10 Tips for Optimizing Summer Lessons by Ashley Pelton

Each year we spend hours and hours agonizing over which summer festivals to apply to, rerecording movements for audition tapes, and then anxiously awaiting admissions results. Not only is it important to consider what focus we would like the festival to have (solo, chamber, orchestral), but also the teachers we may study with, the amount of time there will be to practice, and what environment will be the best for us to thrive in.

When summer finally comes around and we arrive at festivals, we are so relieved to have been accepted, ecstatic that it’s summertime (and the livin’ is easy), and we cannot wait to meet new people. But don’t forget, your main purpose there is to grow musically and violistically!

It can be difficult to make the most out of one lesson, three lessons, or if you are lucky, five or six lessons with a summer teacher. It takes time to settle in to their teaching style, incorporate their feedback, and learn all of your repertoire. But you may say, “Ashley, everyone says they get so much better over the summer! How can I do that if I only get one or three lessons with a professor?”

Fast forward to summer 2014 . . . what are YOU going to do to get the most out of your lessons? (In no specific order)

1. Think long and hard about your main summer goals before you arrive at the festival. Work with your year-round teacher to come to a consensus on the areas you would like to improve upon.

These goals should be realistic, challenging, and much more specific than “learn a ton of rep.” Be sure to have bigger picture, long-term goals, as well as short-term goals.

2. If performing at the festival is a priority for you, come with repertoire that is already at a high level.

In my experience, I have found that new teachers will always want to delve into new details and show you a new perspective. If your rep. isn’t at performance level, your performance date will often get pushed back.

3. Record your lessons and take detailed notes. Be sure to listen back and watch yourself.

In an unfamiliar teaching situation, it can be extremely helpful to listen back to your lessons. Maybe you didn’t catch everything the professor said the first time around, or you want to hear the impact their suggestion had on your playing again. Maybe they completely confused you! Which leads me to my next suggestion:

4. Ask a lot of questions.

Come to your lesson prepared with questions and be honest if you do not understand a concept your teacher is sharing with you. It will show that you care and that you’ve taken the time to process and ponder thoughts from your previous lessons.

5. Have an open mind.

This applies especially to the physical aspect of playing the viola but to musical and technical ideas as well. Every violist is built differently, every viola built differently, and everyone’s setup is a little different. If you aren’t at least open to listening to another professor’s suggestions, then you are doing yourself a disservice. Only your body can tell you how it feels, but you never know when a new idea could be the solution you’ve been looking for.

6. Take advantage of any technique classes or studio classes your summer teacher may offer.

The more exposure you have to their teaching and playing, the more you will be able to apply and understand the principles they are teaching you in your lessons.

7. Realize that you may only have three lessons, and prioritize what you’d like to work on in that short time.

I hate to break it to you, but you won’t be getting through your whole sonata, whole concerto, and whole Bach suite in three hours. Think wisely about where you need the most guidance and how you can get the most out of your time with that professor.

8. Learn your piano scores before you get to the festival.

At festivals, collaborative pianists often have hectic schedules. Do them and yourself a favor and make the most out of the short rehearsal time you have with them. Be sure to know your entrances, know how your parts fit together, and have the courage to discuss and debate musical ideas you would like to implement.

9. Use your peers to your advantage.

Sometimes teachers bring their year-round students with them to festivals. If you don’t understand something from your lesson and you don’t feel comfortable asking the professor, ask your peers who are familiar with their teaching style and techniques. They can often shed light on confusing concepts and give you tips for getting the most out of your lessons.

10. Insist on practicing in a comfortable and productive practice space.

If you are a person who likes to practice with a mirror or you are working on adjusting your setup, insist on having a mirror in your practice space. If the festival doesn’t provide them, purchase an inexpensive one so you can make the most out of your practice time. If you need a special chair or bench, make sure you bring it with you or find accommodations. There is nothing worse than a practice space that is uncomfortable, hinders learning, and creates bad postural and practice habits.

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