Masterclasses Without Tears
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 the BBC
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 thirty-odd years and I'm now a mature pianist 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 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 criticism is delivered in the kindest and most constructive way, so that participants feel
supported and encouraged.
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 offers an insight into the
practice of practising. Sometimes only fragments of a piece are worked over with the teacher, repeated
and recast until a new, different or more exciting interpretation begins to emerge. Observing this
process can be 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.
Frances Wilson is a London-based pianist, piano teacher,
concert reviewer and blogger on music and pianism as
The Cross-Eyed Pianist.
She is a reviewer for international concert and
opera listings and review site Bachtrack.com, and
contributes art and exhibition reviews to US-based culture and art site
She writes a regular column on aspects of piano playing for
‘Pianist’ magazine’s online content,
and contributes guest articles to a number of classical
music and music education websites around the world,
including Clavier Companion and The Sampler,
the blog of SoundandMusic.org,
the UK charity for new music.
Frances is Artistic Director of the South London Concert Series,
an innovative concert concept which gives talented amateur
musicians the opportunity to perform alongside young and
emerging professional and semi-professional artists in the
same formal concert setting
Read more on her blog: www.crosseyedpianist.com