As a long-time private lessons teacher and first-time Mastery teacher, I’ve been amazed at how unique the Mastery program is. During the year, I’ve watched every fiddler in the course make steady progress, get more comfortable on their instrument, and gain confidence performing. This week, we watched the final Mastery performances for each class. It left me thinking about what makes Mastery such a unique resource because, as a music educator, I’ve never seen students evolve in quite the same way as our Mastery students did this year. Here are some of my thoughts on what makes Mastery stand out:

It’s community-based

Mastery classes are groups of ten or fewer fiddlers who study together for one year. I love this format for learning fiddle because this art form in inherently community-based. Fiddling began as a way for people to gather together, whether it was at dances, contests, pubs, or even in the family living room. When you’re learning on your own or even taking private lessons, it’s easy to let yourself become isolated, and there’s no surer way to slow your progress. 

Our compulsion is often to stay alone in our practice rooms, working until we’re “good enough” to take our music out into the world and play with others. But that doesn’t work. The social side of music is what keeps most people playing for a lifetime, and when that component is missing, people consistently struggle with motivation and self-doubt. I’ve seen it happen many times with folks who take private lessons but don’t make any other connections to a musical community. 

To the contrary, I watched the fiddlers in Mastery build deep musical bonds throughout the year. They encouraged and motivated each other, met on their own time to play music, and flourished as they progressed together. For each mastery student, fiddling was not only a personal journey; it was a community that brought them together with other musicians from all over the world.

It’s structured

When you work through Fiddle School on your own, it can be difficult to set goals and stick to them. Even when you work with a teacher who helps you set goals, it’s up to you and only you to achieve them. I love that Mastery pushes every student to achieve regular goals and keep moving forward when they might otherwise get bogged down in perfectionism. 

When folks learn in a group, achieving monthly goals becomes a lot easier. It also means that your progress is not at all dependent on your inspiration or organizational skills. We tell you exactly what to work on and when you’ll be performing it, and with just those two tools, it’s amazing what people get done. 

I’ve heard from some Fiddle School members that it’s difficult for them to make steady progress because they struggle to stay focused on one lesson. In Mastery, our students work through one sequential lesson each month and that struggle to focus has not once been an issue. Mastery cuts the fat and lays out a clear path from the beginning to the end of the year, and students make more progress with that kind of structure than I’ve seen in any other setting. 

It’s built on regular performances

The community and the structure alone make Mastery a uniquely effective program, but the performances complete the trifecta. At every Mastery class, students perform a tune from the most recent lesson. The course also features video showcases, coffee houses, jam sessions, and a final live performance. The class performances are a way for us teachers to offer constructive feedback as folks learn new tunes and technique, but even more than that, each performance that a student gives boosts their confidence levels and pushes them to learn the material diligently. If you haven’t done a lot of performing, the warm and supportive Mastery community is the best place to practice your performance skills.

The other important piece about the performances is that they force each person to get out of the perpetual practice cycle that it’s so easy to fall into. You’re not meant to practice forever. You’re meant to learn skills and put them to use in performances, jam sessions, contests, or whatever else you may want to do with your fiddle. Practicing can be a little too comfortable, and when you don’t have regular goals to practice for, progress quickly stalls. I don’t see big improvement in students who are practicing just for the sake of it. Where I do see drastic progress is in students who are preparing for some sort of performance. Mastery offers the opportunity to make that kind of progress each month in a supportive, low-stress setting. After a year, the accumulation of those monthly leaps forward had made each Mastery student sound like a different musician. 

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What have I learned from teaching Mastery? I’ve seen just how much of a difference it makes for fiddlers to have a consistent combination of community, structure, and performance opportunities. I can’t wait to spend another year watching our Mastery fiddlers progress and evolve.

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