Masterclass teaching can be a terrific way to recruit new students and build your reputation. But only if it’s done well. So how do you deliver effective and memorable masterclasses that truly resonate with student performers and audiences? To demystify all this, here are my 7 Secrets Revealed: How to Teach a Masterclass for Musicians.
With these strategies, you can become more confident in your teaching and get better results. That way, you can attract more guest teaching invitations and recruit more of your ideal students.
See what resonates with you here. Try on these new strategies to make your next masterclass a winner.
To start, let’s cover the basics . . .
What IS a masterclass?
It’s a platform for providing focused instruction within a group setting. In a sense, it’s a three-way interaction involving the “master” teacher, the student(s) who are on the “hot seat,” and the audience.
So a masterclass is not simply a private lesson with passive observers. Because everyone, the students who perform, the audience, and the teacher (YOU) should walk away energized with new perspectives and insights. The best teaching happens when you, your students, and your audience are ALL in discovery mode.
Masterclass audiences typically include other music students, faculty, professional and/or amateur musicians, colleagues, and school administrators. And the more everyone feels included, the better.
What are masterclasses FOR?
With such a diverse audience, let’s take a moment to consider what these different constituents want. This will help you think through how to provide a more satisfying learning experience for all.
Consider first the students who perform in your masterclasses. For them, it’s an opportunity to gain fresh perspective, input, and inspiration from an expert—YOU. This can be a much-needed dose of encouragement and validation for these students.
For you, the masterclass teacher, it’s an opportunity to expand your skills by trying on new approaches or teaching repertoire that’s new to you. And after the class, you can often get feedback and testimonials on your teaching to help you recruit more students and further develop your skills.
For the music students who observe the class, it’s an opportunity to be inspired by new ideas they can later on try out in the practice room. And for other music teachers, a masterclass can offer them alternative approaches to add to their teaching toolkits.
As for the non-musicians in the room, a masterclass can feel like an exclusive “behind the scenes” glimpse into how excellent performances are developed. And if the masterclass teacher helps the audience feel included in the creative process, that’s even better.
Finally, for school administrators who are vetting candidates for a teaching position, the masterclass is essential to seeing a short-listed candidate in action. This is crucial to deciding which of the finalists will be hired.
Now that you know what people want out of the masterclass experience, here’s how you can help them get more of it . . .
Secrets Revealed: The Art of the Masterclass
Secret #1: Set the Stage
Most likely, you’ll be introduced by your host. In advance of the class, provide that person with an edited 3-sentence version of your Bio to use when introducing you. This makes it easier for them and allows you some control over how you are perceived.
Note: your intro Bio should NOT be a boring list of your accomplishments and credits. Instead, tailor it appropriately for your prospective audience. Include specifically WHY you love to teach, your top 2 or 3 most relevant performance credits, and where you’ve taught.
The final line of your Bio script (to be read aloud by your host) should be, “Please join me in welcoming . . . [Your Name]” (and the host should then lead the applause). Note: If your name is often mispronounced, include a foolproof pronunciation guide (or phonetic spelling) at the start of your Bio, as in Dave Ruch (rhymes with “Duck.”)
There is one exception to this. The one situation where I would NOT give your host your Bio script to read is when the masterclass is part of a job interview. In that case, how you’ll be introduced should be left to the discretion of your host.
In the masterclass, after you’re introduced, thank the individuals and the organization who invited you. Say that you’re glad to be there with everyone and that you’re looking forward to hearing the musicians and engaging with the audience. Be gracious and enthusiastic.
Secret #2: Create the Learning Environment
Your job is to cultivate a relaxed and energized atmosphere for exploring possibilities, a learning environment where participants feel free to try out new approaches, play with new ideas, and experiment with making technical adjustments.
This starts by knowing (and using repeatedly) the first names of the students you teach or coach. Smile and shake hands with each performer and address each person by name before they start playing. This includes the collaborative pianist (if an accompanist is participating). Make sure you can pronounce their names correctly.
Using peoples’ names will help everyone—including you—feel more relaxed and at home. And shaking hands, along with making good eye contact, will help you establish rapport.
Write the names of students down if you need to in a small paper notebook—you might want to have one with you for taking notes. Do NOT use your phone for taking notes as it could look as though you’re checking messages—and that will only encourage others to check theirs.
If the masterclass is part of a job interview process, I’d go further and say to each student before they perform (with the audience as witness) something like, “Just so you know, I’m the one here on the hot seat, not you. And I really appreciate the opportunity to hear you and then for us to do a little experimenting together, if you’re willing!” Get their consent before going further and thank them publicly.
It’s important to make and keep the learning environment safe and respectful. So if, in the course of teaching a student, you need to touch a student to help correct posture or position, make it a point to ask if they are OK with this first.
Secret #3: Choose Your Focus
If possible, listen and watch the student perform the complete movement or aria. But all too often time is short, so at least listen to the full exposition section (or its equivalent) before interrupting.
As you listen and observe the performer, make sure you take in the whole person. You want to “read them well” so that when you offer feedback you can pitch it in such a way that the student can receive it.
Get a sense of their intent, their state of mind, and their energy. Notice their posture, where they hold tension, which aspects of their playing they seemed most attuned to, what passages seem easy, and where they might be struggling.
Pay attention to both what’s working well and what could be improved. It’s good to have the score with you, so you can mark a few possible places to go over with the student. But in the end, you’ll need to select just a few key issues to focus on: no more than 2 or 3. Don’t overwhelm students with too much input. It’s better to spend time on just two or three points and make a deeper impact.
Secret #4: Respond First with the Positive
After the musician performs, tell them (and the audience) what you specifically appreciated in their performance. State what you see as their strengths. Be detailed and genuine: don’t phone this in.
Students can easily tell the difference between when we’re being open and candid, and when we’re either going through the motions or stretching to find anything positive to say.
Detailing the positive is important to do because most musicians have no real sense of their strengths and are often unable to take in positive feedback. Make clear to the musician what she already has going for her and explain that your intent is to help her build on this.
Every student you work with needs to know—and feel—that you believe in them and see them as capable and whole.
Secret #5: Make Strategic Interventions
As you observe the student’s performance, you’ll notice a number of concrete things you could work on (sound color, articulation, pulse, intonation, vibrato, dynamics, phrase shaping, etc.)
Be careful not to pick on an issue that requires the wholesale overhauling of the student’s technique. You most likely have just 30 minutes with each student, so choose carefully.
Whatever you decide to focus on, be clear about the concrete change you’re asking the musician to make. It should be something specific so that she can hear and feel the difference.
Depending on the age and sophistication of the musician, you may want to (after they play and you talk about their strengths), ask what one thing they would most like to change in their performance. Doing this will give you a sense of the musician’s self-awareness and allow you to deliver help where it’s most wanted.
Whatever change you ask the musician to make, give them a real chance to try it out. Performers almost always do better the second time around, so give them more than one shot to try something new if needed. Have them try it out in a phrase or two so they have a chance to synthesize the change they’ve made.
Once you see and hear the student successfully make the requested change, ask if she can hear the difference, how it feels, and what she thinks of it. Then ask your audience if they like the “new” version they heard. This is great confirmation and validation for the student and helps everyone feel more included.
The Economy of Interventions
Of the issues you might address, select the 2 or 3 that you believe will have the greatest impact on the student’s performance. Don’t choose only technical, or only interpretive, or conceptual issues—you want to address multiple aspects of the student’s playing.
The real secret lies in the economy of your interventions. The idea is to ask the student to make a change that will have a ripple effect, freeing up a number of aspects in their performance.
You’ve probably witnessed this in the best masterclasses. It can seem as though the teacher has discovered the key that unlocks the musician so she can perform at a whole new level. Even a seemingly minor intervention may open the door to a whole new level of music-making.
*Finding the Magic*
How does a teacher know where and how to make such miraculous interventions? Where does that masterclass “magic” come from?
This requires being a bit of a detective. As you observe the student’s performance, it’s about identifying what to focus on that might best help liberate the student’s playing. The truth is it’s a mix of intuition, luck, teaching experience, and “people reading” skills.
Here’s what I mean. Many years ago I played in a masterclass that Bonnie Hampton taught. After hearing me, she suggested that I try treating the bow contact on the string as though I were scooping ice cream. It was a funny image and a metaphor I’d never heard used this way.
I tried it and the sound I produced seemed immediately more layered. The bow felt different in my hand as did the contact with the string. More pliable and nuanced. It was clear that Bonnie and the audience heard a big difference, too.
For any student who might seem prone to overthinking, a disarming metaphor can help them get out of their own way—bypassing any overthinking. This deceptively simple metaphor opened up a whole new realm of sound possibilities for me and decades later this still stands out as an example of masterful teaching.
Did Bonnie know that this metaphor would work for me? No. In fact, she first asked me to think of how a toothbrush in my hand feels. That didn’t do anything for the sound. Then she tried ice cream.
As teachers, we need to be willing to experiment in order to add to our toolkit of teaching strategies. In masterclasses, we need to be like Bonnie and think on our feet, using our intuition and curiosity about the students we teach and how best to reach them.
As an undergrad, I played in a string quartet in a class for violist Eugene Lehner, a legendary chamber music coach. After hearing us play, before focusing on any technical issues, he first spent a few minutes describing a scene for us. It was of a fashionable Viennese café at the turn of the century (when the work we were playing was composed). He used words to help us see, hear, smell, and even taste a place and time none of us knew.
Lehner then asked us to play the opening of the movement again. The difference was astounding. By prompting us to conjure our own virtual realities of the café scene, this master teacher helped us connect to the playful wit and dance that the composer intended. It brought the performance to life.
In your own teaching, aim to do what Eugene Lehner did. Engage the imaginations of your students and audience, leaving them room to conjure their own versions of a scene and discover their own potential.
Secret #6: Include Your Audience
Teaching a masterclass is a kind of performance, so project your voice, make eye contact with people in the audience, and draw them into the process.
Ask the audience to signal if they like the student’s “new” version of a phrase or section. And allow for time at the end of the class for Q&A—let the audience know early on that there will be some time for questions so they can be thinking of them.
But perhaps the most important way to include your audience is to make sure you deliver value in your teaching. The content of your masterclass teaching needs to go beyond the mechanics of the music-making. So do not simply offer interventions consisting of “try phrasing it like this, or move your elbow like that, or use this fingering.”
Your students and your audience deserve more
So, make sure at some point, over the course of the masterclass that you also address the overarching challenge for any musician: how to find their own voice and fully express the composer’s vision through their own lens.
As Paul Harris writes in What Makes a Good Masterclass “I want a ‘master’ to challenge my thinking . . . Some of the very best masterclasses I’ve encountered have been given by musicians who have profoundly questioned the nature of music and the nature of learning. Where the masterclass itself was much more about asking questions than providing answers.”
Ideally, you want to strike a balance between addressing how to improve the student’s immediate performance, and on addressing the long-term pursuit of inspired music-making. Give the performer and your audience ideas and questions that expand their sense of possibilities and that help ignite further learning.
This balance is easier to calibrate if your overall aim is to make an impact that lasts longer than that day or week. For me, the overall goal of a masterclass is to help deepen everyone’s awareness of their own creative process and to cultivate curiosity and lifelong learning.
In the end, a great masterclass holds our attention because it at times surprises, delights, or challenges us in unexpected ways. Just like any great performance, a great masterclass should provoke reflection and discovery.
Secret #7: Remember the Law of 80%
In this 2 minute video, Eric Booth, the author of “The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible,” describes how 80% of what you teach is WHO YOU ARE. Meaning, the real impact you make comes from who you are as a person: it’s about how you interact and respond to the students and to your audience.
Yes, the content you deliver is important (that’s the 20%). But the lion’s share of the impact you make is YOU: your energy, humanity, and the connection you make with students.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
― Maya Angelou
In this video, Eric is addressing teaching artist skills in the context of working in grade schools but his concept is absolutely applicable for masterclass teaching at every age and level.
In teaching masterclasses, keep in mind you’re dealing with more than the content of repertoire and technique. You’re also dealing with students’ emotions, ambitions, and self-esteem. In the end, you’re teaching much more than music: you’re also modeling for students a way to be in the world.
In the “story” of your masterclass, you are NOT the hero—the student is. You are the mentor.
This requires leaving your own ego out of the equation. Even when you are giving a masterclass as part of a job interview, teaching is NOT about proving yourself or being acknowledged as an “expert.”
So, think about what version of “YOU” you want to bring to your next masterclass.
In my own work as a coach and teacher, I want to be fully present, curious, open, and caring.
What is it YOU want? Think about it and write your teaching values down. And then put those values into action using these 7 secrets to make your next masterclass a terrific experience for all.
For more masterclass insights see: Masterclass Manifesto: Do’s and Don’ts plus HGTV to improve your teaching now.
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Cheering you on,
Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well
PS: If you’re a musician pursuing a college teaching job, and want help upgrading your job application materials, check out my signature program Land the Job.