Author: Lehmann, Ted

Workshop Etiquette

I like to drop in on workshops when we're at a festivals. Many well-organized events schedule a series of hour long workshops conducted by well-known and highly skilled musicians designed to teach and/or demonstrate a few skills to less skilled people eager to upgrade their abilities. Over the years, I've watched Alan Bibey and Ron Thomason talk about the mandolin, Darren Beachley discuss playing rhythm guitar, Eddie Adcock and Bill Keith explore intricacies of the banjo, Mike Bub and Rebekah Long teach bass, Becky Buller on fiddle, and Valerie Smith discussing techniques for maintaining and supporting one's voice. Each of these people is clearly an expert at the use and extension of skills in his or her instrument. They all have much more to say and show than the hour or so allotted to their workshop will allow them to share. Some of them also happen to be excellent teachers with articulate views about their instruments and a clear idea of what it takes to improve at playing it. That's why it astounds me that so many people come to workshops prepared not to listen or to learn.

Typically, at a workshop, there will be a full range of ability levels in attendance. Some people will be absolute novices, afraid to even bring their instrument or pluck a note on it within the workshop framework. Others will be there, eager and willing to participate at the level suggested by the musician teaching the workshop. And, inevitably, there will be at least one person there who's more interested in showing the work-shopper what he can do than he is in learning anything. Another thing this person often does is ask questions, which aren't really questions, but statements, about ideas or techniques too obscure or particular to the person's own needs that they are impenetrable to most people attending the workshop. This person, often more needy for recognition and affirmation than for help learning to play the instrument, frequently functions as a workshop destroyer for all the other participants. He also places the work-shopper in a difficult position.

Perhaps rule #1 for performers is, “Don't aggravate or annoy the audience.” Performers are in the business of pleasing their audiences. Part of their stock in trade is giving the audience what it wants. Except for that annoying comedian Don Rickles, few performers get very far using insults as a way to garner fans. Thus, I've never seen a workshop in which the presenter told a participant something like, “You've had a chance to ask plenty of questions, now shut up and let me help some people who might really wish to benefit from what I can do with them.” I have seen some workshop presenters take a weak and ingratiating stab at doing this, but managing the self-seeking, needy workshop attendee isn't a part of the typical skill set of musicians, nor should it be.

Some thoughts for participants:

Keep your fingers off the strings of your instrument unless the work-shopper demonstrates a lick and suggests you try it. This is actually just common courtesy (which means, in practice, that it's quite uncommon). There's nothing more distracting than to hear people plinking and plunking while a real musician is seeking to demonstrate a lick or a musical idea.

Come to a workshop with one or two specific questions about playing your instrument that you think might actually have a useful answer for more people than just yourself.

If you want a private lesson, try to arrange one with the work-shopper and then be prepared to pay for it. Most likely, if you're serious about your instrument, you'll benefit from the time and attention a lesson would provide you. I often see world class musicians taking time to do this. Ten or fifteen minutes spent with Alan Bibey or Tony Trischka might be just what you need to push you to the next level.

Don't “help” the work-shopper by interpreting the needs of the participants. Most of these people understand pretty well. After all, it's they who've put in the thousands of hours necessary to learn to play the instrument at a professional level. (Incidentally, the magic number is at least 10,000 hours.)

If the work-shopper permits it, record the workshop and then go home to practice what you've learned.

Some thoughts on teaching workshops:

Take a few minutes to plan your workshop. Be prepared to say something about how you got involved with your instrument, who influenced you, how you practice, and the particular challenges you still face in playing your instrument.

Do some thinking about what element of your playing distinguishes you or what challenges you've had to overcome to reach the level you've attained and demonstrate some of these. Workshop participants are often surprised to hear you still encounter difficulties and interested to know about your practice routine.

Play a piece you're known for as a showpiece for your virtuosity and what your instrument should sound like. Talk about particular elements of the song you found difficult to master.

Give participants some insight into life on the road. They're fascinated by it and tend to romanticize the life of touring musicians.

Structure your workshop. An hour is really quite a brief teaching period, and very few ideas can be effectively covered in this time. At the beginning say a few words about what you want to accomplish. Teach to your points. Take a couple of minutes at the end review what you've covered. Act like you're enjoying the process.

Workshops can offer one of the most valuable hours within the format of a festival. They give aspiring musicians an opportunity to interact with interested professional musicians and learn something from them. Their effectiveness can be improved if both teachers and participants observe a few simple principles. In the end, for both participants and presenters, the key lies in consideration and concern for the wants and needs of others.

Posted:  3/27/2010

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