As universities have been out for a few weeks now, and high schools are just about to finish, I thought it an appropriate time to make some comments and observations regarding the Summer break. No doubt everyone is in need of a break not only from their discipline (instrument, voice, teaching, etc), but a break from the day-to-day routine is probably a welcome concept, too. I have always found the Summer to be a highly productive time for me, both regarding my trombone playing and general life tasks. Hopefully, you can find this to be the case, as well.
When I was in college, there was a tremendous amount of weight placed on summer music festivals; mostly from my peers and my own personal stigma that to get into a festival meant you were successful. My teachers never emphasized the summer festivals as much as I expected them to, and looking back, I realize (or at least think I realize) why this was the case. These festivals are wonderful opportunities, but they are certainly not the “end all, be all” that our inexperienced student minds view them to be. In the last 10 years, many more opportunities have cropped up with mini-festivals, seminars, and instrument-specific camps happening all over the country. This is a wonderful thing, as it affords more people the chance to participate, but it doesn’t eat up your entire summer. This means you can still have dedicated practice, time to relax, and maybe even make some money.
While I was disappointed to be rejected from most of the festivals to which I auditioned, I learned to embrace the quantity and quality of time that the summer affords. It is a time without the pesky distractions of course schedules and ensemble rehearsals; a time that you can actually feel like you have enough hours in the day! Time to practice, or rather, time to practice with patience and focus. All of those bigger issues that you just couldn’t exercise the tough discipline required during the year can now be attacked on your terms!
I remember a particular summer between my years of grad school that I worked part-time for the Northwestern concert hall. I spent half of my day on stage or in the rehearsal room practicing, and the other half actually working. I spent my evenings hanging with friends and enjoying the productivity of the day, and yes, I went to bed without the dreaded thought of “There just aren’t enough hours in the day!” When school resumed after this break, I had made tremendous gains both technically and mentally, and it was a real “shot in the arm” for my confidence.
Once out of school, summer takes on a new, scary form: how do you make a living?! Most orchestras and other performance opportunities (church gigs, teaching, etc) scale back during these months, so it does take careful planning and creativity to make sure you will be OK financially. After finishing my Master’s, I worked part-time in a wine and liquor store for a summer. Not only did I learn a tremendous amount about booze (as my bar can attest), I had a wonderful distraction that kept my focus OFF of trombone for hours at a time. I desperately needed this distraction, as I was becoming obsessive to the point of damage with my practice. I also did a hefty amount of biking through Chicago, which was not only healthy for my body but for my mind as well. With a healthy distraction a few hours a day, I found my practice to be more focused, valued, and productive when I returned to it.
As some of my former students return home from college for the summer, I ask them what their goals are for the next 2-3 months. Often, they respond with a blank stare or with a vague “Well, I want to learn this concerto.” But how are you going to practice, and what tools do you want to learn to take back to school with you? I encourage them to sit down, write out a plan, and monitor their progress on a weekly basis. Students are often asked to do this at the start of a semester, why not during the summer, too?
There’s no reason you can’t enjoy your summer, and also make huge strides in the practice room. A little bit of organization in June will pay dividends come September.