Magazine article American Music Teacher

The Art of Teaching Master Classes: A Collaboration between Teacher, Students and Audience

Magazine article American Music Teacher

The Art of Teaching Master Classes: A Collaboration between Teacher, Students and Audience

Article excerpt

Music majors learn the basics of teaching individual lessons in the pedagogy courses they take as undergraduate or graduate students. Typically, little time is spent honing skills associated with "public" teaching situations, though, such as master classes (which involve teaching students of others) or studio classes (instructing one's own students in a group setting), and few pages are devoted to these skills in pedagogy textbooks. Such classes are akin to private lessons, but require a distinct approach that constitutes a collaboration between teacher, performing students and listeners.

I have often heard complaints from musicians who were frustrated or dismayed by a master class they attended at a conference, university, conservatory or other venue. The clinician may have been a first-rate performer, perhaps even a well-known, experienced and respected teacher, yet the class fell flat, disappointing those who wished to garner musical insights they could employ in their own teaching studios. I will address first some of the more common pitfalls encountered in master classes, offering tips along the way for those who may be called upon to teach in this setting.


Perhaps most importantly, master class clinicians must project their voices adequately to fill the room and must annunciate clearly. In some instances, a microphone may be provided, but mumbling into a microphone merely produces louder mumbling. Some teachers have quiet voices and gentle demeanors. This is not problematic in a one-on-one lesson, when one may wish to "draw in" the student's attention, but a sufficient level of assertiveness is imperative in a public setting because audience members may feel marginalized or estranged when teachers' comments are inaudible. Our brethren in the theatrical world can teach us a great deal about projecting the voice without sounding strained or affected.

Similarly, just as actors use larger gestures on stage than in real life, master class clinicians might do the same to ensure clear communication in a large room. For instance, in Example 1 from Liszt's Consolation No. 2, a lateral sweep of the teacher's arm could be utilized in a lesson to encourage fluidity and dynamic growth through the tenor melodic line to its climax on the accented D-sharp on beat one of measure 41. The gesture may then logically drift backward toward the torso for the C-sharp resolution that rounds off the phrase on beat three. The "public version" of the motion might traverse more space, vividly communicating Liszt's espressivo and marcato indications through adding a step toward the student at the climactic moment to accompany a broader sweep of both arms, then a step backward at the resolution. In any case, it is essential to ensure all body language appears inclusive. To that end, turning one's back to the audience for extended periods should be avoided, and advice that may benefit everyone in the room should be spoken toward the entire "house." Otherwise listeners might feel as though they are eavesdropping on a lesson they were not invited to.

It is wise to ask questions of the performers and, on occasion, even the audience or to simply solicit opinions on musical matters that lend themselves to differing, yet valid viewpoints. This shows respect for everyone present--in many cases those who attend such classes are already fairly knowledgeable musicians--and may allow compelling insights to arise. In Example 2, the conclusion of Chopin's Nocturne in E Minor, Op. 72, No. 1, the accent marked on the final chord, following indications of dim., pp and calando, certainly lends itself to varied interpretations. I would suggest that Chopin surely did not wish for a jarring dynamic spike at that point after dying away for several bars but, instead, a chord played with a slightly quicker, yet still light attack that subtly emphasizes the brightness of the major-key ending to this minor-key work. …

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