The Art of the Master Class

Want the secrets to teaching great master classes? Here are 7 tips to enhance your master class teaching. See what resonates with you, and if you have more ideas to recommend, please send them in — I love to learn and share what’s working for others!

1. Set the right tone

You should be introduced by your host. Provide him or her in advance with a 3 sentence version of your bio. This makes it easier on everyone and allows you some control over how you are perceived. [Note: the 3 sentences should NOT be a boring list of your accomplishments. Instead, highlight what’s memorable about both you and your mission as an artist educator. Make it appropriate for your prospective audience.]

Start the master class by thanking people and the organization for inviting you. Say that you’re glad to be with them and that you’re looking forward to hearing the musicians and engaging with the audience. Be gracious and enthusiastic.

2. Make it Personal

In a master class or clinic situation, make sure you know (and use repeatedly) the first names of the musicians you teach or coach. Smile, shake hands, and address each artist by name before they start playing. This includes the pianist (if an accompanist is participating). This helps everyone — including you — feel more relaxed and at home. Physical contact along with good eye contact help establish rapport.

Keep in mind that the student performers are most likely nervous and feeling anxious to prove themselves. You need to set up a safe learning environment, a relaxed atmosphere where the musicians feel free to try out new approaches, ideas, or minor technical adjustments.

If the master class is part of a job interview process, I’d go further and say to each student who’ is about to play (and your audience) something like, “Just so you know, I’m the one on the hot seat here, not you. And I really appreciate the opportunity to hear you and then for us do a little experimenting together, if you’re willing!” Get their consent before going further and thank them publicly.

3. Adjust Your Mindset

You’re not just teaching a lesson with others in the room. You want to address and engage the audience: there should be something in it for them as well.

Teaching a master class is a kind of performance, so you’ll need to project your voice to the last row, make eye contact with people in the audience, and ask questions and get feedback from them. You can also walk around the room to listen from different vantage points and check in with the audience. Draw them into the process.

To make sure you deliver value to both the performer and the audience, the content of your master class needs to go beyond “try phrasing it like this, move your elbow like that, or use this fingering.”

As Paul Harris writes in an excellent piece for the Musicians’ Union, “I want a ‘master’ to challenge my thinking; to take my imagination to places I may not have been to before . . . 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.”

This is great but please don’t take this as a license to turn the master class into a lecture on your philosophy of music. Find a balance between on the one hand, the focus on the immediate needs of the performance, and on the other, the broader perspective and motivation behind inspired music-making. Give the performers and the audience ideas and questions that stretch their imaginations and that help fuel further learning.

This is easier to calibrate if your overall aim is to make an impact that lasts longer than that day or week. The goal of a master class (at least to my thinking) is to help deepen everyone’s awareness of their own process and to cultivate their curiosity and motivation for learning.

4. Assess

If time allows, have the student play the whole aria or movement before commenting. But if time is short, listen to a substantial chunk (at least the exposition) before interrupting.

As you observe, make sure you take in the whole person — that you get a sense of their intent, their state of mind, and their energy. 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.

Pay attention to both what’s working well and what could be improved on. Of the latter, you’ll need to diagnose and select just a few key issues to focus on: no more than 2 or 3.

5. Start with the positive 

Tell the musician specifically what you appreciated in their performance: what you see as their strengths. Be detailed and honest: don’t phone this in. They can easily tell the difference.

This is important to do because most young musicians have no real sense of their strengths and are unable to take in positive feedback. Make it clear what the musician has going for herself already and explain that your intent is to help her build on this.

6. Make Strategic Interventions

As you observe the student’s performance you’ll notice a number of concrete things you could work on. The trick lies in selecting what to focus on and how. It calls for a mix of intuition, teaching experience, and “people reading” skills.

Depending on the age and sophistication of the student musician, you may want to start by asking her what one thing she would like to change most in her performance. doing this will give you a sense of her self-awareness and allow you to deliver help where it’s most wanted.

Be clear about the change you’re asking the musician to try. It should be something specific so that she can hear and feel the difference. Whatever you start with, choose an intervention that you think will give the musician a clear “win.” One that will have a demonstrable impact. Performers almost always do better the second time around, so give them multiple chances to try things out.

The best case scenario is to have the intervention help free up a number of aspects in the performance. Even small interventions can lead to cascading positive effects.

Once you hear the student successfully make the requested change, ask if she can hear the difference and how it feels. Ask what she thinks of it. And then ask your audience for their response, too.

Depending on the time you have, you might cover 2 or 3 specific issues. Don’t choose only technical or only interpretive issues — you want to address multiple dimensions of the performance.

Work on items one at a time and keep a eye on the clock so that each performer gets enough attention. At the end of working with the student, summarize for them in a single sentence the “take aways” you worked on. A concise recap will help them hold on to their learning. Thank the musician for her performance and good work and lead the audience in applauding.

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 you teach: it’s how you interact and respond.

The content you deliver is important (that’s the 20%), but it isn’t the lion’s share of the impact you make.

Good teaching is about inspiring change, motivation, and lifelong learning. That means leaving your ego out of the equation. Teaching isn’t about proving yourself or being acknowledged as an “expert.”

“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 teaching, we’re dealing not just with the content matter (the music), we’re dealing with students’ emotions, ambitions, and self-esteem. So think about what version of “YOU” you’ll bring to your next master class.

For me, I want to be fully present, generous, committed, enthusiastic, and caring. What do you want?

Remember that in the end, what you’re teaching is not simply music: it’s life.

The Don’ts: what NOT to do . . .

Don’t attempt to overhaul a student’s basic technique. Stick to things you can really address and work on changing in the limited time you have.

Do NOT mimic the student’s playing — even if it’s only for the sake of explanation.

Don’t spend all your time on the opening phrase: make sure other areas get touched on and that the student gets a chance to put the pieces back together.

Do NOT disparage the student’s instrument (they can’t do anything about it at the moment; your job is to help them get the most out of what they have to work with now).

Don’t over-demonstrate (it’s not your concert).

The Do’s: here’s what you want to be doing . . .

Remember you are teaching someone else’s student, and often that teacher is present, so be diplomatic in how you present feedback and suggestions. Tread carefully on another teacher’s work.

Use metaphors, paint pictures verbally. Engage the imagination.

Humor; it eases tension. Getting a nervous performer to smile or laugh should be one of your goals for the class. (Make sure that any jokes/story/laughter is not at anyone else’s expense — but it’s OK to tell funny anecdotes of your own performances.)

Have a variety of teaching strategies to choose from. You have very little time to establish rapport and key in to what makes a performer respond best. So use your intuition — look for the light in the performer’s eyes when she/he “gets it.”

Expand your teaching skills by watching master master classes online and in person. Learn from artists outside your specialty area. Steal from the best! And experiment with these to find your own best approaches.

Add variety to your teaching

Use a variety of teaching styles when introducing a new idea to a student. People process information in four basic ways:

  • Visually: show them a position, method of standing/sitting. You can demonstrate this and/or if there’s a large mirror in the room, they can see themselves. You may also want to use visual imagery to help convey the desired sound or mood of a phrase.
  • Aurally: let them hear the difference: you can demonstrate 2 contrasting techniques, phrasings and ask them which they prefer, and what they hear as the difference.
  • intellectually: explain verbally an idea, a technique, a structure, a context. This might include information about the composer’s life, or how the work is structured, an important harmonic or motivic event in a piece, etc.
  • Kinesthetically: have students try something out physically to “get the feel” of a new adjustment, phrasing, or idea. The body will often “remember” a motion or a set of moves much better than our intellect. And asking the student to clap, tap, or sway to the meter or rhythm may help them embody the key concept.

To gain more master class teaching experience, ask your friends and colleagues about doing a class for their private students. Have someone videotape the class so you can watch and review it later — it will help you improve dramatically.

To build your résumé or CV, ask colleagues if you can come teach at their schools. And reciprocate by inviting them to teach a class for your students. That way it’s a win-win-win for you, your colleagues, and all your students.

Once you’ve gained experience, you can certainly offer master classes along with your performances as part of your booking email pitches to venues and schools.

Want more help with master classes?

Read Aubrey LaFosse’s terrific 2014 “Learning to Teach a Master Class” document — which was part of her doctoral work at Indiana University. As part of her research, Aubrey interviewed well-established musician educators on their approach to teaching master classes. A clarinetist, Aubrey is also a member of The U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own.” The paper is absolutely applicable to any instrumentalist or vocalist interested in improving her master class teaching.

Question for the week: think of the best master classes you’ve ever attended. What made them so good?

I’d love to hear from you! Post your response and any related questions in our free MusiciansMakingIt Facebook group.

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