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HOW-TO: Choose Music for a Solo Recital

I think it's safe to say that all of us Singers will have to sing a Solo Recital at some point or another. Which, just to be specific, is a concert where the singer performs a bunch of songs with piano accompaniment for about an hour to an hour and a half, max. That's the traditional Solo Recital, hence calling it "Solo", because the Singer is the main performer and it's basically a showcase of their singing abilities.There are, of course, other variations on the traditional Recital theme, where you collaborate with other Musicians- either Instrumentalists or Singers or both- and one singer is not the sole focus of the event. This is sometimes called a Collaborative Recital (but some people refer to a Solo Recital as a Collaborative Recital too- so just note, these terms are flexible), and is also a common type of performance which you'll see just as often as Solo Recitals.

Which brings me to the reason for this blog post, and the most exciting part of any Recital besides actually singing it: choosing the Repertoire you'll be performing!

Normally if you are singing a Solo Recital within the confines of an academic program, such as an Undergrad, Master's, Performance Certificate or Doctoral program, then you will most likely have specific guidelines as to the duration of your performance, the type of Repertoire you'll be required to perform in terms of languages and time periods they belong to, and the way that you need to format your printed-out concert programs. (Oftentimes a university likes to have all the printed materials for events that take place on its campus look the same way, so it makes sense that there'd be a standardized format for anything that the public would receive, like a concert program, for instance. And because of that, it is normally explained in your degree requirements or on the University website, how you should design and format your program, so do be sure to look for that information if you are performing this Recital for a degree requirement.)

If you are organizing and performing a Recital independently from an academic institution and not as a degree requirement, however, then you will be happy to know that you have 100% free reign to choose the Repertoire, design the program and concert posters and choose the pianist and or additional musicians with whom you'll be working. Though, this does come with a lot more responsibility because you are solely in charge of every aspect, I can assure you that it is a very rewarding endeavor.

Anyway, back to choosing your Repertoire!

I always find that it's helpful to keep a list of my entire Repertoire handy and up-to-date so that when I want to plan a Recital, I can just look at it, see what I know and then go from there. It's a lot easier than trying to remember off the top of your head which Schubert pieces that you know have "Fruehling" in the title, for instance. It's also a time-saver, since you may not always have a few months free to learn an entirely new hour's worth of music. Once you've looked at what you already know, you will be able to come up with a theme or idea around which you can focus the pieces you'll be singing. This way, even pieces from vastly different time periods, languages or moods will fit together logically and there will be a "flow" that the audience can understand and appreciate. Remember, you as a performer want to make your audience feel comfortable with you so that they remain open both emotionally and psychologically. This enables your singing to take them on a journey that will enlighten and enliven them, and most importantly- make them want to come to your next Recital!

So, for example, let's just say we choose to do a Recital based on the theme of 'Springtime'. There are various ways that you could begin choosing pieces for that theme. You could consider which pieces have the word Spring in the title or the lyrics, or which pieces were composed in the Springtime, or which pieces evoke the feeling of Springtime for you (even if they're not directly referencing Springtime in the words or title). Those are just a few of the ways you can do it. You could also examine a Theme that's a little more concrete- something like "French Melodie of the late 1800's", for example. That way you'd be focused on a certain time period, but be free to choose all sorts of pieces in terms of song text, tempo, and mood. If you choose to go with a time period for your theme you should also remember that some time periods were much more exciting compositionally than others. The more close to our modern age, the more musical diverse your program can become, simply because more modern composers have a wealth of compositional techniques and knowledge from Composers before them that they can draw on which someone like Monteverdi or Haendel didn't have. It's also possible, depending on which time period you choose, that you'll only be able to choose from certain languages- for example, Godric was the first known British composer in 1065 and Hildegard von Bingen was the first German composer in 1068, but at this time period you won't find music from French, Italian or US-American composers (especially since the USA as we know it today didn't even exist at that point). So, those are certainly things to consider when deciding to go with a time period.

And now, a quick side note, that I learned about programming music from relatively obscure Composers:
If you are interested in finding music which is lesser-known and rejuvenating it with your performances for the collective appreciation of today's audiences, you will have to do research. Oftentimes the reason that these Composers' works are not performed nowadays is because they were never published, or if they were, then only in very limited edition. If the Composer you've chosen is still alive, your best bet is to figure out how to contact her or him and ask if you could perform their piece "So-and-So" where ever you intend to perform it. I've heard of many musicians being granted permission to perform obscure pieces this way, and the Composer may even come to the concert, if you're lucky, which is totally exciting, isn't it!? Of course, if the Composer whose pieces you would like to perform is already deceased, then you'll have to figure out where their music is being kept. Many Composers had their entire Oeuvres donated to famous archives at notable libraries, for example, the Paul Sacher Stiftung in Switzerland, or the Harvard, Princeton, Yale, or Eastman University Libraries, just to name a few. It is also possible that a Composer's music is stored with their family members- whether they be recently deceased and their music is kept by their Spouse or Children, or they passed away a long time ago and the Great-Great-Great-Grandchildren are in possession of it. That's also a definite possibility- like in the case of the Wagner family- who set up an Archive of Richard Wagner's music in Bayreuth, which is also a museum, open to the public. Keep in mind, with all of this, it's quite possible that the pieces you want to perform may not have been recorded and you can't hear what they sound like until you get your hands on the sheet music and play it yourself at the piano. This isn't always the case, but it certainly is possible. And it's a risk you have to be willing to take if you want to discover pieces that are long-forgotten. You may ask yourself after reading all this how you'd even go about finding these obscure Composers in the first place? Well, you can use this handy Wikipedia article where they list a heck of a lot of Composers in various ways (chronologically, based on their nationality, and based on the period in which they composed) as a starting point. Then once you've found someone who piques your interest, you can research further to find out more about them. Thanks to the Internet, you can do much of this online and you may even be able to receive the music via email from the institutions/individuals who are in possession of it. At any rate, if you are not afraid of doing a little digging (or a lot, in some cases) to find music that speaks to you and which you want to share with others, then I certainly recommend it as a way to keep your Recital programming fresh.

Truly, the main goal in choosing Repertoire for a Recital is to keep it interesting and continuously evolving- like a story. You want to have the audience just as interested at the end of the concert as they were at the beginning. And you can do that by pacing within the overarching theme that you chose. Choose groups of songs that have a common thread somehow (whether it be language, or composer, or time period, or key word in the lyrics or title, etc.) and then take these small groups of songs (6 at the maximum, I'd say) and alternate them with other small groups of interrelated songs which also somehow have something in common with the other small song groups, and voila! You've got a captivating Recital program!

So, for those visual learners out there, since it gets a bit complex at this point, it could look something like this:

Your theme could be: 'Springtime'
Your Program could look like this:  (FYI: I conceived this program for Soprano voice)

Clara Schumann, Opus 23- 6 Songs from 'Jucunde'
1. Was weinst du, Bluemlein
2. An einem lichten Morgen
3.Geheimes Fluestern
4. Auf einem gruenen Huegel
5. Das ist ein Tag der klingen mag
6. O Lust, O Lust!

1. Das Veilchen
2. Sehnsucht nach dem Fruehling
3. An Chloe
4. Abendempfindung

1. Im Fruehling
2. Fruehlingsglaube
3. Am Bach im Fruehling
4. Heidenroeslein

1. Er ist's
2. Fussreise
3. Im Fruehling
4. Auch kleine Dinge

Strauss- 'Maedchenblumen' Song Cycle
1. Kornblumen
2. Mohnblumen
3. Efeu
4. Wasserrose

So, to evaluate: the overall theme was served by the texts having something to do with Spring- either they blatantly mention Spring or Springtime, or they are about things that occur in spring- flowers, walking outside, falling in love, etc. You may have noticed that all the songs I chose in this particular program are in German; that was a conscious choice on my part. Of course, you aren't tied to creating programs in a single language. Even in keeping with the the them of Springtime you can find songs in Italian, English, French, or Spanish that would have worked. But, hopefully seeing this example helped to solidify the idea of 'smaller interrelated groups within a larger group' concept.

You also want to make sure to choose your Repertoire with your audience and the location of your performance in mind. You could perform a recital program like the example I've given above in Germany basically anywhere because it's all sung in German, but you may not want to perform it, for example, in a suburb in Kentucky. The audience there might be challenged initially because of the language barrier, but that also means they'll have a difficult time enjoying it because it would all sound relatively the same after a while and they'd have to read along with the translations to really enjoy it.  And I'm not saying that they wouldn't do that. Maybe they would- perhaps they were an audience of people who wanted to be challenged. But, perhaps they weren't. Maybe they just wanted enjoy a beautifully sung evening of songs but instead were confronted with a challenging program and were disappointed because of it.  The point is, you have to be able to evaluate your audience beforehand, so that you don't program incorrectly and either overestimate or underestimate their ability to focus on and appreciate your musical offerings. Ideally, you want to try and aim for the middle of those two extremes by challenging them with a group of pieces that might be new to them in some way, and then rewarding them with a group that is familiar to them, which they can easily enjoy because they know them already.  Repertoire that is familiar versus not familiar will be vastly different depending on the audience and the location. What is difficult to an audience in Billings, Montana might not be difficult to an audience in Chicago, Illinois, or vice versa. If you live in a very diverse metropolitan city it's probably safe to say that your audience members will be able to handle a musically challenging program, or at least a linguistically diverse one. It is your job to know what kinds of music the area where you'll be performing is exposed to regularly, and then base your Repertoire decisions off of that knowledge.

So, I tried to cover everything that you will have to consider in choosing Repertoire for a Solo Recital. I hope it was easy to understand and helpful to those of you who are looking to choose your own music for upcoming performances. Of course, I don't pretend to know everything, so if you have good advice or other ideas which you'd like to share, please feel free to comment below. Thanks so much for reading, and as always, Happy Singing!


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