall full of people with no microphone, you’d need to yell. Yelling at the audience is somewhat off-putting in my experience. But if you’re in an intimate space, or you have a microphone, you can reach out to the audience and really connect with them. 

On that note, moving on to the audience, should you talk to your audience? There are generally two schools of thought on this, recitals with talking and recitals without talking. I’ve had a number of discussions (and one or two arguments) about whether or not it’s the responsibility of the recitalist to talk to the crowd, and I have to say that I firmly fall into the camp of speaking to your audience. This goes back to our responsibility as musicians to entertain, but additionally touches on our responsibility to educate. Let’s be realistic, to the general non-piping public the pipes have a fairly poor reputation of sounding like a ‘dying animal’, being just for parades and funerals, and being the butt of so, so many jokes. Giving a recital gives you the opportunity to teach people something about the music, our history and the rich tradition of piping. I like to be entertaining, but I also strive to make sure people leave my recitals with a greater appreciation for our art and culture. It’s not hard to do. Tell the stories of a few tunes (often you can get in a couple good jokes here!), talk about the differences between marches, strathspeys and reels, or play some tunes that are modern compositions. Again, this is easier to do in a small venue, but with a little practice it can be done in larger halls. That being said, some pipers are uncomfortable with public speaking and the greatest of piping can be brought down with cringeworthy speech. If you’re not comfortable, keep the talking to a minimum.

Is your audience a piping audience or a non-piping audience? With piping audiences, you generally have more freedom to play obscure tunes, get in a full piobaireachd and get into the nitty gritty of the tunes you’re playing without having to explain who G.S. MacLennan was or what an MSR is. Also, if you decide to play advanced repertoire like The Cameronian Rant or Pretty Marion, a piping crowd will have a greater appreciation for the skill involved. For non-piping audiences, it’s still possible to play big or obscure tunes, but it’s important to throw in some crowd pleasers to keep things accessible. Scotland the Brave, Amazing Grace, Highland Cathedral and the like are regulars in my recital repertoire as this is what most non-pipers will think of when they think of pipes. But pair that with a nice set of 3/4s or some good reels and it demonstrates the breadth of repertoire for our instrument. If you’re going to play piobaireachd, which I do encourage, stick to a ground and first variation, or the ground and the first line of each variation, to give an example of what our Big Music is. And for goodness sake, if you’re going to play a piobaireachd to a non-piping crowd, PLEASE explain what the heck it is!

Finally, what repertoire will you play? We’ve touched on how to select repertoire for a venue and how to select repertoire for your audience, but how do you actually go about putting together your sets and set list, which, by the way, you need to put together sets and a set list. Keep yourself right by having your set list on a piece of paper or on your phone (crack a joke that you’re not texting, if need be. And for the layperson there’s often something funny about seeing an iPhone come out of a furry sporran). A recital is kind of like a book. A book is made up of chapters that are made up of sentences. A recital is made up of sets that are made up of tunes. With a little thought, you can create a recital that takes your listeners on a journey from beginning to end. 

When crafting your sets, think about the keys of the tunes, especially for sets that are made up of the same type of tune, i.e. a set of marches. Changing keys, like going from a tune in A to a tune in D, makes it easier for the audience to tell when you’re changing tunes and keeps things fresh and interesting throughout a set. 

Next, I personally often like to theme my sets. For example, in my own standard recital repertoire I have a set of strathspeys and reels by G.S. MacLennan, a mini medley of tunes by Canadian composers and a set of tunes written by me and my friends. This gives some context to what you’re playing beyond just playing good tunes and shows the audience that you’ve really put some thought into your performance. As far as the order of your sets, just keep things fresh. Don’t play a set of 2/4s, then a set of 6/8s, then a set of 4/4s. Change it up, play a slow air then some hornpipes and jigs, a piobaireachd then some marches, etc. Personally, I like to play my competition 2/4 marches separate from my competition strathspeys and reels. 

Let’s recap. 1. Consider your venue and select repertoire and demeanour appropriately. 2. Think about your audience, what they will and won’t want to hear, and what kind of craic and education you can bring to the table. 3. Give some thought to your repertoire and create an experience for the audience in the time you’re allotted. 

There’s no one formula for how to put on a successful recital and, despite your best efforts, some recitals just don’t go all that well. Comedians call it a ‘tough crowd’. In that instance, just enjoy playing your tunes. Nobody can stop you from doing that! I hope the next time you’re called to play a gig these small hints and tips help. But recitals are like playing pipes. Practice makes perfect.