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What should I look for when selecting the best vocal summer course, workshop or masterclass ?

Whether you are a singer studying music at conservatoire, are a passionate amateur, or looking to invest in a period of professional development, summer courses, workshops and masterclasses are a great way to expand your knowledge, learn new insights and meet new teachers and colleagues, often times in beautiful places that are far from the routine of your daily practicing, work or student life. The intensive nature of such courses means that often exciting shifts of awareness and improvement can happen, the collective energy helping to fast track your own development.

Therefore, making the right choice for you is really crucial, these types of courses are often expensive but are also an investment; with so many offers out there, naturally it can be difficult to know how to pick and choose what’s right for you.

Remember, you want to make sure you get what you need - not what others tell you is great! It’s easy to be seduced by what others tell you is “the best course out there”! It’s a good idea to think about what it is you want and need from a course. Are you looking to study with a specific teacher? Are you looking for primarily performance opportunities- as a soloist or part of an ensemble or both ? Do you just need some time to learn, enjoy and take it easy as a break from your hectic and stressful study/work year? Do you want something intensive where you will be pushed, or do you need something more relaxed? These are some of the things that need to be taken into consideration before you start looking. Remember that the course has to work for you and serve your needs. Of course you can listen to what others recommend, but make sure you know what you want as well.

So here are some thoughts about what to look for in a course and how to go about choosing the perfect one for YOUR needs.

1. Experienced Tutors and Teachers

It goes without saying that if you’re going to be making an investment in your music-making or art, you want to make sure that the teachers/faculty and tutors are experienced and have a good teaching reputation. Even if they come highly recommended by a colleague that you respect, I would still encourage you to do your own research, take a look at their bios and previous experience, search on Youtube for any videos, etc. Also, talk in depth with the colleague that recommended them. They might have been amazing for your colleague, but they might not be the right person for you! Ask them about their style of teaching, what their focus was, etc. Go in depth with the questions, to discover if you feel instinctively the teacher/s will be a good fit and inspire you.

Most courses with excellent teachers sell out fast, so do your searching early. Again, don’t be so seduced by big names, or the ‘latest magician in town’, sometimes big name artists (not all, of course) are less good at drawing out individual potential and less available for individual attention as other as experienced yet less well-known teachers out there.

2. Performing Opportunities as well as Teaching

A strong component of any singing course is that alongside the teaching , the course should provide various performing opportunities where students can put the learning on it’s feet , whether the culmination of the workshop is a complete staged performance, or in masterclasses, recital or concert, It’s important to know what it is that you’re really looking for. Are you an experienced performer, what sort of performance experience do you need or want to concentrate on , or even, are you happier doing the course but not have the pressure of performing ?

Take a look at the course description, and talk to friends who have done the course if you can, and see what the emphasis is - more teaching, or more performing. Will you be performing new repertoire? Or will you be honing what is already in your voice It’s also important to take into account what it is that you need, more than what you want. They are not always the same thing!

3. Individual Attention

This one can be tricky, since not all course descriptions talk about this clearly. At any rate, you should find out ahead of time, how much time will be dedicated to you personally. Whether as a solo singer or on a choral course , one to one tuition is vital, the best courses focus on as much individual attention as possible with a broad range of experience technically and interpretively and will specify how much and with whom (if there is more than one teacher or tutor). In terms of group work, how many classes, what will be their focus and are they mandatory? Remember ensemble work can be crucial to your persona performer development, so be prepared to immerse yourself in all the classes on offer, even if initially you don’t feel they’re relevant to you!

Be sure to find out how much lesson time you will actually receive on the course. If it’s not clear on the website how much time you’ll get once you’re there, send an email to the organisers or call and ask for specifics, especially in terms of making sure, all students will be given the same attention. If it’s not clear, chances are you’ll receive less attention than you imagine.

Under this heading, it’s also worth mentioning to look at the amount of free time allocated. Whilst you want to have practice time available, it’s also important to remember that time for assimilation is very necessary in order to pace yourself and be able to get the most from the course.

4. What specific classes and courses are on offer

It’s very important to look at what will be the focus of the course and what is being offered exactly: apart from the core emphasis on individual coaching and technique?

As part of the vocal workshop, will there be complimentary disciplines such as, acting classes , body and movement work , improvisation, language coaching, performance psychology, etc.

Make sure to look at what is on offer and what is important to you! If at conservatoire it may be that you need to find a course that complements and enhances your formal training . Whatever your level you want any course to help open doors to the next stage of your development. Are there elements you feel you’re missing ? If so, try find a course that can supply them.

5. What is the ethos of the course?

This is really important and not to be underestimated. You want to make sure that you will be comfortable, safe and supported and in an environment that observes professional protocol and where you can take risks and really learn and develop. This should be your chance to try things out, to experiment, to be creative and to learn. So it’s really critical to understand what the culture of the course is all about and if it fits what you’re looking for.

There are courses that are known to be very competitive while others are more laid back. There are courses where there is an effort to make sure all participants are treating equally, while in others, there is a clear distinction among levels and treatment (depending on the personality of the faculty and teachers). Do your homework here and try to reach out to people who have been on that particular course.

Also, check out the website. See who is running the course. Look at the language that is being used and the photos that are presented. That can also give you a feeling of what the course culture is all about.

6. Location, Accommodation and Board

Many courses are offered in beautiful surroundings and locations which is usually a plus and is often an attraction. However, don’t pick the course on location alone (unless you are looking for something very laid back and relaxed where you’ll have a lot of off-time!).

Check out how easy it is to get to the course. It may turn out that getting to the location could be more expensive than the course itself!

Make sure there are practice facilities, if you’ll need to practice, and that the course allows for practice time. See if there are enough (good) pianos and/or practice rooms for everyone.

If it’s a course in the mountains, be aware that the weather could be very cold and dreary, even if it’s summer! If it’s a course in the city, and housing is not offered, make sure you can get decent accommodation that won’t break the bank! If the location is in a city that tends to get very hot (make sure to check the summer weather conditions) then see if there is air conditioning provided.

If accommodation is offered in the package, check it out to make sure you will be comfortable. Will you have to share a room, or can you opt for a single. Is it far from your classes? Can you walk easily? Or is there public transport? If accommodation is not offered, what are the options?

If food is included, and you have dietary requirements, see how flexible the kitchen is and if there are other options close by. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in some course, in the middle of nowhere, with awful cafeteria food and nowhere to go for a decent meal!

If you're travelling to a different country, also make sure you don't need a special visa! And don't forget to double check that your passport is valid at the time of the course! If you are unsure about visas, ask the course organizers or check on the specific country's consular website.

This is all obvious stuff, but it’s important to keep it all in mind when you look at value for money. Which takes us to the final point.

7. Assess the value for money

After taking all these things in consideration, you have to look at whether or not the course is worth it financially. Make sure to look at all the costs, including the real extra costs (i.e. which could be, travel to and from location, accommodation, food, etc.) as well as the potential opportunity costs - is the course during a certain time period where I could be getting work, teaching, or doing something else that is important to me.

It’s important to figure out what is important to YOU, and want you want to get out of the course. Only then can you truly decide if it’s the right investment.

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