From the Archives: Summer Festival Red Flags

May 20th, 2022.

I originally published this on Facebook, in November of 2019, just in time for PASIC.  I think it's worth preserving here!

Hello, music students, music educators, and music parents,

I want to talk about summer music festivals/seminars/camps.  This is the time of year when students start preparing applications for summer festivals.  Around this time, many festivals advertise early bird tuition rates for those who are willing to register in the next few weeks.  Some places will even advertise a special discount rate for musicians attending PASIC or other conventions.

First let me say that a festival experience done right is life-changing for a young musician.  They return to their homes and school programs inspired, energized, and empowered to pursue their dreams (musical and otherwise).  They gain valuable knowledge that touches every aspect of successful and fulfilling musicianship.  They meet peers and mentors who will continue to influence their musical paths and support them as they progress in their careers.

However, a festival experience done wrong can be uncomfortable, discouraging, and even traumatizing/dangerous for a young musician  Frankly, not every festival is equal in quality, not every festival is worth your time, and with tuition costs often averaging around $1k per week, they certainly aren’t all worth your money.

For this reason, I’d like to point out a few red flags regarding events like these so that you can ensure the best possible experience for yourself, your student, or your child.  These events simply cost too much time, money, and energy for any attendee to leave one worse for wear.

Allow me to provide a brief explanation of each.

Red flag no. 1: The festival collects no detailed medical information.

This point is especially important if your student will be housed by the festival and/or if the festival is held in a location that is unfamiliar to your student.  At the very least, a festival should ask you for emergency contact info, any dietary restrictions/other allergies, and any other accommodations necessary for your student to be comfortable during their stay.  In my opinion, a festival should also collect insurance information for your student if they are a minor.

This point probably seems basic and boring to some, but it’s extremely important.  You shouldn’t pay hundreds (often thousands) of dollars just to have your student’s basic needs neglected.  I have seen serious allergies overlooked, physical disabilities unaccommodated, and mental health disregarded at festivals.  I’ve seen festivals without first aid kits and staff who were not sure if they were allowed to give students Advil even if they’d had it.  A well-run festival should at least make a vague attempt to collect this sort of information.  If it doesn’t, it isn’t well-run.

Red flag no. 2: The festival fails to provide a timely schedule/info about day to day activities

You need to know when camp activities begin and end each day.  You need to know that your child will be given the opportunity to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at reasonable times throughout the camp.  To state the obvious: you should have a general idea of where your student is and what they’re doing at any given hour during a camp.

No one is saying this can’t be a flexible schedule; a few TBDs and TBAs shouldn’t worry you too much.  That said, one camp I worked for was adamant that it would not give parents or participants even a general overview of the week's activities in advance.  It was like pulling teeth to get a schedule out to the faculty and guest artists, and the schedule changed significantly (and randomly) every single day of the camp.  Not only does this lack of organization disproportionately affect students with disabilities, but it annoys everyone, and it is 100% avoidable if the festival has any semblance of organizational skills.  Again, you are paying too much money to have the schedule “up in the air” the week before the festival, the day the seminar starts, or during the camp.  Demand more for your buck.

Red flag no. 3: The festival is slow to communicate (after collecting your money)

Again, this is basic housekeeping.  If an organization continuously fails to answer even basic questions in a timely manner during the weeks/months leading up to the event, how organized do you think they’re going to be during your student’s stay?

A lack of communication could be a symptom of many different issues: bad time management, broken or confused hierarchy within the organization, lack of preparation/knowledge, poorly trained staff… none of it bodes well for you or your student.  I’m not saying every email must be answered within 24 hours, but if you don’t have a satisfactory response within five business days, or if you have to send continual reminders to get your questions answered, something is wrong.

Red flag no. 4: The festival makes additional charges for items that could have been covered in the cost of tuition

Note: I’m not saying that all additional charges are unnecessary.  Housing costs and meal plans may not be necessary for every student, so charges like these are normal and expected.  That said, one camp I attended charged students for camp t-shirts.  This struck me as odd, considering that other camps gave out similar t-shirts to every participant "free of charge."  The same event charged its participants admission for a performance that was 1) put on by the festival itself and 2) mandatory for participants to attend.

Small expenses like these can easily be figured into the tuition you have already paid, and most festivals have already grasped that.  Beware the ones that haven’t yet.  If that seems unfair, please understand that organizations should do their homework, see what is standard for other similar camps and festivals, and provide their reasoning if they veer from the common model.  Not to mention, your child may or may not have an easy time getting their hands on more money for surprise expenses, and they may also be susceptible to spending more money on additional purchases than you’d like.

Red flag no. 5: The festival makes excuses about any of the above

Once again, you pay too much money to have your concerns excused away.  If the organization cites their newness, then maybe your student should participate in a few years when they’ve worked out all the kinks.  Maybe the organization's founders should have done their homework and studied the methods employed by longstanding, successful festivals before taking on their own.

If they cite low funds, it may be a sign that they don’t know how to allocate the tuition money they’re collecting.  Perhaps they’re allowing too many students in on scholarships, therefore relying too heavily on the few participants who actually paid a full tuition rate.  Maybe they’ve brought in more guest artists than they can afford to pay, and as a result have less money to accommodate your students.

Whatever the excuses they might make, they are still excuses, and you should not invest in an organization that offers them.

Additional questions for festivals

Additionally, here are some questions you should consider asking before writing a check for the full tuition amount:

Please do not worry about seeming over-involved or like a problem child.  You are paying good money for a positive experience, and you deserve to know without a doubt that it will be delivered.  Best case scenario: the well-meaning staff of the festival are simply inexperienced and haven’t yet encountered the full range of possible participant needs.  Worst case scenario: they aren't prioritizing your student’s comfort and safety, and they won't until/unless they realize that your tuition check depends on it.

If you run a festival yourself, please make this information plain and available so that neither students nor parents have to wonder whether they will be welcome and safe at your institution.

If you made it to the bottom of this essay, please know that I only wrote it because I care about the safety and happiness of your student.  You deserve the best for investing so much in a young musician’s career, and I just want to make sure that you get it.  I have seen what happens when these considerations are ignored.  The people who suffer are young, vulnerable musicians who often don’t recognize neglect and/or inappropriate behavior until well after the fact.  Not every negative experience in life can be prevented, but many can as long as we take care of the basics.  You deserve so much more and absolutely nothing less.