Masterclasses: personal vs. musical?

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Pietro Longhi (1701-1785), The Music Lesson. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

This morning I read Strad interview with the violist Kim Kashkashian about things she’d like to tell her younger self, and was very taken with her assertion that we should “remove the personal and concentrate on the music.” She illustrated this with an anecdote:

I once saw the composer György Kurtág teach a masterclass during which he reduced one student to a puddle of tears. His wife Márta, who was sitting in the audience, came up to him and said ‘György! György! Stop now!’ Only then did he see that the student was upset. ‘Why are you crying?’ he asked. ‘We’re just working on the music – we’re one musical family. Why are you crying?’

I liked Kashkashian’s advice to take the personal out of it. It’s good to remember that most criticism is a gift. It may hurt at the time, but it’s rarely meant personally and almost always intended to help us get better. But I was taken aback that Kurtág hadn’t even noticed the effect he was having on a student (though to his credit, his response to his wife’s warning was kind). Surely most of us would recognize that a student couldn’t handle what we were saying, and back off?

That made me start thinking about the whole tricky phenomenon of the masterclass. Now that I’m on the giving rather than receiving end of them, I wonder more and more what they’re actually for.

Clearly, they’re a chance for a student to have a lesson they otherwise wouldn’t get to have–but how much is truly accomplished under the pressure of performing in front of one’s peers, and possibly one’s own regular teacher?

Is it so the visiting maestro can posture and grandstand in front of a captive audience?

Is it to give some amazing life-changing revelation to the student so that she will now be able to play far better (in the moment, at least, under the influence of a jolt of adrenaline), while her regular teacher sits in the corner feeling sad that he’s never been able to get her to play half so well?

Is it one of those chores that touring musicians just have to do when they visit a conservatory, but find a bit boring and annoying?

When I was a student, I hated masterclasses. I always felt awkward and embarrassed, but it was impressed upon me that I ought to take every chance I could to be in one. There were good ones and bad ones. I never had a truly awful one myself, but I remember being in the audience for several where the student on the stage was fighting off tears, or lost the fight altogether.

Maybe the teachers thought they were toughening the students up? But were they oblivious to the fact that they were having exactly the opposite effect? What good came of this?

Once, at an international competition, I watched a member of the jury well known for her terrifying personality reduce a student to jelly by shouting at her to take her woolen hat off. It was an icy winter day and the hall was far from warm, and I didn’t see what a big deal it was for the girl to keep her hat on. The jury member wasn’t having it, though, and delivered a five-minute monologue on how incredibly rude it was not to take one’s hat off in a masterclass, even after the girl had removed it and was sitting there in tears, her head bowed over her cello in shame.

What exactly was accomplished here? Did it help the student improve? What would she take away from this class? Probably nothing, besides an anecdote that might one day become funny about that time she met Mme. So-and-So and got screamed at.

On another occasion, at the Manchester Cello Festival, I observed a leading international soloist ridicule a way the student played the chords in the opening solo of the Dvorak concerto by comparing him to a duck. “Da-dee-da-dee-da, QUACK, QUACK, QUACK, QUACK, QUACK!” he bellowed. “That is how you sound!” The audience tittered sycophantically. I don’t think the student found it all that funny.

There are times, I think, when it is personal.

When I’m teaching a masterclass, I’m mindful of the fact that the student is probably nervous, both because she doesn’t know me well and because she’s having to perform both for a stranger and for an audience of her fellow students and possibly also her teacher. There’s a lot at stake for her.

The balance of honour and loyalties is a fine one. I’m always careful to set students at their ease by making a joke, usually at my own expense, and to precede my advice with “Now, I’m sure you’re already working with your teacher on this concept…” so that the regular teacher isn’t embarrassed. (Not “Has your teacher ever talked to you about playing closer to the bridge?” The nervous student, put on the spot, looks mystified and mutters”No!” even though the teacher has, in fact, told her repeatedly to play close to the bridge. Meanwhile, the teacher goes hot and cold with mortification in the audience.)

Sometimes you get a student who really is hopeless, like the poor Dvorak-player in Manchester, but what’s the point in ridiculing? Under the right conditions, anyone can improve their playing, even if they aren’t going to be the next Yo Yo Ma. It’s my job to help people get better. If I’m being paid to do something, I need to do my job.

Sometimes I wonder if masterclass-givers ought to sign some kind of equivalent to the Hippocratic oath before they’re allowed to teach one. “First, do no harm.” Second, really don’t make it personal. Hold people to strict standards of musicianship, but be gentle with them. If we expect a student to focus on the music, so too should the teacher.