Friday, July 22, 2011

Report From String Camp (Babble)

I’ve been teaching at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music for about fifteen years now.  When my husband and I first moved to Milwaukee so I could commute to violin making school, the Conservatory was a convenient place to start a new studio because it was within walking distance of our apartment.  The Conservatory is housed in a beautiful old mansion overlooking Lake Michigan and there are some truly fine musicians working there.  The recital hall is decorated with plaster roses on the walls and ceiling so it feels like having a concert in a wedding cake.  It’s a pretty place to work.

While helping put myself (and later Ian) through school, I had a lot of students.  When my husband got deployed the first time I had to cut back my studio quite a bit and teach the lessons at my home because getting out to the building was difficult.  When Ian returned I was able to take a job with the Milwaukee Youth Symphony for a couple of years teaching in a program for underprivileged kids and it was exhausting but I loved it.  With the second deployment I had to resign from that position and cut my teaching back to only a couple of students in music therapy whom I team teach with a colleague.  Currently I’m down to one student, and the annual Summer String Camp.  I miss doing more regular teaching, but since we opened the violin store there just isn’t time.  Maybe one day when my children are grown I will be able to fit it in again, but in the meantime opportunities for me to teach are rare.

String Camp is sort of like the crash course music event that keeps my teaching chops up.  It’s one week every summer where string players from small children through high school aged students gather and do chamber music.  Each teacher gets to coach a small ensemble, and there are two small orchestras, a group for beginners, and a fiddle camp.  One of the downsides to teaching private lessons is I don’t get to see the other string faculty that often, so it’s nice to work with other teachers at String Camp and see them in action.

I also do a demonstration about violin making for the kids to teach them facts about violins and get them to appreciate their instruments in new ways.  Every year at least one student sees all the wood and the tools and assumes they are going to get to build their very own violin in an hour, and I have to explain that no, it takes way longer than that to build a violin.  WAY longer (and please don’t touch those tools they are freakishly sharp).
Every year the kids are sweet, at least one instrument meets with catastrophe (this session I replaced someone’s endbutton on her violin after it blew apart, and adjusted a cello soundpost that had fallen over), some kid cries (I personally didn’t make anyone cry this year but I’m sure there have been tears somewhere), and I get extremely stressed before the concert.

Different teachers have different strengths, and I tend to be good at getting less experienced kids to focus long enough to put a piece together in time to perform in just a few days.  Once the head of the string department gave me an advanced group and I almost didn’t know what to do with them by the end of the week because they had actually practiced and they listened and I didn’t have to repeat myself all the time.  They were great and it was easy.  (The department head told me she thought I deserved a break for once, instead of freaking out about whether my group was going to be able to get through their tune on stage without falling to pieces.)

This year most of my kids were fine, but a couple were struggling, and I ended up having to rewrite parts of the Air to Don Giovanni to remove pesky things like rests and interesting notes or bowings.  (Mozart is dead, so I don’t think he’ll mind.  Besides, I think he’d prefer the edit to the whole thing getting botched on stage.)

I’m always amazed that it works out as well as it does.  The first day is spent simply figuring out seating and which piece to play.  Many young children aren’t good sight readers, so I end up having to teach them the music so we can even hear it, before deciding if it’s something we should keep working on or simply scrap.  The second day we try to get something to sound cohesive, even if it’s just the first line.  By the third day I am in a total panic when they can’t get to the end of the piece on their own without my standing over them clapping the beat and shouting out cues.  The fourth day miraculously things start to hold together.  The fifth day is the concert.  By the time my kids hit the stage I’ve usually bitten my nails down to nothing.  But they always do fine.

Today’s concert was great!  I was so pleased with my group.  They sounded a little better in rehearsal than they did during the performance, but several people told me how impressed they were at how well they played together and their overall sound.  I was very proud.

My own kids came to hear the concert, primarily because they know there are always cupcakes at the reception afterward.  Aden and Mona are old enough they could participate in String Camp if they wanted to.  Currently they just do private lessons and don’t have any group experience.  I was hoping that seeing other kids their age play such fun music in such a pretty environment they might be inspired to try it themselves next year.  I asked them if they’d be interested next summer.  Aden looked nervous about the idea, but Mona seemed game.  She mostly liked the idea of going to the Conservatory with me every day for a week.  I hope she decides to try it.  Some of my best memories as a kid are playing in a group like this one.

But for this year, String Camp is done.  (And now I need a nap.)

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