Music Master Classes: Benefits for Performers and Audiences

Music master classes offer an array of benefits to performers and audience members alike. Just ask high school student musicians who attended the 2016 Lamont Summer Academy at the University of Denver. They got to spend an evening with Christopher O’Riley, world-renowned pianist and host of NPR’s “From the Top” radio show. Working with a handful of students who were brave enough to perform for him, O’Riley inspired and awed performers and audience members alike with his ability to communicate new interpretations of the music along with technical suggestions that proved transformational for everyone in attendance.

What’s special about master classes?

In music master classes, a highly proficient artist/teacher works with one student and/or a small ensemble in front of an audience. The intention is to provide a learning opportunity for performers as well as observers. Mary Beth Shaffer, pianist and director of the Lamont Summer Academy notes, “New ideas are often presented to the student and concepts are expressed in a different manner” from what the students are accustomed to. This “frequently results in an ‘ah-ha’ moment or experience,” she adds.

How to prepare?

To prepare for performing in a master class, Shaffer recommends the following:

• Polish the piece and know the score thoroughly.

• Be prepared to stop and start at the whim of the master teacher.

• Number your measures for reference, especially for ensemble master classes.

• Be prepared to accept criticism in front of an audience and to respond in an open and engaging way. Your technique, sound, and overall performance are all fair game.

Becoming aware of your expectations for the master class before it happens will also be helpful. Recognizing that you may receive input from a teacher who’s very different from the one you’re used to, will help you listen better. And taking time after the master class to integrate what you’ve learned will serve you well.

Significant performance changes

16-year-old Sophia, an incoming high school cellist from Colorado, performed the first movement of Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 for O’Riley’s master class with a string quartet of fellow students. Was she nervous? “Of course!” she admits. “I always get some degree of anxiety before performing because I want my piece to be as flawlessly executed and musical as possible.” But with a few deep breaths and the ability to appreciate the opportunity in front of her, she was able to proceed.

What will she do differently as a result of the feedback she received? “I will take more time to relish each musical note,” says Sophia. “Brahms’ time is different than that of other composers; it’s more of a musical time than a rhythmic time, and I need to always play toward the greater picture, not just perform a single note.”

Vivyan, a junior piano student from California who performed the Tarantella from Liszt’s Years of Pilgrimage, says she learned to distinguish “the space or the timing between the notes in the left versus right hand to make the piece more interesting.” She adds, “I also learned that repetition is an invitation for variation.”

How did she cope with performance anxiety? “I was nervous before the master class and my hands were really cold,” Vivyan recalls. “In order for my hands to be warm enough to play, I wore mittens. Also, to get rid of the nerves I just ran the piece over and over through my mind right before the master class and thought about all the tricky parts.”

Audience members react

Most people who attend music master classes will be in the audience. Those at the Lamont Summer Academy master class with Christopher O’Riley felt as transformed as the performers. Julia, a recent high school graduate and violist from New Mexico, commented that as a master teacher, O’Riley “bases his corrections on the ‘why’ in music and not simply the ‘how.’ Often I personally find myself caught up in the technical aspects of ‘good’ playing and I ignore or miss the goal of establishing an outlook on music as something warm and evocative of emotion. Christopher O’Riley stressed this point of approaching music with a warmer approach rather than simply learning finger patterns. Everything important lies in the details.”

Another student named Katie, a junior from California, was impressed with O’Riley’s focus on “drawing the purest sound from one’s instrument” and figuring out “how to interpret the music in one’s self in order to create a more original presentation of the music.” She was able to apply the feedback provided to the instrumentalists to her own experience as a vocalist.

Max, a junior clarinetist from Hawaii, who called himself a “master class witness,” was struck by the concept of variation in repetition, which he picked up from the performance of Liszt’s Tarantella. He also came away with the “desire to mimic the human voice in music.” He noticed this: “Many a time, Mr. O’Riley asked the performer to sing, not in a literal sense, but on their instrument. Rather, to play like a singer.”

Take the opportunity to attend

Most music schools and departments offer intermittent master classes. Some summer music programs, like the one at Lamont, do as well. These classes are often open to the public, sometimes  presented on weekends and evenings, and are typically free of charge. They provide a new way of experiencing music for performers and audience members alike, and the chance to see a master teacher at work.

Photo Credit: Rachel J. Shaffer

Christopher O’Riley with pre-college students from the 2016 Lamont Summer Academy at the University of Denver.

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