Founder's Blog

How performance-oriented music can shift the way we learn

In a few weeks, the first fiddle camp of the summer will start. There is a new dynamic that has entered into the planning of my camps. And it is relevant to the discussion of forces that influence how we educate.

The Creekside Strings fiddle camps 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 campers in small groups and one-on-one to teach them the songs phrase by phrase. We play kickball and other sports, eat lunch on picnic blankets together, read books out loud to young campers, play music 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.

An education academic would describe the camp as process-oriented, as opposed to goal-oriented.

Last year, for the first time, we played on stage at the Green Show. By all measures, it was a success. The kids looked forward to it all week. It gave the week a strong sense of direction as we worked towards this 45-minute performance. Afterwards, everyone had a shared sense of accomplishment.

But we also had to hunker down a bit more and there was a higher standard for success of the songs we were learning that required a little bit of cutting back on the lunch hour and kickball and informal jamming.

We will be playing at the Green Show again this year. Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a student, Kayla, who will be a counselor at camp. Now that we have a more serious performance at the end of the week, I suggested the idea of using notation (sheet music). We could learn more songs, develop more complexity in the 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 different skill levels. She loves the creativity and freedom that comes with building music from the ground up. She prefers the inefficient learning process we have always used.

I know Kayla is right. Yet, this performance is on my mind!

It has shifted the calculus of a ‘successful outcome’ for camp. I am seeking a balance between a learning approach that I know has a strong impact on long-term educational success AND the immediate gratification of a stunning performance.

I grew up with a performance-based approach to music education. But fewer than 5% of the children that learned violin alongside me when I was growing up are still playing today.

Performances are fun, exciting and rewarding. Yet they require balance. The inevitable pull to perform, demonstrate and test too soon in life has the potential to rob us of important nutrients for long-term success.

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