Mastering the Class

Mastering the Class

How you can get more out of the masterclasses you attend. 

Daniel Carison
Melbourne, Australia

Mastering the Class

How you can get more out of the masterclasses you attend. 

Author's Note: It should be noted that the ideas and opinions expressed in this article are my own and have been established through experience and are in no way definitive. The following is an opinion piece that aims to assist all musicians, presenters, performers and spectators in understanding the difficulties that are experienced regularly in master classes. I aim to equip participants with some skills that will allow them to get the most not only from their masters, but from themselves.

Master classes - whether you like them or not, they are, as a musician, an experience that you will most likely encounter often throughout your education and career. It may be as a spectator, a performer or possibly even a presenter. Any musician knows that the 'Master Class' is common place in the classical world. Put very simply, a master class is a class presented by an expert in a field to students of that discipline. The birth of the master class came with Franz Liszt who famously invented the practice when he was invited to give classes in piano in Weimar in 1869. However, use and or frequency of the words ‘master class’ remained non-existent until the middle 20th century and it wasn’t until the 1980’s that the term developed relevance in regular literature. This data explains, in part, the trend of master classes becoming a regular part of the musical curriculum during the 70’s and 80’s. Today, internationally the ‘master class’ is standard practice at the university and college level and also at the professional level within young artist programs in opera houses around the world.

So, if master classes are so ingrained in the musical culture, what should we seek to gain from them? Let me start by saying that I’m not a great advocate for master classes and find that they can often be hit and miss in their usefulness. But as a performer I have come to accept and respect their relevance in the industry. I believe that master classes have a place in the musical curriculum for two large reasons. The first is educational as you would expect. They are designed to be a platform for students to work with performers and educators who are at the top of their game professionally or have had very successful careers. These presenters are ‘masters’ of their field and have acquired knowledge in special areas such as language, style, performance practice etc. which they impart in their teaching. Just as Liszt would have had expert knowledge of not only his own music but of so many other composers of his generation, so too must we have researchers and educators sharing this knowledge with future generations of performers. For this reason masterclasses become a wonderful way not only for students to gain access to critical information, but it also allows musicologists and researchers a platform on which to share their knowledge and encourages musician to engage in a healthy collaborative process. One of a few flaws with the practice is that great performers who often crossover into teaching don’t always make the best teachers, just as some great teachers don’t make the best performers. The assumption that someone who knows ‘how to do’ must know ‘how to teach how to do’ isn't always founded. In my experience I have seen some presenters attempt to teach young singers by telling them what to do, but not equipping them with skills to achieve this in their own body and sound. We shouldn’t draw a complete distinction between performers and teachers because there are and have been great performers who have made fantastic teachers. But it’s important to be discerning between those who teach by accommodating for each individual's learning style, and those who teach to sing like they do or as they were taught when they were learning.

The second reason that master classes have rooted themselves into music education is because they make for effective public events for donors, sponsors, scouts and large music organizations to generate support and hype. Often the intention of a master class can be determined by the people in attendance. I am grateful to anyone invests their time and money into the arts and particularly the classical musical industry, and often it is the connections that larger organizations have that allow for such great artists to come and present.

Below is a guide that is designed to assist musicians (particularly singers) in preparing for master classes. The guide is also useful for teachers, presenters and performers of all disciplines.

A Guide to Mastering the Class:

1. Select repertoire that shows your best qualities - Correct repertoire selection is not only important in the case of a master class, but it is at heart of your development as a musician.

  • When selecting repertoire for a master class it is important to do your research on the person conducting the class first. Find out information about their careers as musicians and what their specialties are. For example, if the person giving the master class is renowned for their excellent diction and knowledge of French and French repertoire, then picking something French. If the master is known for being a wonderful teacher of Lieder and German repertoire from the romantic period, it may not be so wise to bring baroque aria. This isn't exactly a rule of thumb, as many of the people giving master classes will be very versatile musicians with knowledge in various areas, but you will get a lot more from the presenter if you pick repertoire that they have an intimate understanding of with regards to style, language and performance practice.

  • You should pick music that exemplifies your best qualities and reflects your present stage of development. There are few factors to be taken into account with this point. Age, voice-type and the orchestration of the music are but a few very important elements to consider. It is important to think in the present and select music based on the type of voice you have now, not the one you may have in 20 years. If you sing with the voice you have now you will be able to develop it down the track, but you can't develop something that isn't yours. Voices age and develop at a different rate for everyone and you can't force yourself into being suitable for certain repertoire. To give you an example, when I was studying in my first year of university I performed Sarastro's aria 'O Isis und Osiris' from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. At the time I may have thought that I was going to be Bass and upon reflection, I couldn't have been more wrong. The aria (while it may have been singable for me) did not show off my voice to the best of its abilities and thus I didn't get the most from myself in that particular instance. This wasn't an example of a piece of music that reflected my age or voice type.

  • When it comes to opera, oratorio and orchestrated Lieder and Art song, ensure that you also examine the orchestration of the music. Sometimes it pays to think and ask yourself if you were to be accompanied by an orchestra, would your sound be able to carry over the orchestra to the back of the auditorium? Observing orchestral scores is a great habit to get into and will be discussed further in the next tip.

  • Pick music that challenges you while still taking into account the above factors. Make sure that those challenges are realistic and with hard work can be overcome.

  • Exercise caution in your choices and always consult your teachers, because while some music may be singable, not all of it will show your best qualities. You don't want the presenter to question why you are performing something.

2. Prepare thoroughly - Audiences are very perceptive and often it is quite clear when someone doesn't know what they're singing about. Fortunately we live in a world where there is an abundance of information at our fingertips that once wasn't available to young aspiring singers and musicians. Nowadays we have access to all kinds of historical information, videos, interviews, recordings and other resources whereby there simply is no excuse for not knowing something when it comes to your work. Depending on the individual giving the master class, not being able to answer standard questions about your repertoire or how you have prepared the work can be the difference between a slap on the wrist and being asked to leave. Strong preparation is vital to your self- preservation as a musician and as an artist.

Everyone prepares differently, so if you have your own style and like working that way, by all means continue. If you are completely unsure how to prepare hopefully some of the following tips will be useful.

  • Research the composer and the work in as much depth as you can. Knowing more about the work and where it came from can only ever help you have a clearer idea of how to present. Here are some things to ask: When did the composer write the work? Why? Was it a social or a political commentary? Was it personal? Who is the poet/librettist? When was it performed? These questions are groundwork and depending on the work, there are many more you should be asking and answering

  • Pull the score apart line by line. Ensure that you write out both a literal and poetic edition of text for your reference. It's not enough to know what your singing about, you must know what you are saying word for word. Many people will ask for a literal translation and you want to be ready when it happens. Once people do this it is often incredible how quickly a performance develops character through a simple understanding of the text. Suddenly the work has more colours, variation, emphasis and the poetry comes out.

  • Study the orchestration and the score. As mentioned earlier, knowledge of the orchestration is vital in selection of repertoire, but great composers leave so much information on the page, a lot of which is removed when works are reduced to a piano and vocal reduction. Identify in the score where you can take your cues from. Ask yourself; what instruments are being played at this point? How does this texture effect the mood and my choice of vocal colour? Is there any instrument I should listen out for to find my note? How is the music telling the story and what instruments are being used to do this? Composers often also leave details such as stage directions and performance notes.

  • Listen to recordings. You should never attempt to learn a piece through recordings and there is an endless list of reasons why this is the case, but when you are studying a work, listening to recordings of fantastic musicians and artists can help us understand the power of interpretation. The possibilities are endless and comparing the musical choices of great singers will help you decide how you want to present the work. Remember this is something to do when you are immersing yourself in a work, you should never attempt to copy or mimic.

  • Learn the work properly and intimately. If you learn something correctly, it will stay with you like that forever. If you learn and practice in mistakes, they can be so hard to remove. Be patient and allow your brain you absorb the information gradually. You will have to develop your own method of learning and practicing music, but if anything can be said for singers, it is that you can never prepare your text too well. I encourage everyone to learn their texts in as many ways possible by turning it into a dramatic recitation, writing it, speaking it casually and of course singing it.

    These are only some of many more tools that can and should be employed in your preparation. It is also important to remember that when you step up to perform the master may ask you about everything pertaining to your work. They may also ask you nothing. But remember that all of your research informs your performance and your interpretation. I believe the most ideal situation you can have in a master class is when you perform and your master doesn't feel the need to ask you 20 questions about the work, because it was already clear how much you knew by the way you performed and how much of that information you shared with the audience.

3. Have a clear idea of what you want to work on - Provided you have prepared well, it should be clear what you feel you need or want to work on. I recall a master class I performed in during my second year of my undergraduate studies. I performed Zueignung from Strauss' 8 Gedichte aus "Letzte Blätter". I knew the work very intimately and after my performance I asked, "What do you want to work on in this piece?", a question which I not only had no answer to but hadn't even considered. After this revealing experience I made the executive decision not to get up and perform unless I had a clear intention as to what I wanted to get from the class. This is also comes back to the first issue of selecting music that your presenter may have an extended understanding of. Always go in to a master class wanting to work on something that perhaps only that person can help you achieve. For example, if you want to induce more line in your German Lied, make this something to work on with a German presenter who will help you achieve this without sacrificing the text.

4. Be prepared to take risks – A masterclass when run properly should be a relaxed and open- minded environment (similar to that any other lesson with your teacher) where you can experiment. Of course it is important to have made educated decisions about how to approach your music going into the class, but more often than not, presenters respect and appreciate when performers will take risks in their performances and induce some individual artistry. Within good style and taste don’t be afraid of making the work your own and being as expansive as possible with your colours and dynamics, because you can peg it back later on.

5. Be diplomatic and reasonable – Not all classes will have a relaxed mood and not every presenter will be easy to get along with. This is one of the reasons that it is very important to prepare your music well. You don’t want the presenter to be spending both your time and their time correcting mistakes. The presenter may criticize you for a number of reasons and it as that point that I always encourage you to be polite and humble. In my experience I’ve seen great battles unfold between singer and presenter and the outcomes have been quite destructive. Ultimately, the battle is not worth it. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be confident and stand by your musical choices; it is more about keeping an open mind and avoiding becoming offended if you are challenged. If and when you are ever faced with this problem, it is important to remember that this particular moment is transient and once you walk off the stage, you are not obligated to agree with what you have been told or take it with you into the future. This is can be said for almost every learning encounter you have. As a musician you will be told many things throughout your career and it is your job to be discerning and chose which information you will hold onto as you develop and what you will politely leave behind. Remember you are in the business of working with others so being polite and avoiding confrontation is very important in self-preservation.

6. Don’t get wound up in what your peers/spectators might be thinking – One of the nerve- wracking aspects of a master class is the audience factor. A master class isn’t exactly a classroom where you always will feel completely safe to make a mistake, but it’s also not a fully-fledged performance where an audience will simply listen without analysing. As mentioned earlier, often master classes are filled with your peers and there can sometime be a competitive element that intensifies a situation. In the world of scholarships and young artist programs, some master classes can be filled with scouts, sponsors and donors, and if you are the recipient of a scholarship it can sometimes feel like there is a weight on your shoulders to deliver and prove yourself as a worthy investment. As hard as it may be, one must separate themselves from the background distractions that often deter us from giving our best performance and simply focus on the job at hand. Remember that you decided to perform in the master class to pick the brain of your presenter, not that of your peers. You are the only person responsible for your development. What is going on in the minds of your audience does not determine what you can achieve. While I was studying I spoke with some colleagues who admitted to never singing in a single masterclass during their degree. Always remember that you are enough! Getting up and performing in a masterclass and being prepared to have your entire performance and technique deconstructed in public is a brave thing.

7. Don’t take yourself too seriously – Everyone has bad days and one of the greatest mistakes musicians can make is to seek perfection from every performance they give. Be embracing of the fact that you are always learning as a musician and that it is often very useful to have a less positive experience every once in a while to keep you honest and motivated in your work. Think of every experience as an opportunity to learn. Be patient and always think about how you can take what you learn into the next performance, lesson or session in the practice room.

8. Pace yourself - Take your time. Don't feel the need to get up and perform at every single opportunity that presents itself. Remember that observing can often be as useful as participating. When you aren't performing you don't have the added stress that can come with being judged by everyone in the room and in some cases, you may take more away from a class than you think. In my study, I have seen many instances where my colleagues got up and performed the same works week after week, and in some instances year after year and yet, their performances had not developed. Now, I fully support the idea of collaborating with as many people as you can, but I believe this has a limit to its usefulness. It is possible to be overloaded with information from your coaches and teachers and they will all have a different view on how you should perform your works. Being over-coached on one work and taking every piece of information that you are given as gold will not allow you to develop your performance. Ultimately, people can get stuck in limbo where they no longer have clear decisions made about how to perform their work. The performance can become dry, over analysed and inconsistent. Good artistry takes time (lots of time) and you need to go away and experiment with what you've been told from the first coach before you can hope to please the next one.

As musicians we never truly finish learning, especially when it comes to a piece of music. With that in mind, don't rush. Leaving a work to rest and sit in your folder for while doesn't present us with closure; rather it presents us with opportunity. The opportunity to return to a work anew and make it infinitely more interesting than we ever imagined.