Teaching Music: Performance Workshops

Also known as “studio recitals,” performance workshops are private events; your students perform not for a public audience, but for each other. When these sessions are hosted by a prominent guest artist, they’re referred to as “master classes.”

The scope of a workshop is much smaller than that of a public recital. There is no need to secure a venue; there are no invitations to send or refreshments to serve. You can host the event at your teaching studio or home. If your studio is at your home, maybe even add some fun, by hosting a barbecue or screening a concert DVD. Of course, take into account the range of age and maturity within your student base.

As an undergraduate, I studied under Michael Nicolella. Participation in weekly studio recitals was mandatory for all his students. During these meetings, we took turns performing whatever we were currently working on to the best of our ability, and observed Mr. Nicolella as he critiqued our performances. We also had the opportunity to contribute feedback of our own.

I’m not suggesting weekly workshops, but somewhere between monthly and quarterly is a nice pace. You should assume that it takes the equivalent of one school semester for a student to prepare the most difficult of material he’s currently learning. It would be ideal to allow your students to monitor each other’s progress about two or three times during this learning cycle.

When you offer a student’s critique, try to glean just one key point that may benefit all present. For example, a remark like “after bar 48, the tempo gets a little shaky” doesn’t help anyone in the audience; but tips on using a metronome to develop rhythmic accuracy are something multiple people can learn from.

If you feel a quick rehearsal of a passage will yield instant results, then lead your student through the rehearsal; but avoid merely practicing. Example: Steve plays a passage marked with a crescendo, but he could build to a bigger forte. Show him how you want it to sound, then have him play it back a couple of times. Steve’s performance transforms for the better right in front of his peers’ eyes, and they are inspired. What you don’t want to do is isolate and improve poor technique, or work on memorization issues. Those are “practicey” things. Stick to more interpretive things, like dynamics and tone.

Remember what I said earlier about keeping your knowledge to yourself? In studio recitals, you have an opportunity to expand on the lesson material a bit more than usual. If you’ve been dying to explain where the treble clef came from, or tell that joke about how lute players are always tuning, go ahead and release your inner nerd; but relate directly to the material, keep the pace going, and try not allow yourself more than one tangent per session.

With performance workshops, you are adding value to your lessons. Some places, like small private conservatories, might charge for these sessions, calling them a separate class. Decide for yourself whether you include the experience with your usual weekly lesson offerings. Personally, I would offer them as non-mandatory, free bonus sessions. Set a date and take RSVP’s. If three or more are interested, keep the date.

Don’t forget to leave a comment if you have any ideas of your own to share.

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