How to create a great recital program (and how it’s similar to planning a dinner party)

Potentially unpopular opinion: I love creating recital programs. I have lists with ideas for future recital themes and programs, and it continues to grow with each new piece I discover.

There is an art to choosing a great recital program – it should be well-balanced but also interesting for both audience and performer. Once you choose the program, you have to decide on a guest list of friends, family, and colleagues to invite. Then choose the date, find a venue, plan your outfit, etc, etc.

If you think about it, planning a recital is oddly similar to hosting a dinner party. Selecting repertoire for a program is a lot like planning a meal, and the other miscellaneous to-dos for both run parallel.

There are many steps to planning a memorable recital, but for now let’s focus on creating a great program. Just like planning the food for a dinner party, you should view your program like a well-balanced meal. An awesome meal usually has a main dish, a few sides to accompany it, maybe an appetizer to tease the palate, and a delicious dessert (my favorite part!).

Here are the components to both a great meal and a great recital program:

  • Appetizer. If you’re eating a multi-course meal, you’ve got to pace yourself so you don’t get too full too quickly. This dish/piece should be a great warm-up for the musician but also give the audience a taste of what’s to come. This is a prelude to the rest of the event, and it shouldn’t be too ambitious so it doesn’t overthrow the balance of your main dish (or isn’t too scary to begin a recital!).
  • Main dish. This is the meat (or plant-based substitute for all my fellow vegetarians out there!) and potatoes of your recital program. Whether it’s the longest or most musically involved, it should contribute to a substantial portion of your program. I like choosing this piece first because it is easier to choose other pieces to complement this main dish.
  • Sides. Choose a few sides that enhance the flavor of your main dish. They can be similar or contrasting, whether in style, genre, era, character, or any other characteristic. Make sure that they don’t outshine the main dish!
  • Dessert. What’s a great meal without an even better dessert? The dessert of your program should be fun for both audience and performer, and it can be used as an encore or at any point during the program. Just like desserts probably aren’t the healthiest part of the meal, this piece doesn’t have to be as musically rewarding or “serious” as the other components. Think of this like musical cotton candy – light, fun, and as an occasional treat.

Here are a few examples of each component from the clarinet repertoire. The one major difference between elaborate meals and recital programs is that recitals don’t have to follow a pre-determined order. You can choose to serve your main dish last or your dessert first – write down pieces that interest you and see which order makes the most sense to you.

  • Appetizer: shorter incidental pieces (Ex: Widor Introduction et rondo, Op. 72)
  • Main dish: sonatas or concerti (Ex: Brahms, Weber, Mozart, Rossini, Saint-Saens)
  • Sides: unaccompanied pieces, standard incidental pieces (Ex: Lutoslawski Dance Preludes; Stravinsky Three Pieces; Debussy Premiere Rhapsody)
  • Dessert: anything you truly enjoy playing, especially if it has theatrical elements! (Ex: John Williams Viktor’s Tale; Schreiner Immer Kleiner)

I hope this helps you plan your next recital program (or dinner party)! As always, let me know what you think by leaving a comment.

Happy practicing and planning!

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