Masterclasses Without Tears

Daniel Barenboim givig masterclassCredit:

Daniel Barenboim givig masterclass

The word “masterclass” can, for some, conjure up a terrifying scenario: the “private lesson in public”, with a formidable “master” teacher and a trembling student, their every error and slip heard and duly noted by teacher and audience. I remember watching music masterclasses on the BBC in the 1970s with eminent musicians and teachers such as Daniel Barenboim and Paul Tortelier. It seemed to my junior piano student self a most nerve-wracking experience and certainly one to which I would not wish to submit.

Fast-forward forty-odd years and I’m now a mature pianist and teacher of piano. For me, the masterclass format has proved one of the most beneficial ways of learning, providing as it does not just 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.

Paul Tortelier giving masterclassCredit:

Paul Tortelier giving masterclass

Masterclasses are not just for advanced musicians/students either. The format is applicable to students of all levels and 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 musician 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.

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