ANTHROPOLOGISTS WILL TELL you that the spring recital is an initiation rite, somewhat like the orals in the doctoral exam, a test of brains and bladder. Anyone at all musical has been through it, for it is the culmination of the academic year, the birth of the artist after those nine months of practice in the amniotic privacy of the living room, or the back bedroom if you play the trumpet (or the cellar if you play the bagpipes).

You can tell by the way they hold their instruments as they straggle in: This one swings his violin by the scroll like a dead cat. That one shoulders her flute as if it were a rifle. This tiny one hefts his half-size cello around the middle, under his arm, making four white streaks of rosin on his sleeve.

They're nervous, is what it is. Because this is the big test, which for the very young always seems to come on a drowsy, golden afternoon when school is getting out and nothing is quite real.

It is a ritual as ancient and perfect as a Noh play or a pitchers' duel. You are sure you have seen it before a hundred times.

There is the glazed concentration of the audience, heads bowed in reverie as someone plays the entire Indian Love Call a half-note flat; the quivering bounce on strings of a tentatively held bow and the frightful scratch of a tentatively stroked note; the fierce applause; the flashbulbs; the tape recorders.

And the players: the gangling boy with hair in his eyes who won't even sit with his fiddle but stashes it on a windowsill while he sprawls, elaborately relaxed, on a hard chair; the kid who sits close to his mother but profoundly alone, ignoring her constant fussing, her touches and whispers; the very small girl who stamps to the piano and wakes everybody up with a wonderful slambang Chopin, bristling with authority.

And always -- there is always someone who announces: "I am going to play, un, 'Humoresque,' by Anton . . ." -- long, dreamlike pause -- ". . .Duh-Vor-Zhak."

And afterwards, always, cookies and lemonade and relieved chatter.

The debate over whether to make the students play without music goes on unabated. One side feels it is more professional, and the other thinks it is showing off, also needless agony for the soloist who freezes in mid-bar. On the other hand, everyone has to learn lines for a play . . . It's an impasse.

"We think that if you're going to learn an instrument, the performance is part of it. Also, it can be a goal -- to work on some piece of music until you perfect it."

Diana Engel, who along with Jaclin Marlin founded the Selma M. Levine Music School, calls herself a happy amateur. But the school is strictly professional. Nearly all the 35 faculty members have performed professionally, and several play with the National Symphony. There are about 325 students, from age 4 to adult but averaging 10 to 14.

"We have recitals every month," said Engel, who with Marlin abandoned an active role in the school late last year, "and in the spring twice a month. Some of the teachers also have workshops. One thing about the recitals is that children get to see and hear other instruments and maybe discover what it is they really want to play. We also like to see students accompanying others. It's good experience.

With classes at St. Patrick's Church at 1655 Foxhall Rd., the nonprofit school has been thriving for its five years by sheer word of mouth. Selma Levine, by the way, was a Washington lawyer and harpischord player, deeply in love with music, who was killed in a highway accident at 51 six years ago. Friends set up the school in her name.

This spring, David Young has taken a break from his developing career as a baritone to return to the University of Maryland for the graduate recitals of his friends. A year ago it was his turn. The memory is still fresh: The small University of Maryland recital hall was almost filled, mostly with fresh-faced young women in short-sleeved summer dresses, serious young men in T-shirts and tennis shoes.

Toward the back was a row of music education majors, taking notes for the review: a class assignment. The three faculty judges were easy to spot, not so much by their age as by their purposeful air. Young's teacher, James McDonald, followed intently; to receive his graduate degree, Young had to earn favorable reports on the recital.

An earlier faculty hearing had given Young and his accompanist William Bloomquist a chance to test the repertoire on a three-person jury. It was a safeguard, to make sure that Young was prepared for the recital, putting pressure on him to be ready early so that the last few weeks could be spent working out fine points. Getting the okay at the hearing was a vote of confidence.

Still, the expectant audience gazed up at him, and Young felt the nervousness that any performance generates. The opening Brahms songs went all right, the applause was polite. Young did not, however, really get into it until the next group, the "War Scenes" of Ned Rorem with text from Walt Whitman's notes on the Civil War. At 23, Young, understood these songs, which address the ugly truth of war and its toll upon young men. He was the right age. So was his audience. At the finish he was warmly applauded.

Only after intermission did Young reach that point every performer seeks. It was the last song in a set by George Butterworth, a British composer killed in World War I. A young soldier returns from the dead. Young found a thin sound, half whisper, for the dead man's questions about his former life, his sweetheart, his friend. And he registered the ache as the ghost hears his friend reply, "I comfort the dead man's sweetheart." For a moment Young communicated through the fragile, sorrowful core of life. For a moment, fire. The recital was a success.

"I knew all the pieces, every note," said Amy Huang's 18-year-old brother Paul. "I was listening for her first mistake. She was nervous -- she started the first piece so fast that I was afraid she was going to come to a stop and blow the whole thing."

"She was nervous, her hands were shaking," said Huang's 13-year-old sister Linda. Was she worried, then, about her sister's performance at the piano? "No, only on the last piece because she always messed it up at home practicing."

Ann Huang's first solo recital was a big family affair. Her mother treated the occasion as if it were a party in her own home. She was at the door of the Arlington Women's Club hall, greeting relatives and friends, some natives of Taiwan like herself.

Huang's uncle was hopping about taking pictures. Her younger sister and her girlfriends were giving out programs, and her two older brothers and their friends were folding extra programs at a table in the back. All three Huang children knew how Amy felt because they were all musicians.

Slender, with straight black hair, she did not appear nervous when she walked out in a long pink dress, though she did look delicate next to the grand piano. After the opening Bach pieces she settled down to a Beethoven sonata.

By the second half she seemed completely absorbed in the music. Nothing broke her concentration. A baby cried out, doors slammed in the outer hall. She was having a private dialogue with Chopin.

The mystery of talent worked its transformation, leaving one to wonder how she understood so readily. At the end it was a surprise to see her become again an adolescent girl, shyly bowing and breaking into a big smile when she was handed two bouquets of spring flowers.

Not many people come to this recital. The atmosphere is subdued, professional. There is some talk, though mostly everyone sits in an attitude of purposeful waiting. When chairwoman Hilde Green says that performers may try out the piano if they wish, several take her up on the offer, going onstage, solemnly testing the tightness of the action, the balance of the sound.

This is a judged recital, a new phenomenon that has emerged within the last few years. It does not replace the old-fashioned recital with its potpourri of abilities and interests. Rather, it adds another dimension for those students who want and are capable of higher standards.

This particular one is sponsored by the Northern Virginia Music Teachers Association, but similar ones are held by the associations in Washington and Maryland. Member teachers may enter two students for judging, which takes place monthly. The winners then perform in a special honors recital held twice annually.

The judges, three teachers in the association who do not have students playing this day, sit at the back with critique sheets that list the areas to be graded, including accuracy, technique, phrasing, tone quality, memorizing.

Why do student enter? "To win, of course!" says one bright-looking young girl who may not yet know much about the problem of nerves.

What happens to the "fun" (if there ever was any) of just playing for parents and friends? Is the pressure harmful?

"They thrive on it, they love it," says the piano teacher, Maryen Herrett, who stresses that her students' participation is entirely voluntary. "One child out of 20 doesn't want to do it. Even those who know they may not win want to perform. They like the challenge, they take tremendous pride even in getting judging sheets that say they did well. It's one of the greatest aids an independent teacher has, a great encouragement to practicing. It really requires lots of work to play the piano nicely, and it's a lonely business. You have to give them some goals."

Not every teacher endorses the competitive idea. "It's a mixed bag," says Montgomery County teacher Nancy Hallsted. "The whole society is moving at such a fast pace. There's no time for learning a great deal of music, putting pieces aside and then coming back to them a second or third time. Students are working on particular pieces so they can go play and get a grade. I often wonder how many of my students can really read well. They may learn all these little pieces, then quit. If then two years later they want to play, what kind of residue will they have?"

The unsung of the recital is the parent.

You can't imagine how it is unless you too have listened to the Barcarolle 42 times in succession and every single time that A natural comes out an A flat. And if it's a violin, you have to deal with the scratching. If a flute, there is the naked huff of a wrongly blown note. If an oboe or saxophone or bassoon, you will never forget for the rest of your days the ineffable screech of a reed badly treated. It's like kids blowing on grass spears.

And this is every day, of course. And best of all, you caused it all yourself. You wanted it.

Virgie Bovelle has to be a paragon of musical parents. She and her husband Elliott have two children taking lessons.

Renee, 17, plays the violin and some piano and has experimented with the bass. Nathan, 16, plays piano and drums. He occasionally plays with a rock band.

"Actually, I don't mind it at all," says their mother. "Other parents are always telling me it drives them crazy, but you know if I don't hear music around the house it doesn't seem right."

With more than two years at the New England Conservatory preparatory division behind them, the Bovelle children are easy to listen to. There aren't many wrong notes, and hardly ever a squeak. But even in the earliest days there were no complaints.

"It never bothered me. I like them to be interested in music. We've always had music in the house. I had piano as a child, but I had a private teacher and didn't get that social contact with other children, and I dropped it. I always wish I hadn't."

Both young musicians plan to carry on in college, and Nathan may take a minor in percussion. They seem to enjoy performing, especially Renee, who manages not to get nervous, or anyway not to show it. Nathan is anxious only because as a perfectionist he wants to get it just right.

"We wanted them to have this early," says Virgie Bovelle. "It's a wonderful thing to have, all your life."