Every musician can benefit from taking an occasional workshop or class related to their instrument, regardless of whether you take private lessons as well. Getting extra instruction and a fresh point of view is always a good idea.
Classes and workshops are usually designated by category of instrument and/or style, and by skill level. Making the right choice is obviously important; it make the difference between learning and frustration.
Choosing by Skill Level
Of course you’ll choose a workshop meant for your skill level – most of the time – but we can also take advantage of how much help it can be to study at a skill level that is different from yours.
For instance, try a class that is offered at a lower level than you perceive your skills to be. There’s not a musician on this planet who has managed to learn all the skills he or she could and should have learned for their perceived skill level. Skills usually develop selectively, rather than in a broad-spectrum way, thereby leaving the musician with a limited set of advanced skills. This is one reason you will often see professionals taking classes from other professionals. No one knows everything, even if they think they do! If you missed something along the way, how would you know? After all, you, uh, missed it. Letting someone take you back to a more basic skill level and show you what you missed will open up new worlds to you.
Yes, some workshops or classes could truly be below your level, or the techniques different from what you’ve mastered. But you can use them as an opportunity to focus and review. It’s likely, though, that some information will be remedial.
It’s considerate to refrain from trying to show the class or the teacher that you’re a better player than everyone else. Doing so intimidates the other students, and puts the teacher in a compromised position; they may feel they must teach to your level to keep you interested and challenged. Teaching to disparate levels in a group often results in no one learning much. You can keep your skill level to yourself, just be a really good student, and don’t be insulted when you’re treated like everyone else.
Another great option you can consider is to sign up for a workshop that is beyond your skill level; if it’s too advanced you can still gain inspiration. If you’re not inclined toward discouragement, such an experience can propel you forward by light years. It’s a good idea to inform the teacher beforehand that your skills are not up to the class standard, and tell them not to hold the class back just for you.
Choosing by Teacher
When someone we admire is teaching a workshop or class, it’s an opportunity to learn how they do those special things that make their music unique. Yet many beginner or intermediate students assume they can’t study with a famous person. Contrary to that assumption, the famous folks often have the most patience and empathy. So don’t hesitate.
Inquire About Format
Be sure to ask in advance whether the class is hands-on, demo only, or lecture. I once toted my heavy wire strung harp to a “wire strung harp workshop” by a famous player, tuned it carefully and set it up, as did other students, only to have the teacher do a lecture-demo. We already knew what he did because we’d seen and heard him play many times. We wanted to learn how he did it. If a teacher has not thought to announce the format, your asking can remind him or her to do so, and spare you some aggravation.
How Much Will You Learn?
After a workshop or class – whether it’s an hour, a day, a weekend, or a week long – you might remember just a few, or maybe even just one, thing that was taught. Although it may seem like you’ve wasted money and time, in actuality that one thing or few things can make it worthwhile. I once spent ten days at a music camp learning from my favorite teacher, only to find when I got home that I consciously remembered just one thing. At first I was frustrated, but it took a year to integrate that skill into my playing, and it has served me well ever since.
If you don’t consciously remember everything presented in a workshop or class, rest assured that it’s in your brain somewhere, and next time you hear it you’ll be closer to being able to remember and use it. The brain works behind the scenes when we’re not aware that it’s doing so. It’s amazing how much we learn without knowing we have.
Building Repertoire vs. Building Skill
There are different sets of skills for different situations. In the folk world we have jamming/session skills and performance-quality skills, solo playing and ensemble playing skills. In the classical world you have orchestral, ensemble, and solo playing skills. Each of the above requires a different focus.
For jamming and sessions, you need a large repertoire, and need to play well enough to keep up with the gang. If on the other hand you’re performing a lot, you need to play your repertoire in an exceptionally clean, accurate and polished way. But concerts only require about 90 minutes of material (usually about 15 pieces total, or fewer if they are very long ones). Many professional performers don’t do their best in jam sessions because they’ve spent all their time perfecting their concert repertoire, which of necessity is not as extensive and will not usually contain many commonly heard session pieces. And many jammers don’t do well in performance because they’ve spent their time learning as much repertoire as possible rather than polishing it to professional level. Ultimately, unless an audience has paid to hear you, music is for the player’s enjoyment, so what you do with it is your call.
When you take a class or workshop, ask in advance if it’s geared for jammers or for performers, and also if it’s about improvisation or about tradition. This information will give you the perspective to integrate the information in the most realistic way.
Whatever you do, enjoy it – if you don’t, why do it? Playing music isn’t about drudgery. It’s about loving what you do. Admittedly, some of the instruction and some of the practicing can feel like more work than you want to do, but it helps to ask yourself whether you will enjoy the result. If you will, then the work is worthwhile.