By Michelle Haft
Music camps are by nature a gamble: you have upwards of 10-20 students in a class each at different playing levels, with their own competing musical priorities and all fighting to divert the teacher’s attention to their topics of choice. Unless the teacher brings in a very structured lesson plan— they don’t always do—they are looking to the students to help guide them. It can be a recipe for disaster. But it can also be incredible: when the chemistry in the classroom is great, the teacher is reading the room perfectly, and you can feel yourself and the people around you becoming better players in real-time. Or when you're exhausted from the late-night jamming the night before but at the same time high on adrenaline from the new lick you finally were able to pull off after years of trying. Some of my best periods of growth were immediately following a music camp experience.
One thing that makes camps such a wonderful opportunity is the access to such a wide variety of talented teachers, together in the same place at one moment in time. The purpose of camps is broad exposure—from the many different playing styles of the teachers, to lightly touching on many different topics during class time—that each help you identify where you have room to grow. Once you get home from camp you can dive more deeply into specific topics, ideally in private lessons with a teacher. But during camp, its all about the high energy, the variety, the packed schedule and lots and lots of playing time.
Having been to a handful of camps now, I've learned some things about how to come in better-prepared, steer clear of common pitfalls and maximize the experience. I'll give you an example of a less successful camp experience. A few years ago at a small one-day music camp I learned all about a topic I cared little about: nail maintenance. I was in the clawhammer banjo workshop in one of those small, bungalow-style classrooms with low ceilings and a steady hum of fluorescent lighting overhead. About seven or so students gathered around the teacher, a fantastic clawhammer banjo player, listening intently as he introduced the song we would be learning. But when a student raised their hand and asked a question about how to maintain healthy nails for playing, we spiraled into a 20 minute conversation about protein nail polish, nail-cutting, and cuticle health. It wasn’t until about 40 minutes into our 1-hour workshop that we actually started playing the song.
I confess, I was frustrated by the end of the lesson. I felt we had squandered an opportunity to learn something of greater substance from this wonderful player during this limited hour. But after some time I realized I had in fact learned an incredibly valuable lesson— that music camps (and playing in general) takes patience, empathy, and a willingness to speak up when necessary. Ultimately, the vast majority of my music camp experiences have been incredible. Below are a few tips I'd like to share to help any of you that are considering investing in a music camp experience in the near future, in hopes that you'll find the experience as valuable as I have.
Elevating the class beyond the lowest common denominator
In any music camp classroom, even ones where levels are clearly defined, you’re always going to have a mix of more beginner and more advanced players. There's a natural tendency for the teacher to lower the level of the class to the most beginner person in the room so they don’t feel left behind. This can be frustrating for the more advanced players, but there are healthy ways to elevate the lesson, and the first is to speak up. If the teacher doesn’t know how you’re feeling they won’t be able to react to what you need. But you need to do it respectfully and remember you're one of many—don't interrupt class in the moment or show your frustration—wait till there’s a pause or lull in the lesson and express that you would like to move onto new topic. You can also pull your instructor aside during the next break and privately let him or her know how you feel so they can be more mindful of the larger students' abilities.
At the same time, its important to be patient in those moments and remember that you were once the beginner too. In fact, you may not realize that the majority of others in the room are enjoying lingering on a certain topic, and you are in fact the minority. Tread lightly and respectfully, but express your needs.
If you happen to be that beginner in the class, try to be respectful of others time and let the lesson flow at its natural speed, even if it feels like you're not picking up on everything. Though you may not leave each lesson with a full understanding of every single concept, you will most certainly come away with at least a few new pearls of wisdom. That’s what matters most. If you learn even one new thing you didn't know already, consider yourself one step closer to bluegrass greatness.
Temper you expectations
Music camps are by nature overwhelming and exhausting. What's more is your brain has a limited capacity for taking in new information. And yet during camp you’re being bombarded with new information for days-on-end. Remember to write things down—make a list of concepts you want to explore further, a list of songs from your jams and classes that will enable you to focus on those concepts, and record as much of the lesson as possible (just make sure to ask your instructor first if it's ok!). You’re much more likely to recall what you learned when you’re ready to practice again if you have an artifact to remind you. It helps to practice in between classes during camp and review what you learned so you can start to build muscle memory for when you come back to it later.
Lastly, don't expect to come home immediately playing better. You'll need some time for the experience to marinate, to let all the learnings sink in. In fact, I often feel like an even worse player right after camp. But that's a false perception colored by your newly expanded field of bluegrass awareness and the fact that you've just exposed all the opportunities for personal improvement. Seize them! In the next few weeks, and with steady practice, you’ll surely feel the growth—how it's just a little bit easier to pull of that difficult lick, how much faster if was to pick up that new song.
A bluegrass smörgåsbord
As mentioned, one thing that makes camps such a wonderful opportunity is the access to such a wide variety of talented teachers, together in the same place at the same time. My advice: don't bind yourself to one instructor during camp. Though you might be signed up to a specific group (i.e. intermediate banjo), which usually means a few days with the same teacher, try out the other instructors at every opportunity during electives! You may love one instructor's playing style, but find another's teaching style a much better fit to your style of learning. You'll benefit more from jumping around to different classes when you can, and see which teachers you gel with best. This is also a great way to find new private lesson instructors for once camp is over.
Sleep is for Sunday
Camp isn’t just about class-time only, it’s also about rubbing elbows with some of the best musicians in the business and meeting like-minded individuals who could be future playing parters. So don’t be shy during camp, get out there and be friendly with your classmates. Take full advantage of the late night jams and playing with your peers in between class time—it's just as important as the structured lessons. It's a chance for you to practice what you learned and build muscle memory for new skills. Just remember, you can catch up on sleep on Sunday night after camp is over.
Getting friendly with your instructor is a different situation, you have to tread lightly and respect their time. Remember, while camp is all fun for you, its still work for them. The best way to get friendly with your instructors is during appropriate down-time: ask questions during breaks, chat with them after class or during elective jams. Be yourself, and be genuine. Don't take it personally if they need to leave to prepare for their next class or steal some precious down time. Also, a great way to show your support and affection is by buying their swag and albums.
To sum it up, there is so much to be gained from music camps if you come into it with the right mindset and tools. Being out of your element and totally immersed in the bluegrass community for days at a time is such a rewarding experience that is so worth the investment. Despite a few camp hiccups along the way, like the time our tent almost blew away during a gnarly storm at Walker Creek Music Camp, I've come to appreciate all things music camps have to offer. I hope each of you takes the plunge and tries a music camp in your playing future. You won't regret it. Happy camping!