Teaching Masterclasses

Teaching a masterclass is different from giving a private one-on-one lesson. An audience is present; they need to hear what is going on, and their attention needs to be nurtured. The teacher should be less personal than in a private lesson and take care not to expose the students’ weaknesses in public. Also, the time available for each student is often limited.

As an observer at many such classes on various instruments, I have often seen problems with time management, and sometimes with lack of intensity. Compliments are often vague. Here are some ideas and suggestions for public masterclasses with general audiences (i.e., not limited to the teacher’s horn studio), aiming to make teaching and learning in them more efficient.

Preparation. Be as prepared as possible, knowing the repertoire to be performed, time frame for each student, and other such organizational details. Also make sure that you are calm, open minded, and sensitive to the situation. Introduce yourself with few words; every minute is valuable. These days the audience can check you out on the internet if they wish.

The student. Ask for the student’s name, age, musical background, and desired repertoire for the class. One could furthermore ask the student to express, before playing, what he/she wants or needs help with. Finally, encourage that the lesson be recorded.

Playing. Let the student decide how much to play initially, without interruption from the teacher: a solo piece, (part of) a movement from a concerto, or an excerpt, for example. I recommend that the teacher sit down while listening to the first performance. In many cases, it is recommended to sit down most of the time, also afterwards while teaching. A tall, standing teacher may feel intimidating to young or insecure students.

Response. After the initial presentation, the teacher may ask the student about his/her own thoughts: What was good in the performance, and what could be better? Or alternatively – after a realistic compliment – point out to the student one or two elements which could be improved. Hopefully these elements are of musical nature, but sometimes it may be necessary to address technical issues.

Fixing a problem. Now comes the time to attend to the student’s challenges and/or musical choices. Here I strongly recommend that the teacher limit the number of words, chatting, stories from one’s own life, name-dropping, and such. Get to the point as soon as possible: Define one of the issues and suggest or show a way to fix it, or at least to make some progress.

Time. After hopefully some good results, one or two specific compliments may be good, before moving on to the next issue or phrase. Keep an eye on the time, often. A strategically placed clock is better than constantly looking at the watch. Sometimes the first student in a group is given more time than those who come later; avoid this and keep to an equable schedule.

Tools. During the problem-fixing sections/discussions, the teacher may want to use various tools, like an airbag, or body-language (such as conducting), or to address the emotional content of the musical story in question. The use of imagination and small surprises may often trigger better playing and less stress!

Demonstrations. To demonstrate with your own instrument or not? It can be helpful and inspiring for the student if the teacher uses the good old copy method, by presenting a sound suggestion or demonstration. However, do not at first present a copy or parody of the student’s way of playing. This often comes out as belittling and showing off as a much better player than the student, which is seldom the best method for helping to improve confidence. Singing is another option for sharing your suggestions, often better than words.

Audience. For keeping the audience interested, the teacher may occasionally give comments or pose questions directly to them, for example by asking their preferences on different interpretations. It is fundamentally important to speak clearly and loudly enough, without the back to the audience. Sometimes the masterclass is one of several in a row with the same audience. For the benefit of the listeners, the teacher could then briefly address different technical issues for each individual student, such as advice on breathing, posture, and so on.

Participation. From time to time, one or two persons from the audience might be invited to be helpers. They could assist with rhythmic issues (clapping afterbeats?), or by giving physical resistance to inefficient habits, such as raised eyebrows, body posture, disturbing movements, stretching the lips during inhalation, etc. Another way to involve the audience is with the Distraction Game, which works like this: The student performs something without stopping, no matter what happens around. The other persons do their best to distract the performer and thus stop the playing. The rules are: The “distracters” are not allowed to touch the performer, the instrument, clothes, or shoes, also not to take the music away. The performer should be physically safe. Usually this kind of “torture” helps to strengthen the student’s focus, while the audience is activated – and having some fun as well.

Atmosphere. The learning is normally better if the general feeling is one of joy and good mood. The teacher can influence the atmosphere in this direction, for example by using some humor if it feels natural – although without low level jokes.

Finally. At the end of each lesson the teacher might want to ask each student if they learned something, and to explain with their own words what that might be. In between lessons, or at the end of the entire class, giving an opportunity for a few questions from the audience is often appreciated.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Øystein Baadsvik, Nina Jeppesen, Mahir Kalmik, Marilyn Bone Kloss, Julie Landsman, and the pedagogical network Nordhornped for their valuable contributions.

Frøydis Ree Wekre is Professor emerita at the Norwegian Academy of Music.