Summer camps and festivals can be a fantastic time to work with a someone we wouldn’t ordinarily teach, but navigating a temporary summer teacher/student relationship can be tricky! Personally, I love working with students outside my studio on a short-term basis. It’s an opportunity to see what’s happening in the broader violin world and be a small part of someone’s musical journey.
Here are three tips for teachers who will work with "temporary" students this summer:
1. Honor the student’s current and previous experience.
Sometimes we see students who have been, in our opinion, mis-taught. We may see a student playing repertoire we would never give to a student of our own at that level. The student may have errors in technique or positioning that we believe could lead to injury. We may need to work with a student who uses a shoulder rest that we think is inappropriate (or perhaps we think the student could benefit from one).
At my first lesson of a month-long festival when I was younger, the teacher looked scornfully at my shoulder rest and said disdainfully, "Have you ever tried playing without that machine on your violin?" He made me take it off for the duration of the festival. This wasn’t something I was prepared for, nor did he teach me the nuances of using head weight to balance the instrument without a shoulder rest. I struggled throughout the festival, and when I went home, I put my shoulder rest back on. It wasn’t a technical change I was prepared to make, nor was it one my teacher at the time was supportive of. It was physically damaging, stressful, and ultimately, not helpful at all.
The most I will ever say or do with a student at a summer festival is experiment with the positioning of the instrument on their shoulder or make a minor adjustment to whatever shoulder rest or sponge they’re using. I may say something like, "If you’re still not feeling comfortable, there are lots of chin and shoulder rest options out there. Talk to your regular teacher about options and see if you can find something that works better for you now."
No matter our assessment of the student’s playing or our opinion of their teacher, we must honor whatever experiences the student has had that led them to want to study with us this summer. Given our limited time with the student, we don’t want to waste any of it making them feel bad about their prior experiences or insinuate they don’t belong. And we don’t want their short-term experience with us to be the reason they decide to quit music. We want to support them, offer help in the areas we can, and respect those who have taught them up to this point. We never know what’s going on behind the scenes.
2. Set achievable goals for your time together.
Whether you’re working with a student for 20 minutes in a masterclass or have several lessons over multiple weeks, it’s important to identify select areas to work on together. Don’t overwhelm your short-term student by starting multiple projects they can’t finish by the end of the camp or festival. Shinichi Suzuki famously talked about the "one-point lesson," and I think it's good advice for teachers working with students at any level.
So consider: What is reasonable to achieve in the time you and the student have together? What are concepts that the student can deeply understand and integrate into their playing during the short time you’re together? What changes will the student be able to hear/feel/experience during the final performance (if there is one)?
Even in lessons with a long-term student, we can’t work on everything at once. Choosing priorities and helping our summer students succeed at one or two things will lead to a much more successful experience all around.
3. Teach first. Recruit second, if at all.
Many of us use - and, in fact, need - our summer teaching to recruit for our year-round programs. When we meet a student who plays well and who works well with us, it can be so tempting to say, "You know, you should change to my studio," or, "Come to my school."
When I was in college, I worked with a teacher in a phenomenal summer environment who took this to an extreme. Beyond asking if I would be interested in studying with them full-time, they actively pressured me to leave the college program (and scholarships) I was in and transfer to their school. I was spent a lot of the time at camp in an existential crisis about whether or not I should transfer rather than being fully in the moment, absorbing all the information I was learning. I was agonizing with my parents about whether I should completely change everything and move to a different state. I didn't transfer, but I did take a gap year to study with this teacher.
Which leads me to a fundamental question: Should we offer opportunities to students we click with? Yes, absolutely. But there’s a fine line between saying, "I enjoy working with you and I can give you more information about the place where I teach," and "I’m the only teacher who can help you, so come study with me as soon as possible." It may be best to simply make sure the student knows how to contact you and leave the ball in the student's court.
I firmly believe that our teaching, or our institution, should be the main thing that draws a student to us. If the program is a good one, if our teaching is a right fit - the student will want to study with us of their own free will. Any type of coercion or pressure is, frankly, unethical.
I hope this is helpful for those of you who will be teaching camps and festivals this summer, and I hope we all continue to learn from and with each other!
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