noun: masterclass; plural noun: masterclasses; noun: master-class; plural noun: master-classes
a class, especially in music, given by an expert to highly talented students.
The word “masterclass” can, for some, conjure up a terrifying scenario: the “private lesson in public”, with a formidable “master” teacher and a student quaking at the keyboard, their every error and slip heard and duly noted by teacher and audience. I remember watching music masterclasses on BBC2 in the 1970s (in the good old days when the BBC broadcast such edifying and instructive arts programmes), 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 am now a mature “adult returner” pianist, which two performances diplomas to my name and some very positive experiences of participating in masterclasses. For me, the masterclass seems one of the most normal and beneficial ways of learning, providing 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 listeners/participants 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, encouraging comments and discussion on what they have heard. A good teacher will also make sure negative comments are delivered in the most constructive way, so that participants feel supported and encouraged.
At many of the courses for adult amateur pianists in the UK and beyond, the masterclass is also a popular form of learning and teaching. Some of these classes are called “workshops” to make them sound more friendly, but in reality they are nearly always a group of c10 pianists, seated around the piano, eagerly absorbing wisdom from the teacher.
Masterclasses are not just for advanced pianists 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. 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 advanced 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 also a window on to how hard the pianist works and an insight into the practice of practising. Sometimes only fragments of a piece are worked over with the teacher, repeated, recast until a new, different or more exciting interpretation begins to emerge. Observing this process can be extremely 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.