masterclass

ˈmɑːstəklɑːs

noun

noun: masterclass; plural noun: masterclasses; noun: master-class; plural noun: master-classes

1.

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 BBC Two in the 1970s (in the good old days when BBC Two 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 thirty-odd years and I’m now a mature piano student and teacher of piano. For me, the masterclass seems one of the most normal and beneficial ways of learning, providing as it does 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 every day 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 kindest and 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 children, can benefit from observing a teacher working with another student on advanced repertoire, and vice versa. 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 difficult 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 a window onto 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.

Piano Week is a new non-residential piano course for children and adults, set in the beautiful north Wales countryside near Bangor.

The initiative of pianist Samantha Ward, Piano Week offers courses for pianists of any age and ability. Participants will have the opportunity to perform on a beautiful Steinway grand piano in Powis Hall at Bangor University, as well as benefitting from one-to-one tuition, masterclasses and faculty recitals. The area also offers an abundance of other activities, from hill-walking in the stunning Snowdonia National Park, dry-slope skiing and go-karting.

Faculty includes: Samantha Ward, Chenyin Li, David Daniels, Maciej Raginia, Sachika Taniyama, Vesselina Tchakarova. The course is sponsored by Blüthner pianos.

Dates: 5th – 9th August 2013

Course fee: £395 per participant

Further information & bookings: www.pianoweek.com

www.samanthaward.org

Tal y Llyn, Snowdonia, North Wales
Tal y Llyn, Snowdonia, North Wales

I’ve just attended another of my piano teacher’s excellent 3-day courses for advanced pianists. As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a great fan of my teacher’s courses, which provide a supportive, friendly and inspiring setting for study.

The course is run as a series of masterclasses, offering plenty of input from other participants and important one-to-one tuition with Penelope Roskell, who is a highly-skilled and experienced teacher. There are regular breaks which give everyone the opportunity for “piano chat” and on the last day, we have an informal concert followed by a drinks party.

One of the things I love most of all about these courses is the transforming effect they can have on people who may arrive on the first day anxious and uncertain what to expect. Penelope is a very patient and sympathetic teacher, who is able to draw out the very best in people. One of this year’s participants was on the Autumn 2012 course, an anxious player who gradually unwound as the weekend progressed. It was wonderful to see how far she has come, following private lessons with Penelope in the intervening months, and to hear her playing with greater confidence and poise.

Some people come on the course simply to run repertoire by a friendly audience ahead of a concert. Others are preparing for diplomas, competitions or auditions. For me, this course was to encourage me to pick up some new repertoire following my Diploma. I felt very flat in the days immediately after the exam, and the need to prepare some music for the course was just what I needed to get me playing again. I wanted to run some pieces by my teacher to make sure I was heading in the right direction with them. A number of my pianist friends were attending the course this time as well, so in many ways it was a social event for me and the chance to catch up with friends and colleagues. And make new friends too.

As always, the range of repertoire was very wide, from Bach to Satoh (a contemporary Japanese composer), and the standard very high. But there was never a feeling we were in competition with each other. We were there to share repertoire, offer positive feedback on one another’s playing, and learn. I have compiled a playlist on Spotify of all the pieces we played (except for Fazil Say’s transcription of Mozart’s ‘Rondo Alla Turca’, which should be available on YouTube).

Another excellent three days in the company of other advanced pianists – some students, some piano teachers like me, and some professional pianists – on the piano course run by my teacher, Penelope Roskell. We enjoyed a wide range of repertoire, from Scarlatti to Stephen Montague, and discussed and practiced aspects of technique such as soft hands and forearms, ‘Mozartian’ staccato (what Penelope descibes as “detached legato”), ‘orchestrating’ sonatas and piano works by Haydn and Mozart, and how to achieve a beautiful cantabile sound in Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat (D899 No. 3) and Chopin’s ‘Aeolian Harp’ Etude (Opus 25, No. 1). And much more besides….. Our coffee and lunch breaks were full of interesting ‘piano chat’ and it was both instructive and enjoyable to exchange ideas with other pianists and teachers. The next course is on September – details at the end of the post.

Despite finding the first course (in April 2009) very daunting, because of the very high standard of the other participants, I have always gained a huge amount from these courses: they are instructional, inspiring, very supportive, and non-competitive. Everyone comes to the course with different needs and interests, from help with tension or performance anxiety, or simply a desire to play through some repertoire to other people in a relaxed setting. The course always ends with a concert, to which friends and family are welcome. The performance aspect of these courses has done wonders for my confidence and I have lost any shyness I had about performing, and now actively enjoy it. The 30 seconds of contemplative silence which greeted my performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in E, Opus 62, No. 2 was the ultimate compliment at the concert yesterday afternoon, and I was flattered and touched by some of the comments I received afterwards.

What we played during the course:

Debussy – Preludes Book I: ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’

Villa-Lobos – Prole de bebe No. 1: ‘O Polochinello’

Bach – Prelude & Fugue in F minor, XII, WTC Book 2

Chopin – Nocturne in E, Op. 62, No. 2 (me)

Mendelssohn – Variations Serieuses, Op. 54

Chopin – Berceuse, Op. 57

Scriabin – Piano Sonata No. 4, in F sharp major, Op. 30

Mozart – Piano Sonata in A minor, K 310 (1st & 2nd movements)

Haydn – Piano Sonata in E flat, No. 59, Hob. XVI:49 (1st movement)

Mozart – Piano Sonata in D, K 576

Chopin – Waltz in E minor, No. 14

Beethoven – Piano Sonata in F major, Op. 10 No. 2

Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 5 (1st movement)

Dave Brubeck – ‘Dad Plays the Harmonica’

Henry Cowell – ‘Exultation’

Stephen Montague – ‘The Headless Horseman’

Bach – Concerto in D minor after Marcello BWV 974 (me)

Chopin – Etude, Opus 25 No. 1 ‘Aeolian Harp’

Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K511 (me)

Scarlatti – Sonata K.215

Martin Butler – ‘After Concord’

Joanna MacGregor – Lowside Blues

Diana Burrell – ‘Constellations’

Schubert – Impromptu in G flat, D899 no. 3

Chopin – Nocturne, Op. 48 No. 1

Bach – Prelude & Fugue in C-sharp major, WTC Book 2, III

Prokfiev – Piano Sonata No. 3 (1st movement)

Liszt – Concert Study: ‘Un Sospiro’

Charles Tebbs – ‘Moonlight from Sunlight’ (Charles is a pianist and composer who attended the course and performed some of his own pieces for us)

You can hear most of the pieces via this Spotify playlist

‘Moonlight from Sunlight’ by Charles Tebbs

More on piano courses here (includes details of Penelope Roskell’s September course)