Too many musicians fly by the seat of their pants when invited to teach masterclasses. And because Masterclass teaching skills are rarely taught and most musicians never get any constructive feedback, they never get a chance to improve their skills. Until now. Here’s my Masterclass Manifesto: Do’s and Don’ts plus HGTV to improve your teaching now.
Let’s start with a riddle . . .
How are masterclasses similar to HGTV home decorating shows?
In both, the magic needs to happen fast. As a master class instructor, you typically only have 20 to 30 minutes to work with a student—it’s not a lot of time to make a real impact.
On HGTV shows, the designer first assesses the “before” room, doing a walk-through, hearing the client’s concerns and preferences, and seeing how the room functions with the rest of the house.
Many home decorating projects involve working with existing pieces and rearranging them, adding strategic new items, textures, and colors to change the Feng Shui of the room, its energy and ambiance, and how well it functions.
Similarly, the masterclass teacher listens and observes the “before” performance, assessing and weighing the possible ideas and changes she might introduce to the student.
In masterclass teaching it’s key to focus on what will have the biggest payoff and help the performer and her performance the most. What key improvements will free up the performance or create more balance?
With home decor, whatever new colors or textures are brought in need to enhance the strengths of existing items to transform the room into a cohesive and balanced whole.
In both design and teaching, the key is the economy of intervention (find help on this HERE). You want to make the most cost- and time-effective changes that will create the biggest impact and improvement to the whole performance.
And here are are few favorite tips. First the do’s and don’t of masterclass teaching and then ideas on how to vary your teaching approaches. Let’s start with . . .
The Don’ts: what NOT to do
- Don’t attempt to overhaul a student’s basic technique. Stick to 2 or 3 strategic 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 show. The student is the one you need to help shine).
The Do’s: here’s what you DO want to do
- 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.
- Use humor; it eases tension. Getting a nervous performer to smile or laugh should be one of your goals for the class. (Just 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 music mishaps if it helps illustrate a point and helps put people at ease.)
- Since you have very little time to establish rapport and key in to what makes a performer respond best, use your intuition and be ready to change tactics as needed. Pay attention to the student’s response and look for the light in their eyes when they “get it.”
- Expand your teaching skills by watching masterclasses online and in person. Learn from artists outside your specialty area. Steal from the best! And experiment to find your own best approaches.
- Add variety to your teaching strategies: read on below.
Expand Your Range of Teaching Strategies So You Can Better Connect With Students
We all have habitual ways we teach—and most of us stay within our comfort zones. It’s usually the way we were taught by our favorite teachers or the way we were most comfortable learning.
The thing is, the way we prefer to teach and learn may not be the best fit for the student we’re working with in a masterclass. So we need to be able to use other approaches to find the best way to connect.
People process information in four basic ways. Practice cycling through these four modes so you can comfortably use any as needed.
Show students 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 a desired sound, mood, or use a diagram to describe the structure of a phrase or movement.
Let your student hear the difference: you can demonstrate 2 contrasting techniques, phrasings and ask them which they prefer, and what they hear as the difference.
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 conscious mind. It can also help to ask the student to clap, tap, or sway to the meter or rhythm may help them feel more connected with the pulse of a work.
You can always explain an idea, a technique, a structure, or a context. This might include information about the composer’s life, or describing how an important harmonic or motivic event operates in a piece.
It’s great to be developing a repertoire of teaching concepts but unless you’re putting them into action they aren’t skills. The only real way to improve your masterclass teaching is by doing it.
How to Get the Masterclass Teaching Experience You Need
To gain more master class teaching experience, ask your friends and colleagues if you could offer a masterclass 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 credits, 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 your students.
And once you’ve gained experience and testimonials, you can certainly offer master classes along with your performances as part of your booking email pitches to venues and schools.
Here’s to your brighter future,
Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live We
PS: Get more masterclass insights here:
How to Teach a Masterclass for Musicians
Eighth Blackbird ensemble’s Masterclass Wisdom: How to Deliver Better Performances