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A Student’s Life: The Summer Festival Questionnaire

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“So, where are you applying to for this summer?”

The question seems to be on everyone’s lips this time of year, and for good reason: although we’re still enduring the bitter winds of a late February cold snap, we’re only one week away from the beginning of March, which I like to refer to as “summer festival decision month.” Soon, music students across the country will be nervously checking their inboxes for an admissions decision from their top-choice festival, hoping for a summer situation that will be both musically and financially satisfying. Some will be the lucky recipients of an acceptance email and immediately log on to Facebook to express their irrepressible joy (“TANGLEWOOD 2013!!!! :D :D :D :D ) while others will be the unfortunate recipients of an email beginning with the words, “We regret to inform you…” and similarly turn to social media to lament their sorrows (“always knew Aspen was a long shot…*sigh*….”). But while it’s growing increasingly common for music majors to spend their summers in attendance at one of the many reputable programs across the country, such a situation isn’t necessarily ideal for everyone. While the experience of attending a festival or institute can be very rewarding, it can pose some difficulties as well, and so it’s important to consider the various pros and cons before you proudly send off your “intent to enroll” form (and subsequently post a picture of it on Twitter). Here are some key questions to ask yourself as you go through the decision-making process:

1. Are you (and your parents) going to be able to pay for food after this?

You may have been fortunate enough to get accepted into Hotshot Teacher A’s studio at Super-Competitive Institute X, but if the folks over in financial aid aren’t giving you a cent towards your tuition, you may want to consider alternative possibilities. Chances are, you’re probably already dealing with the financial burden of college tuition, and tacking on an additional five grand to your mounting debt is not going to do you any good. However, a lackluster financial situation doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker; it’s usually possible to negotiate your scholarship package (or lack of one) with the festival’s financial aid office, and if that isn’t feasible, you can certainly pursue other sources of funding from local scholarship organizations. Most importantly, be sure to keep your parents informed throughout the financial aid negotiation process; sending in your “intent to enroll” form without mentioning to them that they’ll have to cough up four thousand dollars in addition to purchasing plane tickets will cause headaches all around (not to mention a significant decrease in Christmas gifts next year).

2. Do you really want to study with Hotshot Teacher A?

One of the primary reasons for attending a festival is to have the opportunity to work with different professors, but don’t just choose a certain teacher because they’re a “big name.” Nobody’s teaching is perfect for everybody, and you certainly don’t want to walk out of a less-than-rewarding first lesson wondering how on earth you will survive the next eight weeks. Do some research on the professor in question and get a feel for what their personality might be like-if they’re indeed well-known, you’ll certainly be able to glean a fair bit of information about them online within the myriad of relevant musicians’ forums and chat rooms. Be sure to consult  your regular teacher, too-chances are, he or she will know of your prospective professor (“Hotshot’s teaching where this year??”) and have some valuable insights to offer as well.

3. Are you actually going to get something out of going to Super-Competitive Festival X?

Probably the most important factor in your decision-making process is discerning whether you’re really going to benefit from shelling out the tuition and spending eight weeks of your summer halfway across the country. In this regard, considering a festival’s primary focus in comparison with your personal goals and needs is the best way to get a idea of what it might (or might not) do for you. For example, if you’re angling for an intensive orchestral experience, you may not want to commit to a program focused primarily on chamber music, and if you aspire to play in a professional string quartet someday, writing out a tuition check to the “Orchestra-Is-All-We-Do School of Music” would not be the best way to go. Pick a place that appeals to your interests, and don’t let extra-musical factors (such as financial or travel inconveniences) exert too much of an influence over your final decision.

4. What’s the practice situation like?

Although it may seem like a given, you would be surprised how busy one can get at certain festivals, and if you’re hoping to do your standard five hours a day all summer, you might want to reconsider the prospect of attending a program that requires great demands on your time. Similarly, if you have difficulty practicing for several hours a day for whatever reason, avoid committing to one of the “practice camps” that will require a specific amount of daily practice time. While these types of festivals can be great motivators, they can also prove to be a recipe for disaster if you have a history of tendonitis, which will make for a miserable and utterly unproductive summer.

5. Would it be more beneficial to just stay home?

If you’ve considered all of the above factors and concluded that the $5,000 tuition will mean no desserts until summer 2014, Hotshot Teacher A seems a bit sketchy based on your online research, the chamber program at the festival appears to be a mere sideshow, and you’d only have a couple hours at most in the practice room due to a hectic daily routine, it might be time to contemplate the option of just not going to a festival at all. While it may seem like everyone and their mother are headed off to Aspen or Tanglewood this summer (quite literally, if the student is under the age of fifteen), you would be surprised how many students opt to take a part-time job and simply practice at home. Going this route doesn’t mean that your summertime musical activities have to be limited to practicing arpeggios up in your bedroom; there are plenty of ways you can utilize these precious months off from school to essentially create your own summer program. Take some gigs, set yourself up as a private teacher, or schedule a recital at a local church or community center; chances are, you’ll already have a lot of connections within your hometown, and your old friends and neighbors would love to hear you play. Best of all, taking a summer off will allow for you to have some much-needed R&R, and considering the ridiculously fast-paced lives that most music students lead, that could be even more beneficial than going to any festival.

More in this series:
The College Audition Survival Guide
The Five Most Important Relationships You Have in Music School

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