What it is and isn’t and how to get the most out of it

by JT aka John Thompson

JT image by Midori Bonsai

A workshop is a great vehicle to advance one’s bonsai skills.  Unfortunately, many people are confused about what a workshop really is and what it is not.  They’re not sure what to expect from a workshop nor are they aware of what they can personally do to get the most out of it. In this article, I hope to give you a little clearer idea of the workshop process and courtesies as well as make some suggestions as to how to maximize your experience before, during and after the workshop itself.

Workshop vs. the Seminar or Demo

A workshop is a group of people who get together to do an activity under some type of supervision.  The activity in this case is bonsai.  It is meant to be a hands-on activity. A workshop is not the same type of activity as a seminar or demo.  In a seminar or a demo, the instructor is the active participant.  He works on a tree or discusses a bonsai related subject while the students observe or sometimes ask questions.  In the workshop it is the student who is the active participant, but with the advantage that he has guidance from an instructor. Success in a workshop will depend on a number of elements working in concert with each other.  The motivated student and teacher are obvious components.  Add to this good material and the necessary tools and you have the ingredients for a productive workshop.

Theme and open workshops

One type of workshop is a theme workshop.  Here, everyone works on the same type of material or learns a specific skill.  Transplanting, wiring, azaleas, Japanese pines or bonsai display may each be the subject matter of a themed workshop.  The teacher may provide the material.  Or it may be the responsibility of the participant to provide the material.  Many conventions feature this type of workshop.

Another type of workshop is the open forum. Participants usually bring their own material to this type of workshop.   Usually, any kind of materiel or bonsai related activity is OK at the open forum.  Students bring the material that they are most interested in rather than everyone bringing in, say, oak trees.  Most club workshops are like this.

Teachers are all different.

The teacher brings his expertise to the workshop.  He will work from the knowledge base that he has gained from whatever formal training he has had.  He will share his experience from years of working on trees.  He will have developed his own teaching philosophy.  He will also differ from another instructor not only in his approach to teaching but also in his skill level. A teacher may begin by introducing himself, then outline the objectives of the workshop, explaining how the workshop will run in the time allotted. If the material is provided, he will explain how it is to be distributed i.e. who gets what. If there is instruction, he may give it formally to the entire workshop or extemporaneously as he goes from tree to tree in the group.  He may distribute handouts pertaining to the subject at hand.  He may make an overview of all the material before beginning with individuals and their trees. Another teacher may begin by just sitting down, looking at a tree, making suggestions and moving on to the next person and tree.  He may make remarks about the tree at hand that will apply to everyone else’s trees as well. Still another instructor may believe that a student learns best by observing the master.  He will design, cut, wire and set the branches.  The student is there to watch.  There may be very little verbal communication with the student. A few teachers want it done their way only.  Others are open to suggestions and will solicit your thoughts or at least tolerate your interpretation.

The teacher can give you possible solutions to problems you may encounter.  He can advise you on what you can or maybe shouldn’t do.  He can give you options that you may not have considered.  He will usually assign you tasks to do on the trees.  He may quickly show you how to do something or he can actually cut back, wire and do the work himself. In the course of the workshop, the instructor may perform many or all of these operations.  This will partly depend upon on the skill level, willingness and experience of each individual student.  Many instructors can target their advice to the skill level of the participating student if they have communicated properly with them. Try to go with the flow of the teacher while you are in the workshop.  Learn to listen and watch for pearls of wisdom. They can come at any time and from any teacher, no matter what his teaching style.

Time is limited

The instructor must move quickly from student to student.  If he has 12 students and spends only five minutes with each student he can make only one circuit in an hour, or three times in a typical 3-hour workshop.  So it is important that the student and teacher interact as efficiently as possible during their narrow window of contact and get something done.

Student Expectations

What kind of expectations should you have for the workshop? Expect to make progress on your tree. But don’t expect to plan, style, repot and complete your tree all in one, three-hour workshop. It is rare when you can go from raw material to bonsai pot all in one session.  If you try to do too much radical work too fast you can many times damage or even kill a tree. You can learn many skills and gather a lot of useful information during the course of a workshop if you keep your eyes and ears open, take notes and physically practice the skills you are shown.   If you work at it, you can incorporate these skills into your own toolbox and make them your own. When you make progress with one of your trees, it gives you a tremendous sense of accomplishment.  It will stoke you up to complete the tree after the workshop and start work on your other trees.  It’s worth everything you put into it, and more.

Student responsibilities

What, then, are your responsibilities? The more you bring to a workshop, the better your results.  Quality material, appropriate tools, basic knowledge, an open mind and especially a positive attitude will help make it successful for you. Commit yourself to conquering your fears of cutting and wiring or transplanting and just do it.  The instructor will usually be happy to show you new techniques and help you along if you are enthusiastic and actually try to do the work. If you are not willing to do the work, maybe you should reconsider signing up for that workshop. Stretch yourself.  Open your mind and do it.  You really will get better at this.

Ten steps you can take to make the workshop more productive for you

  1. Educate yourself.   Take a beginner class at your club prior to the workshop.  Familiarize yourself at least with the basic operations and terminology of Bonsai so you won’t become confused and discouraged.  If you have no idea why you should have a pair of wire cutters in your toolbox, an advanced wiring workshop is going to be tough.   Read articles in magazines and books and really study good bonsai at shows.  Pore over photos in the show books in your club library. If you are relatively new at bonsai this is one of the quickest ways to familiarize yourself with the characteristics of good bonsai.  Concentrate on the characteristics of the best trees and don’t get trapped into learning how to duplicate ‘blah’ trees.
  2. Make a workshop checklist.  Prepare for the workshop.  Have the tools you will need cleaned and sharpened.  Have soil, wire, pots, raffia and whatever else you will need ready for the workshop.  Don’t assume that someone else will bring the things you need and will be willing to share.  Be self-reliant.
  3. Select your material.  If you are bringing your own tree, bring the best material you can.  A one-year old seedling in a two-inch liner may be a great tree someday, but is it substantial enough to work on in a three-hour workshop? Evaluate the potential of the material.  Look at it from all angles.  Is it worth your time to work on this?   If not, select another tree.  The better the material the more you will get out of the workshop. Try to bring several trees. Although it is likely that you will only be working on one tree, sometimes that tree is not ready to work on or may need only a cut or two to complete this stage of its development.  This does not mean that you should bring a lot of trees, get the instructors ideas, and go on to another tree without completing the work on that tree.  This ‘high-grading’ is unfair to the rest of the workshop participants and doesn’t allow you to learn through doing.
  4. Clean it up.  I have seen students spend their entire workshop cleaning up a tree.  Solution: clean it up before the workshop.  Get the weeds out and clean out the dead twigs and foliage from the inside.  Dig away at the soil around the base until you are sure where the roots come off of the trunk.  Cut down the sides of a nursery container so you can see the whole tree.   Check to see that you don’t have insects or disease in the tree.  Make sure the tree is secure in the container and doesn’t wobble. This pre workshop activity accomplishes several things.  First, you’ll save time in the workshop that is better spent designing your tree.  Second, by touching and seeing your tree, you will learn more about your tree’s individual characteristics.  And third, with this knowledge, you will have a better idea of the style the tree suggests and be that much farther ahead in the process of the workshop. Since you have just taken the time to clean up the tree and observe it from all angles, think about how you might style it.  I have had numerous students that have just picked the tree off of the bench and haven’t even looked at it before the workshop.  Look at your tree and think about it. Keep in mind that the instructor can give you the initial impetus in the styling of the tree but he isn’t going to be taking it home and he doesn’t have to live with it after the workshop.  It is your interaction with the tree that will develop it into a fine bonsai, or not. You are now physically and mentally ready for the workshop.  This is going to be exciting so let’s get to it.
  5. The workshop.  Get there a little early and set up if you can.  Being late or scrambling at the last minute can throw you off your best game (just like in golf). Have paper and pencil ready to take notes, sketch a design, make observations about your tree or take down the assigned tasks from the instructor. When the instructor comes around, tell him who you are.  Give him the history of the tree i.e. when you got it, who had it before, what you’ve done with it so far, etc.   Tell the instructor what you see in the tree and let him know whether you will do the work there, or take it back and work on it at home.  If you don’t do the work there, don’t be surprised if he gives you an abbreviated assessment and goes on to the next person.  It is critical to the flow of the workshop that those people who are going to actually do the work at the workshop, get going as soon as possible.  They need to accomplish as much as possible in the short time allowed for the workshop.
  6. Don’t assume.  Communicate.  Don’t assume that the instructor won’t do some cutting or wiring on you tree.    It’s your responsibility to tell him if you don’t want him to prune or otherwise handle your tree. Let him know that you will do all the hands-on work yourself. Otherwise, in the interest of time, he may make cuts you don’t want.   It makes his job a lot easier to know what you will or won’t do.   This is also your time and your best opportunity to ask specific questions of the instructor.  Don’t forget to ask about after-care for the tree once you have finished the workshop.
  7. Do the work.  Once the teacher has gone on to the next person and tree, it is your responsibility to perform the tasks you have been assigned by the instructor.  You can listen to the discussion of the next tree but it is expected that you work on your tree so that the next time the instructor comes by, you can take the tree to the next step in the styling process.
  8. Be courteous.  When the instructor is talking, please keep other conversations down or take them outside the workshop.  That way everyone can hear and learn while they work on their trees. If you are a silent observer, you are there to observe.  Take notes and get as much information as you can but unless OK’d by the instructor, it should only be the workshop participant and the instructor who do the talking.
  9. After the Workshop.  Clean up your area, pack up your things but continue to listen or ask other questions that you couldn’t get in before.   Often I have gotten the best tips just after the workshop.  The subject or opportunity never came up during the workshop.  I’ve found that volunteering to help set up and take down the tables and chairs put me in the right position to pick up these little gems.  Be sure to jot down what you have learned or you will loose it.
  10. Take Photos – Keep Records.  I can’t tell you how many times I wish that I had taken photos of my trees before I started working on them.  With the advent of digital photography it has become easy to chronicle the life of your trees in pictures.  Make it a practice to photograph your tree in its initial state.  Then, after you have cleaned it up (as in #4 above) and before the workshop, take photos from different sides and angles of the tree.  Put an ID number on a plastic tag in the photo so you can keep the tree straight in your records later.  During the workshop, photograph the tree when significant work has been done and again at the end of the workshop.  Ask the instructor to get into this last photo.  Ten years from now you will thank me when you have forgotten exactly who helped you with this tree and what it looked like when you started.  Continue the photos after the workshop as you refine the tree. If you have a digital camera, you can create a slide show of the tree on your computer to show you its progress over its life.  Keep your workshop notes about the tree and continue to chronicle the life of the tree and keep it with the photos. This can be a lot of fun and will keep you excited about the tree and motivated to make it better and better. If you are pleased with the progress and direction that your workshop tree is taking, and the instructor is available to you, I would suggest that you not take it to another instructor.  We all see trees a little differently and the next teacher may have you cutting off the branch that this teacher thought was essential.  Keep doing it and you just may whittle your tree down to nothing.

Lastly, if you eventually want to study with one teacher, be aware of the content as well as the different styles of teaching that each instructor employs and choose the teacher who can best work for and with you. I hope that by following the spirit of these guidelines you will benefit by getting more done, with the added bonus of pumping up your enthusiasm for your next workshop.  Remember that workshops are opportunities.  Make the most of them.


You can visit John Thompson's website click here