Advice for Newcomers to Intensive Music School
By Ken Coles, Logansport, Indiana U.S.A.
[Some opinionated suggestions]
After attending half a dozen different intensive music schools I have
some suggestions for those of you who are new to the experience. I
define "intensive" as a course or class longer than a weekend festival;
generally they are 5 to 7 days long.
Intensive music schools vary in level, how much work vs. free time you
get, whether your class meets all day or just for one hour, how involved
or impersonal the teacher is, and so on. Because a successful choice
depends so much on your goals and experience, talk to others who have
been to the school you're considering attending, read the reports on
concertina.net and elsewhere, and take your questions to the people who
run the school.
Attitude helps a lot when you get to the school. If you hate all
institutional food or despise sleeping on lumpy mattresses, in
un-air-conditioned dorms, or in other inconvenient places, you can lose
sight of the positive side of the experience. (Just read Paul's report
on his cabin at the first concertina school he went to
for an example of how to survive adversity by using humor!) If you are
in this category, it may be wise to stick to schools that allow you to
stay in more luxurious digs (provided you can afford it). Many of us
figure a little privation and waiting in food lines is part of the
atmosphere and experience.
Everyone at your school is there to get something out of it, and this is
easier and more pleasant if each person remembers those around them.
Over the years, I've noted that the following things can impede this:
Noise or other distractions in class: At a festival or informal
concert, you will find yourself tapping your foot, conducting with your
hand, or making other percussive accompaniment without thinking about it.
In a group lesson or class this should be avoided, especially if the
instructor or a single student is playing for everyone. Then everyone
can hear and the person playing will not be distracted by your sounds or
visual motions. If you can't resist, take off your shoe and tap silently
in (clean!) sock feet or try some other way to keep the beat for yourself.
Taking turns (listening vs. playing): Experienced teachers will
usually make it clear when they are demonstrating a tune or technique and
ask everyone to listen. I have seen inexperienced teachers who don't
mention this, and as soon as they start on a new tune everyone starts
immediately to noodle along. The resulting din accounts for the remarks
your loved ones make about "that music sounding more like noise!" I
don't know about you, but I will *never* pick up a new tune this way! It
is also impossible to record the teacher's example (if that is permitted)
when it is being drowned out by other players. If the teacher doesn't
make it clear when to listen and when to play along, I find that
tactfully asking the whole class to agree on some procedure always works.
This gives everyone chances both to listen/learn/record and to play
along. Note that some teachers never have a whole class play along but
ask you to practice outside class.
Using a walkman to record: Of course you should only record when
given permission, but most teachers I've had readily permit this if it is
solely for your private use. The new popularity of minidisk recorders
may reduce a problem common with the portable tape recorders of the past.
It goes like this: You must push "stop" before "rewind" or "fast
forward." Otherwise, many tape recorders, if they are on play when
you push rewind or fast forward, will make a set of very loud, annoying,
high-pitched squeals and squeaks (in the U.S. we call them Mickey Mouse
or Chipmunk voices). This is guaranteed to embarrass you in front of
everyone. Practice with your equipment (and read the manual) so you know
how it works; then you won't lose a day's recordings because you didn't
know the "pause" button was engaged. And before each class, cue your
tape or minidisk to the beginning of a blank section to record on. Then
you'll avoid these problems altogether.
A related issue is that some folks frown on taping jam sessions, while
others encourage it. The school management may give guidelines on this.
If not, one approach is to watch (are others recording?) before you ask
permission to record. Personally, I rarely record jams as there is too
much sound for me to find the tune. Recording a tune from a single
person is more useful, and easier to arrange.
Noise near another class: More than once I've been in a class when a
student not in that class was noisily practicing just outside an open
door or window. In one case the teacher suffered in annoyed silence, but
in another class the teacher went and gave the offender an impassioned
earful. In both cases there were plenty of private places to practice
out of earshot. Be considerate, or ask first, when choosing a place to
work on tunes outside of class.
Supplies and Materials
Bringing enough batteries and blank tapes or minidisks for the whole week
gives great peace of mind. At the Augusta workshops I've never had to
move my car out of a scarce, valuable parking space during the week
because I had everything I needed. Sometimes (as when Noel Hill school
was held in Massachusetts) the items you need can only be purchased many
miles away, or no one can tell you where to get them. Bring what you
need and use your time for music, not shopping. I don't record
everything in class, but if you do, it can easily be 2-3 hours per day
-- bring enough media to record on. If your recorder is rechargeable,
keep it charging whenever you can, and if not, bring lots of batteries.
You can always save extras for the future or make a new friend by giving
them to someone who didn't bring enough.
Sometimes your own supply of between-meal snacks or drinks is necessary
-- it really varies with the venue and your dietary habits. Asking past
participants or the management of your particular music school can help
This is very individual, and as a go-to-bed-early fuddy-duddy, I'm
probably not much good for advice here -- you know what I'm about to tell
you. It's not mandatory to stay up until dawn every night to get a lot
out of an intensive music school. You didn't take all your college
courses in one semester, did you? No, and for the same reason. At
Swannanoa or Augusta I don't take a class during every single hour, but
save time for naps, labeling tapes, and practice. Nowadays I learn as
much as I can handle without joining in many hours of extracurricular
music; I still get enough to keep me busy for months afterwards. Adults
who are new to an instrument that they are very focused on, or new to
music altogether, are prone to overextending themselves this way. I've
done it myself. You'll know when you're overdoing it if you pay
attention. Children seem to be more patient about learning things at a comfortable pace.
None of this means you shouldn't have fun, or sit in on a
once-in-a-lifetime jam. But if it means borrowing from being able to
function in class the next day, do weigh your decision. Many teachers
sincerely appreciate students who save some energy for the class on the
fourth or fifth day rather than being asleep, hungover, or absent
altogether. But that's just my philosophy, and I guess I am pretty
Make new friends; trade addresses and keep in touch. If your musical
style or instrument is rare at home (that's many of us here on
concertina.net!) you can form a network to share ideas, questions, and so
Borrow instruments and try them (only with permission of course).
Learn stuff you never knew about your music or instrument and share what
you know with others.
Meet nice people.
Congratulations on deciding to attend an intensive music school. The fit
of student to school is very individual, but if it is good, you'll have a
positive experience you will enjoy and can't get anywhere else.