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Summer Piano Lessons and Musical Progress

I used to believe that summer was a time to let go of piano lessons, to allow students a break from the tight schedule of weekly meetings during the school year. That was my perception until I slowly but surely realized how many holidays and Teacher institute breaks made September to June feel like 7 months instead of 9. (Oops, I forgot that many schools start in late August with Labor Day interrupting what might have been a jump start to serious study, musical or otherwise)

When I sat down with pad and pencil, tallying up Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King, President’s and Memorial Days, Professional Development and Parent/Teacher Conference interludes, I knew I was not dreaming up figures off the top of my head. (Did I forget Columbus Day?) If I factored in student absences for sickness and sports related events, 7 months diminished at a faster rate than “honey I shrunk the kids.”

In New York City, my home “town,” where I attended public schools in the Bronx and Manhattan, the last day of school was always June 30th or the nearest weekday if the calendar offset the number 30 with a Saturday or Sunday.

Here in Fresno, California the race to the finish line has been around the first week of June or a few days past, while neighboring Clovis boasts an extra week or two of school. That District touts an intensely academic focus.

Nevertheless, if schools are for the most part economizing on days serving students during the year, and if this has a ripple effect on attendance at piano lessons, then the summer should be considered catch up time instead of an excuse to dodge learning until LABOR day ushers in another non-laborious first semester filled with the big Holiday interruptions, Thanksgiving and Christmas beside the others enumerated.

It’s a miracle that any progress is made from September to June given this holiday burdened calendar. (not to mention the compulsive TESTING periods that seem to bring anything musical to a grinding halt)

I, for one, experience a mad rush to schedule a recital before the “breaks” occur because those are traditionally times students will not be practicing. When mid-year arrives, the Christmas musical gathering that should have taken place BEFORE the trees are decorated, has been preempted by a school district instigated three-week furlough through New Year’s Day, plus an extra 24 hours thrown in for good measure. Those “measures” are shrinking by the musical minute.

Not surprisingly, students who make the most progress take lessons during the summer. (at least for one month if not more) Parents who make it a point to inquire about the availability of lessons for July and August most often take a vital interest in piano lessons from the start and want to know how their children are faring. They are receptive to acquiring information that will help children move along in their studies so they will make progress, and better enjoy the musical journey. In the same discussion about summer musical opportunities, a teacher might suggest local music camps or programs at the nearby university or community college that might enrich piano studies.

What is truly reasonable to expect in the summer?

If a family is not off to Japan, Korea, or Austria (locales a few of my students traveled to for months at a time) why not suggest at least a month of continuous lessons–either through July or August. Don’t forget the lion’s share of June that is without school and could accommodate classes.

Better yet, taking lessons during the months of July and August would have a salutary effect on playing and would most likely be remediation for time lost during the school year.

In truth, parents wouldn’t have a second thought about having a child tutored during the summer months who needed extra help in academic areas (Math, English, foreign language) so why not apply the same to piano study?

Often students quit piano because they fall so far behind in their practicing that it’s no longer a joy to make music. The same roadblocks pop up in pieces and frustration builds. No matter what supports the teacher gives the student, these are to no avail if attendance wanes and long periods away from the instrument feed malaise and apathy.

Summer lessons can actually be an enticement to learn “new” music in the popular genre, or in a style a student particularly favors, especially if there is expanded time in the day to practice. However, regardless of musical genre, the same discipline of learning in baby steps embodied in a natural ripening process applies. There’s no escaping regular exposure to practicing with a patient, step-wise approach.

Finally, if a piano teacher is available to mentor your child during the summer, take advantage of the opportunity and give your son or daughter the gift of further lessons. If a youngster is to start lessons in the fall as a beginner and August is a free month, give him/her a head start at a time unencumbered by school, homework, and TESTING related obligations. Try your best to schedule around LABOR day which celebrates our nation’s workers of all varieties.


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Appel Farm Music Camp and the Chicken Coops

Was I dreaming? Did I wake up in a chicken coop on a hot and humid July morning? The summer before I was a Merrywood camper, encapsulated in a forest of pines bordering Lenox, Massachusetts. A short journey to Tanglewood for a Sunday morning BSO rehearsal, was followed by a breakfast of sizzling waffles and maple syrup. It was a thoroughly New England experience.

Twelve months later, I was sweating bullets in south Jersey, not too far from Philly. A town called Elmer had a rusty sign pointing to a music camp down a bumpy road.

How did my mother manage to find this place owned by Albert and Claire Appel? Was it a real farm with goats, cows, horses, hens, etc. or a dignified place to make music?

Flashback to Age 6:

Mother loaded me on a train bound for Camp Northover, located in this same God forsaken state of New Joisey. It felt like a punishment for being bad, answering back, wolfing down a dozen Dugan’s muffins on the sly before dinner. Or all of the foregoing.

Joanna, my best friend, who’d coined me “shrimpy” because she enjoyed an extra two inches of height, was my traveling companion and bunk mate-to-be. Together, we boarded a New York Central passenger train feeling like orphans, clutching our pink metal lunch boxes, packed with Super Coolers, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and two hostess cupcakes. It would be our last decent meal before treacherous Northover grub was spooned out in a musty recreation hall. I nearly gagged when something resembling vomit passed off as creamed pork rinds with mushrooms.

For three tormenting weeks, I muffled my nocturnal cries of loneliness in my pillow without a friend nearby to cushion my sorrow. Joanna was placed in another bunk, sobbing the night away, I was told. Then came an onslaught of termites that landed on my cot in a curious fall from the wood beams– followed by a full blown lice infestation that produced rows of kids, tortured with metal combs pulled through their knotted hair in front of our bunk. I was at the head of the line. More screaming, sadness, homesickness all bundled into one unique camp experience.

The total summer was well described in a particular field artillery song, verse 3, that we sang on hikes to nearby swamps where we stopped for picnic lunches.

From, “As the Caissons Go Rolling Along” by Major Edmund Grubs:

Was it high, was it low, Where the hell did that one go?
As those Caissons go rolling along!
Was it left, was it right, Now we won’t get home tonight
And those Caissons go rolling along!
Then it’s hi, hi, hee, In the field artillery
Shout out your numbers loud and strong,
Where’er you go, You will always know
That those Caissons go rolling along!

Appel Farm, 8 years later.

While the chicken coop accommodations were a close match to living in Northover’s godawful bunks, there were redeeming features of the Farm experience. First off, as introduction, I hardly recall a big display of animals on the vast spread of sparsely treed acres. Perhaps one pig, a handful of goats, a small parade of ducks, and a few strutting roosters sauntered the property. The conspicuous chicks were incubated by the “coops,” where we resided.

Faculty from Temple University’s Music Department (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) lived on the grounds, a considerable distance from the chicks, and nurtured young chamber musicians along.

Since pianists were not overflowing, I felt predictably outside the mainstream. What else was new? We piano players had to fend for ourselves and scope out our own chamber music to study. Otherwise we were doomed to be loners.

Being creative, I found the score to Mozart’s G minor piano Quintet which I learned to performance standard, and foraged around for a few campers to fill in the missing string parts. Among the players, was Toby Appel, the camp Director’s son, who eventually became an esteemed concert violist with many performance credits and recordings.

The late pianist Natalie Hinderas, an Oberlin grad, strolled by one afternoon and performed the rip roaring Chopin “Revolutionary” Etude that opened my ears to a remarkable display of shimmering sonorities interspersed with clearly defined passage work. This extraordinary musician played in the camp’s one ultra modern space, custom designed by the Appels for concert appearances of this kind. The abstract, angular structure with a touch of Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence, was an architectural departure from the chicken coop quarters and other barn-like structures on the property.

My shining light of summer was dance instructor, Audrey Bookspan.
(Our musical study was enriched with allied arts activities)

A remarkable performer, once married to the late Micky Bookspan, principal percussionist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, she nursed along campers enrolled in modern dance classes, imbuing them with the Eastern, Zen way of “being,” and a good dose of Jung’s Yin and Yang. Her movement was so impeccably fluid, that I could watch her rehearse alone in a second floor barn space for hours at a time. What an inspiration! I remember how Ravel’s string quartet in F Major wedded with Audrey’s mellifluous movements

The Bookspan name also carried an association to Martin Bookspan, the resonant radio voice of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who provided a more pleasant listening experience than Milton Cross’s squeaked out commentaries from the Metropolitan Opera each Saturday afternoon on WQXR F.M. (Texaco sponsored)

Not to forget, the many rumored love affairs that spiced up life at Appel Farm. I won’t go further, except to say, that an extremely thin, eccentric Arts and Crafts teacher who wore a goatee disappeared with an attractive faculty member, both having gone AWOL. The biggest mini-crisis of the summer, it was still no match for the day I got grounded in a chicken coop for hounding a concert violinist’s autograph during a field trip. The buses were backed up for over an hour.

The Memorable End of Camp

A concluding concert was scheduled as the culmination of our 6 weeks of music making, but an intruding epidemic of food poisoning zapped the event.

Laid up in the infirmary with the runs and high fever beside rows of cots with ailing camp mates, I fainted just as my parents arrived to pick me up.

It had to be one of my most unique summers with its stunning highs and lows, but nothing compared to “Camp Nowhere,” and “American Pie, Band Camp.”

Finally, here’s a riveting quote from the Appel Farm Alum Facebook Page that amply enriches my narrative.

“This is the group for those crazy people who made art in a fire-trap barn, made theater in a sinking building, lived in a chicken coop, and survived the vagaries of the fastest gossip chain known to man. By that, I mean those who attended Appel Farm. It takes a special kind of person to subject themselves to that, and only Farmers can truly understand it.”

By the way, if you are out there, Audrey, Warren, Gloria, and Marvin, please get in touch.