A camping we will go – tips for teachers

In last week’s discussion of bluegrass music camps, I focused primarily on the students, and what they can expect at events like this. This week, I’d like to offer a word or two for and about music camp instructors, especially those who are doing this kind of work for the first time, or hoping to.

Teaching at bluegrass music camps and workshops can be fun, rewarding, usually exhausting, and rarely lucrative. You forge closer relationships with your students than you would at a typical concert, and for that reason you often develop lifelong fans, or, in the worst-case scenario, lifelong stalkers. You also have the opportunity to do something you rarely get to do in the bluegrass music business: make some money while staying out of a moving vehicle for up to five days.

Those with camp experience will tell you, however, that it isn’t easy money. The hours can be long: between your main class, elective classes, workshops, and staff concerts, it can be a pretty full day. It’s also not the kind of thing you can just show up and do, like playing 2 sets at a Dairy Queen grand opening. You actually need to show up prepared, though many have tried to get away without doing so.

There are numerous camps that expect good preparation but don’t often stress that with their instructors ahead of time, assuming that a musician about to teach a class for a week should know this (somewhere I hear a professional musician doubled over with laughter).

Camps also expect a certain amount of natural teaching ability, but they don’t necessarily screen for that. They will sometimes hire somebody based on name recognition and musical reputation, and then just roll the dice on teaching skill and overall personality. This, needless to say, is a gamble. Sometimes it works out very well, and you have a full class of students who are just thrilled to be gaining new insights from their musical hero, who happens to also be patient, kind, charismatic and thorough. If the gamble doesn’t pay off, you could have students discovering the dark side of their musical hero, then running to the camp coordinator, dissatisfied, or worse, in tears. The students who are left in the class organize a ping pong tournament for the last 2 days of classes.

If I could offer some advice for prospective music camp instructors, it would be the following, in order of importance:

Don’t make the students cry. I realize this should go without saying, but I’ve seen it happen too many times. Insulting them, intimidating them, or expecting them to be professionals when they aren’t, just isn’t a good idea.

Having said that, I personally like to make sure the students know who’s boss early on and instill just a little bit of fear in order to gain respect. I usually accomplish this by making some unexpected and sudden body gestures that make me seem a little unstable. If any students try to assert themselves or interrupt me during the first class, I’ll often stare them down for up to ten minutes. Still, saying things like “You call yourself advanced?” is helpful to no one. Just a side note: I’ve heard instructors scoff at the level of students in advanced classes, implying that if they’re called “advanced,” they should be able to go out and play a gig tomorrow. Remember that “advanced” is merely used as a relative term. It’s true that sometimes the difference between a “beginning” and “advanced” student is that the “advanced” one has higher self-esteem, but so what? If your class has students that aren’t that far apart in ability, there’s no problem.

Prepare for every class. Never start the class with this line: “Well. . .what would you like to learn?” You may think this sounds accommodating on your part, but the students know better, and they mentally translate this to: “Well…I have absolutely nothing planned, so let’s just treat this like a really long festival workshop.”

It’s also advisable to pace yourself. Don’t teach everything you’ve got by noon of the first day (I’ve seen it happen), then force yourself to fill the remaining 3 or 4 days with unstructured jam sessions, card tricks, and field trips to a local luthier, another instructor’s class, or perhaps a bar.

Know when to put a sock in it. You may enjoy hearing yourself talk, and feel that you are imparting great musical and philosophical wisdom to your eager students (and you may be), but there’s a limit to how much of the theoretical they can absorb, and they really need to do some actual playing, if only to stay interested in the class. Urging participation is very important. Try not to let the class disintegrate into you telling “you had to be there” road stories about having to bail half your band out of an Alabama jail in 1982.

Remember why it’s called a “camp.” I realize that these events are called various things, including an “academy,”  but it’s really a camp, designed for people to have fun and maybe learn some things in the process. As I mentioned last week, if you, as instructor, treat the week like it’s a condensed university-level course in bluegrass music, it’s likely that everyone will be disappointed. For some students, this is their one big vacation of the year. Some couples even go to a bluegrass music camp for their honeymoon (against the advice of everyone they know). Try not to wreck it.

In addition to the main class that you teach, you’ll likely be called upon to teach an additional elective class, or some form of one-time workshop that’s open to all students. You may also be asked to come up with your own topic for one of these classes. Here are some that have proven to be failures and should be avoided at all costs:

  1. Big mon-a-loo-bop-shee-do: Learning to Scat Sing Bill Monroe Instrumentals.
  2. “I Love the Way The Moon Reflects Off Your Tone Ring” Bluegrass Pickup Lines for Dummies.
  3. “Do pork rinds and Mountain Dew actually burn fat?” Diet Tips of the Bluegrass Stars.
  4. Dobroxology: Massage Therapy Using Fingerpicks and a Bar.
  5. “I saw my mother dancing naked with Ralph Stanley”: Bluegrass Dream Analysis
  6. Performing Murder Ballads Using Bluegrass Interpretive Dance.
  7. How to Book Your Bluegrass Band From Prison: Making the Most of Your One Phone Call.
  8. Jimmy Brown the Newsboy and the Philosophy of Emmanual Kant
  9. Choosing the Correct Bolo Tie For Your Skin Tone, and Other Bluegrass Fashion Tips
  10. “How Many People Do We Have Here From Missouri?” 101 Sure-fire Lines For a Band MC

Next week: Bluegrass tax tips that probably won’t land you in prison.