The fiddle camps I run each summer for my students have always been a relaxed gathering of young campers and high school and college-age counselors. We rehearse as a large group under a sprawling oak tree. Counselors work with young fiddlers to teach them songs by ear. We play kickball and other sports, eat lunch on picnic blankets together, read books out loud, and play in the creek. The pace of the day is gentle and gives room for kids to learn at a pace that suits them with lots of space for connecting with others. The learning environment is peer-focused -- that is, the primary goal is the relationships between the students.
Our end-of-camp concerts have always been relaxed gatherings for parents and anyone who happened to pass by in the park. Not too long ago, we were asked to play on stage before a few hundred people at the end of the camp week.
Prior to the camp, I had a conversation with Kayla -- a camp counselor and former camper. Because we had a more serious performance at the end of the week, I suggested the idea of using sheet music instead of our typical ear-learning process. We could learn more songs, develop more complex harmonies, reduce our risk of mistakes and have greater control over the outcome.
Kayla really felt like the culture of the camp would shift if we used notation. She became very nostalgic about the process of sitting together and figuring things out by ear, the slow process of teaching harmonies and melodies to the different skill levels. She loves the creativity and freedom that comes with building music from the ground up. She preferred the ear-learning process we have always used.
I knew Kayla was right...but the performance was on my mind! It shifted the calculus of what qualified as a successful camp. Ear-based learning supported the peer-focused approach to the camp. Sheet music would have supported a performance-focused approach to the week.
I know both of these approaches very well. I grew up with a performance-focused approach to music education. The performances were fun, exciting and rewarding. But fewer than 5% of the children that learned violin alongside me when I was growing up are still playing today. Performance-focused learning loses its effectiveness when kids finish lessons and no longer have performances to motivate them.
With the encouragement of Kayla, I stuck with our ears for the camp (and all my camps). We had a successful performance that the kids (and audience) loved. More importantly, we kept our focus on the slow, creative, relaxed learning process that makes the week so enjoyable and gently grows the motivation of students to keep playing music on or off-stage.
Duane Whitcomb, Founder