The pros of taking part in a masterclass
The word ‘masterclass’ can, for some, conjure up a terrifying scenario: the ‘private lesson in public’, with a formidable ‘master’ teacher and a student quaking at the keyboard, their every error and slip heard and duly noted by teacher and audience. There was a music masterclasses on the BBC in the 1970s with eminent musicians and teachers such as Daniel Barenboim and Paul Tortelier. It seemed a most nerve-wracking experience and certainly one to which We would not wish to submit.
Fast-forward 40-odd years the masterclass format has proved one of the most beneficial ways of learning, providing as it does not just an opportunity for a lesson with a fine teacher but also a forum for critique by others, and the exchange of ideas and discussion about aspects such as technique, interpretation, presentation and performance practice. It is this element of interaction with other pianists and active participants/listeners that makes the masterclass scenario quite different from the private lesson.
For students in conservatoire and specialist music schools, the masterclass is an everyday form of learning, and for the teacher it is a way of sharing and passing on information to a group. A skilled teacher will ensure that all the participants in the class feel included, not just when they play but also when others play, stimulating comments and discussion on what they have heard. A sympathetic teacher will also make sure criticism is delivered in the kindest and most constructive way, so that participants feel supported and encouraged. Anyone who has attended a piano course at places like Chetham’s, the Summer School for Pianists or La Balie in France will be familiar with the format, though some teachers prefer to call such sessions ‘workshops’ which sounds less daunting!
Masterclasses are not just for advanced pianists/music students either. The format is applicable to students of all levels: early students and even children can benefit from observing a teacher working with another student on advanced repertoire, and vice versa. Seemingly complex aspects of technique can usually be reframed to suit early/intermediate students, and sometimes working on quite simple repertoire within a group can shed a new light on more complex music. It is also useful training for concert/competition performance and can be a huge help in learning how to manage anxiety.
Watching a masterclass is a window onto how hard the pianist works and offers an insight into the practice of practising and teaching. Sometimes only fragments of a piece are worked over with the teacher, repeated and recast until a new, different or more expressive interpretation begins to emerge. Observing this process can be exciting and enlightening, and for the masterclass participant the instant feedback one receives from the teacher and other participants can be highly rewarding, often producing interesting and unexpected breakthroughs.