Music Camp as Radical Catalyst

Music Camp as Radical Catalyst

So you’re back from music camp! At their best, music camps are radical catalysts for learning. Your mind brims with memories, teachings, discoveries, and good intentions for continuing your development. You’re determined to return the following year a much-improved musician.

Sadly, our best intentions for self-improvement often go unrealized unless we apply discipline, strategy, planning, and accountability. Let’s take some practical steps to ensure that we maximize our newly gained potential.

Note: if you’re still grappling with the transition to normal life, read Music Camp Withdrawal Syndrome – A Survivor’s Guide. Once your body, mind, and feelings have regrouped a bit, get to work!

Gather New Materials (and Start Using Them!)

The Berklee strings team performing and teaching at Interlochen Arts Academy! (L to R): Eugene Friesen, Maurizio Andre Fiore Salas, Bengisu Gokce, Samuel Draper, David Wallace

At music camp we often learn about supplemental materials for deepening our understanding, expanding our repertoire, and helping us to practice and improve. Although we may have obtained many of these items at camp, we seldom return home with everything we intend to investigate, read, or buy.

Make a shopping list, prioritize, and purchase. Get that recording app, those scale or etude books, that recording you want to study or transcribe. Borrow items from a library. If you missed details and need to contact someone for correct titles or more information, do so.

If you’ve already gathered your new materials, devise a plan for using them. Then, implement it before the week is over. Remove and discard any shrink-wrap, and put sheet music on your stand. Now, let’s get ready to practice. . .

Revisiting Music Camp Lessons

Next, revisit your daily schedules. Read any notes that you took, and listen to recordings you made of classes. -You did record classes and lessons didn’t you? If not, there’s a good chance that a friend or colleague did. Hunt the recordings down if you can.

Write out a summary each session, or recap them by recording a voice memo or video reflection. What did you learn? What were the “big truths?” List the exercises and studies you received, and write down everything you want to implement.

Berklee Music Camp Faculty

Berklee Global String Intensive Faculty. Back Row (L to R): Simon Shaheen, Jason Anick, David Wallace, Joe Walsh, Greg Liszt, Sandra Kott, Oisín McAuley, Stash Wyslouch, Darol Anger, Felice Pomeranz. Front Row (L to R): Patrice Jackson-Tilghman, Eugene Friesen, Natalie Haas, Mike Block, Mimi Rabson, Bruce Molsky. Not pictured: Beth Bahia-Cohen, Dan Bui, Bruce Gertz, Maeve Gilchrist, Jozef Nadj, Rob Thomas, Matt Glaser

I often leave music camp with very specific ideas for how I can improve, but unless I make a follow-up plan, nothing changes. To prevent that from happening to you, I suggest that you try the 100 Points of Awesomeness exercise. . .

A Hundred Points of Awesomeness

Mark Wood Rock Orchestra Music Camp

Mark Wood Rock Orchestra Camp & Music Festival’s entire crew!

In my late teens, I often wished that I could be better in certain aspects of my playing and musicianship. One day, I asked myself, “If I had a hundred ‘improvement points’ to invest in my musicianship, how would I spend them?”

I made a mental list allotting the hundred points to different aspects of my playing (I devoted ten points to tenths-  at the time I was wrestling with a couple of tricky Paganini caprices in my violin lessons). After specifying exactly what I wanted to improve, I adjusted my practice time strategically. Once I reorganized my practice schedule to include my new goals, I started developing my unrealized potential.

Music camp just gave you 100 Points of Musical Awesomeness to invest in your own development. Fantasize. What do you want to improve? What do you know you need to improve? Practice time is finite, so focus your energy by dividing your 100 points of awesomeness across just a few select topics.

Once you follow through, a year from now, you will be at least 100 points more awesome than you presently are.  If you achieve your goals sooner, give yourself 100 additional points to distribute.

Your distribution of the 100 points is totally up to you, but it could look something like this:

  1. 30 points: Play better in tune.
  2. 30 points: Improve my timing and rhythm.
  3. 25 points: Get better at improvising solos.
  4. 15 points: Develop better confidence and stage presence when performing.

So, let’s break that down.

Pursuit of Awesomeness

A Violinist's Guide to Exquisite Intonation#1:  Better intonation means committing to daily scale and arpeggio practice. Record and critique yourself; practice with drones. Research the topic using published resources like Barry Ross’s A Violinist’s Guide to Exquisite Intonation. While your technical regimen will naturally include intonation work, also focus on it in your repertoire practice.

#2: For improved timing, work daily with a metronome, drum machine, or accompaniment track. Moreover, play along with recordings by bands with great groove. (Try practicing your scales to Earth, Wind, & Fire songs in the same key).

Reading scores, conduct along with recordings, or practice rhythmic exercises away from your instrument. Check out Robert Starrer’s Basic Rhythmic Training or Rhythmic Training. Drumming methods such as Kim Plainfield’s Advanced Concepts: A Comprehensive Method for Developing Technique, Contemporary Styles and Rhythmical Concepts are also helpful. Because good timing means tapping into group rhythm, plan readings, jams, rehearsals, and concerts with others.

#3: To get better at improvisation, you must be specific. What do you want to improve? Free improvisation, 12-bar blues, the 8-bar country music solo, navigating chord changes from a lead sheet? Using your camp notes to guide you, set some specific objectives. Write out a plan so that every day, you’re making strides.

#4: To improve stage presence, you need an audience. Make a plan for performing publicly on a weekly basis. Find a venue. Cafés, retirement communities, houses of worship, and public spaces are a few places where you can build your stage presence.

Start with a comfortable setting, and play repertoire that you know very well. If you don’t feel ready for the public, perform for family, friends, or even pets. Video your performances so that you can review, critique, and improve. If you wrestle with performance anxiety, check out my Conquer Stage Fright YouTube video series.

Establish a Music Camp Accountability Partner or Group

Once you have a plan, hold yourself accountable for it. Better yet, get an accountability partner or a support group to keep each other accountable and motivated. Share your goals for the month and the week, and check in with each other every few days. Make recordings and videos and give each other feedback. Always celebrate progress and encourage one another.

Online Learning Communities and Lessons

Online communities can further boost accountability. Consider starting a small online group to share and report back on a daily basis (twelve or fewer members; smaller is better).

Today, many music camp faculty members also teach with online subscription sites that offer lessons and a built-in learning community. I teach lessons focused on violin and viola technique, peak performance, memorization, and much more at MyTalentForge.com. Until Labor Day, you can use the discount code DocWallace for 20% off on your subscription.

Get Radical!

As you can see, it’s possible to carry the music camp experience across the entire year. Get your materials together, review your learning, strategize for improvement, make plans, and belong to an accountable learning community. May your music camp experience be a catalyst for radical improvement, growth, and change!

-Doc Wallace, August 5, 2017

Dr. David Wallace serves as String Chair of Berklee College of Music, and teaches online string lessons at MyTalentForge.com. During the summer, catch him at Berklee College of Music’s  Global String Intensive, Five Week Summer Performance Program, and Mark Wood Rock Orchestra Camp.

A Teaching Artist Nightmare

A Teaching Artist Nightmare

Do you dream about your work? A colleague of my father’s once invoiced an employer to compensate his sleeping hours. (Purportedly, he had solved a problem in a dream.) Because chemical engineers are expected to sleep on their own time, his request was denied.

Billing for dreams may sound ludicrous and pretentious, but I get it. Invest enough time and energy into your work, and it will seep into your subconscious and haunt your dreams.

Doc Wallace David Wallace Teaching Artist Nightmare New York Philharmonic

A young Doc Wallace breaks down a violin concerto for a New York Philharmonic music educator’s seminar. Photo Credit: Rob Klein

Teaching artists spend the majority of our waking hours helping others to connect to an artwork’s essence. When all goes well, people become transfixed or transformed by it. We dream about this, figuratively and literally.

On a good night, a teaching artist dream inspires a new, complete lesson plan: you have a vision of people standing in a circle and simulating a fugue as they bounce and pass basketballs. On a bad night, we relive the times that we miserably failed to bring others into the magic of a masterpiece. In the teaching artist nightmare, things get weird and nerdy pretty quickly. . .

A Teaching Artist Nightmare

A young Johannes Brahms sits defiantly enough to inspire a teaching artist nightmare

Johannes Brahms: Musical dreamboat or teaching artist nightmare?

Last night’s teaching artist dream was abysmal. At a noisy, crowded dinner party, the stranger seated beside me randomly asked me why I love Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98. (Go ahead; judge my repressed desires. . .)

Taken off guard, I rambled incoherently. Oh, I was passionate all right. I listed musically solid reasons: intervallic relationships, compound meters, architectonic layers of rhythmic pulsation. . . Perceptually speaking, though, I gave my polite listener absolutely nothing of value. (Did I mention Phrygian melodies?)

I summarized the finale’s greatness with a simple sentence:

“The fourth movement. . .”

[emotionally charged pause; right index finger rises unconsciously for added emphasis]

“. . . is a passacaglia!”

With that utterance, I choked up and held back tears. -In dreams, who doesn’t weep at the thought of an inspired, German genius concluding a romantic symphony by resurrecting a seventeenth century Spanish dance form?

-The normal guy sitting next to me, that’s who. He repays all my vapid effusion with a blank stare.

He’s right, of course. As an advocate, I’ve been an idiot. Abstracted from musical experience, my subjective emotions, formal analysis, historical knowledge, and classical music jargon provide no vehicle for listening, comprehending, or caring. The man neither hears what I’m hearing, nor knows what I’m knowing. He can’t tap my dopamine.

The Teaching Artist Nightmare Never Ends

So, the stranger tries to help by asking some well-meaning questions: “Yeah, but is it going anywhere? I mean, does it lead to something? Is there some kind of highlight?”

It’s my turn to stare blankly back.

So that’s it? For you, music goes somewhere? Symphonies revolve around a main event, some kind of climax that you can point to and say, “Whoah! How ‘bout that bass drum?!” The entirety of Brahms IV culminates in a marvelous passacaglia; did I not make that clear?!

“Well. . . kind of. Things really amp up at the golden section. But for me personally, the highlight is this flute solo. . . Um let me. . .”

I fumble around, looking for my score. (Doesn’t every teaching artist bring a reprint of the Vienna Gesellshaft der Musikfreunde’s complete Brahms symphonies to the dinner party?. . .)

I stop rummaging, realizing that I forgot to bring my music- a common occurrence in a teaching artist nightmare. Even if I had, notes on the page would have proven silent and impotent. My only recourse is to stand and sing the flute solo myself, finally channeling my passion into music rather than verbiage. I take a deep breath. . .

Mercifully, I awoke. I felt terrible.

Escaping the Teaching Artist Nightmare

This cartoon from the New Yorker nails it!

I felt awful because I had violated just about every tenet of effective teaching artistry. Instead of listening, I was talking. Instead of questioning, I was telling. Rather than cultivating a listener-centered inquiry into the symphony, I fell into the trap of focusing on my own personal enjoyment and interpretation.

Unfortunately, I drowned perfectly valid entry points with unexplained terminology. I conveyed information without engaging through actual musical experiences. Honestly, the guy didn’t really want to know why I love Brahms IV. On the contrary, he wanted to love Brahms IV himself.

I’m reminded why I give pre-concert talks with a fiddle in my hands and a piano at my side. I’m recalling why I make my learners conduct Brahms’s phrases, sing his melodies for themselves, or perform his complex rhythms as a group.

When you are teaching others, consider which technical terms you critically need to communicate, and which are superfluous and omissible. Ask questions of an artwork, rather than assuming that you already have all of the answers. Instead of forcing people into a prescribed experience, set them up to discover the highlights for themselves.

Let’s wake up. The strangers are listening.

-Doc Wallace, 9 February 2017