Saturday, July 28, 2012

Strung Out

Ah, string camp.  The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music has run a week long summer string camp for twelve years now.  I have been there since its inception, and in some ways it's changed, but the stress, challenges, and sweetness remain the same.  There are special classes each day (I usually do a talk about violin making where I lay out a bunch of wood and tools and answer lots of questions), small ensembles that get coached individually, orchestra, and an extra session (for those who are interested) to learn fiddle music.  It's a lot to cram into just a few days.  This weekend we had our concert, so for one more year it is officially done.

The stress is interesting, because it's not so much the actual work involved in teaching at string camp, it's having to put all of your trust and faith into the kids to do what they need to do.  I want them to perform well for their own sakes, but it's my name on the program too, and it's hard to put your own reputation on the line in a situation where, when the big moment arrives, you give up control.  I am far more nervous watching my students perform than I have ever been on stage myself.

"B1 Steak Sauce"--my string camp quartet on stage
But the miracle every year of string camp is that somehow, inexplicably, the kids manage to pull everything together over the course of just a few days and create a lovely concert.  I'm amazed every time.  I start out with a group of kids who are always charming and earnest, but who have obstacles to overcome that always seem to me to be insurmountable in the time allotted, and yet....

And yet, they never worry.  I have to round them up to practice, and they saunter to their seats.  I freak out because they don't seem to have practiced, and they remain unconcerned.  I clap along desperately, explaining the importance of counting for playing in an ensemble, and they smile politely and can't believe I want them to run the piece again.  I do all the worrying for everyone, while they have a nice time.  It wears me out.

I almost didn't do it this year.  I had to leave the rest of my family vacationing in Michigan to come back to Milwaukee to teach, and it was hard doing string camp in the mornings and then rushing off to the violin store to work into the evenings, and finding any spare moments left in there to walk the dog.  I told Ian that I teach so little anymore that maybe this was the year I just resign.  Maybe my connection with the Conservatory had run its course and I should let it go.

But Ian reminded me that I always get stressed about string camp, but I always get something from it and am glad to have participated.  He didn't think I should give up the teaching part of my identity yet.

He was right.  I enjoy teaching and wish there were room in my schedule to do it regularly, but there just isn't.  So instead I do a whirlwind week of teaching at string camp and remind myself how exciting it is to help kids play music.  I have a chance to mingle with the other teachers and get inspired by what they do.  We get to have a concert in a room with plaster roses on the walls and ceiling so it looks like you're performing in a wedding cake.

When I was in high school I belonged to a chamber music organization for kids that was really wonderful, and some of my best musical memories are from its summer string camp.  I understand fully the kinds of memories and associations we are building for these young musicians as we guide them through an intense week of learning more about music. 

But one of the things I remember best from back then was my father suffering through many of the small ensembles at the concert, and then being floored by how good the whole orchestra sounded.  He didn't understand how such flawed individual players could coalesce into something quite beautiful.  He would say to me, "How does such perfection come from such imperfection?"

Now, the whole process of learning to make music interests me and I am much more forgiving of all that supposed imperfection than my dad was, but I understand asking him to sit through other people's kids botching great music that he loves is one of those crosses parents have to bear if you want to hear your own kid play on stage.  However, he's right, that there is a magic in the sound of a group that improves everyone.  The rough edges are less noticeable and the better parts somehow rise to the surface.  That's my favorite part of string camp, hearing the kids come together as a large group and create something bigger than themselves.  It's beautiful.

So my group, despite my usual fears, pulled themselves together and did not fall apart on stage.  Which amazes me since the first day I assessed how they played, the second day I had to painstakingly teach them the beginnings of several pieces so that we could pick one, the third day one player was absent, and the last day was the first time I got to hear them play the piece from the top of the page to the bottom.  Then they had their concert.  (I had to put polish on my nails every night to keep myself from biting them down to nothing.)  I can only imagine how much we would accomplish if I could work with them for two weeks in stead of one, but even one extra day would be nice. 

I will try to remember this for next year, when again I will wonder if it's worth the extra work and time to teach at string camp.  Because it is.  And actually, Aden is old enough that she might be ready to join in, if I can convince her to try it.  Just the thought of having her be part of that kind of experience makes me smile.

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely read. It's a beautiful thing, how student and teacher can each fulfill the other. I only attended a string camp once, and though I was quite young (perhaps nine or ten), I still have vivid memories of the exhilaration I felt the first time I heard the powerful, beautiful sounds that a group as large and motivated as the one that I was a part of could create. I left the violin behind before I finish high school, and must fight to keep my fingers still every time I hear the particularly beautiful strains of one; my soul remembers the feeling of coaxing such sounds (though never nearly so beautiful) out of the instrument, myself. But I think that what I miss most is being a small part of a large group, and helping to create something so much larger than myself. Nothing quite compares.