Midori: the Art of Giving a Masterclass

December 31, 2018, 7:22 AM · How do you give a good masterclass that serves the student you are teaching, as well as the audience who is watching?

Earlier this fall, I went to a master class by Midori at the University of Southern California called "The Art of Giving a Masterclass." Yes, it was a master class about giving a master class! The idea was to help aspiring music teachers, who may one day need to give a masterclass in the course of applying for a teaching job.

In this setting, Midori observed three music-majors each teach a 20-minute master class to a performer who was a non-major. All the non-majors were serious students of the violin, playing advanced repertoire. I found the whole exercise fascinating on many levels: to see what Midori said to the music majors, and also to see how the music majors taught and what they said to each of their "students."

Violinist and master teacher Midori.

The first performance allowed us to observe how one goes about teaching solo Bach, with violin graduate student Gabriel Anker instructing Chelsea Mariano in the "Adagio" from J.S. Bach's Sonata No. 1 in G minor. From her performance, it was easy to see that Mariano had very good posture, accurate intonation and rhythm; and the areas needing work seemed to be dynamics and color, possibly activating the left hand more.

Anker started by asking her some questions: when did she learn this piece? Mariano, a biomedical engineering major, had learned the piece in high school, she said, but "I didn't feel like I did it justice."

"That's the beauty of this repertoire," Anker responded, "It's very personal. It's a repertoire you will always be able to go back and see in new ways."

"What does it inspire you to think of?" he asked. She had some really thoughtful ideas: The piece was written at a low point in Bach's life, around the time when his wife died, and it also starts on the lowest note of the violin. She also observed that the beginning and ending of the movement are the same. With its single violin voice, it's like a monologue.

Anker urged her to tap into the idea of imitating the voice, thinking more in terms of breath, with more fluidity in the sound as well as the idea of chords that release tension in the way that a sigh does. "Think about filling the space with sound and using the bow in a way that imitates the breath."

Technically, he had her try inhaling before the first chord and then bringing the bow to the G string, rather than bringing the body to the bow.

He also sought to bring about more contrast, describing ways that we use our voice: we can speak louder, speak softer, enunciate more or less.

He asked her to show more difference between the chords and the "little notes," and one way to start is to look at the handwritten manuscript in the back of the Galamian edition of the Sonatas and Partitas -- "the shape of the notes is vastly different than in our modern scores." The little notes, or the fast notes, can be free, "maybe they don't need to be as even, a little more as though you were making it up."

This idea of improvisation produced a noticeable change in the way she played, which sounded freer following that suggestion. He also asked her to identify moments that stood out to her, finding the cadences and resolutions. She was able to point these out easily, and he said that each resolution has a different quality, and it helps to bring that out.

Following their interaction, Midori offered an assessment, beginning by asking the student, Mariano, for her opinion.

Midori, Chelsea Mariano and Gabriel Maffus-Anker
Midori, student Chelsea Mariano and Gabriel Maffus-Anker

Mariano said that Anker had pointed out things that she had been working out, but that it was helpful to here his detailed elaboration on the ideas. Mariano felt he communicated in a clear way that made her feel comfortable.

Midori then offered her own assessment: "You had a nice, comfortable and soothing presence, and you were able to relax her and put her at ease."

In general, when assessing a teacher doing a master class, the questions are: Can this person teach? Will this person represent the institution where he or she teaches well? Does this person have a good knowledge of the piece he or she is teaching, as well as how to teach it? A teacher should address two or things in a master class.

Midori said Anker took a little too long to get to his points, but she was pleased with the way he posed questions to the student, and the way he respected the her opinion and used her answers to interact and lead into the various points he wanted to make.

Next was a performance by cellist Michelle Ahn, who is a law student. Ahn played an excerpt from the first movement of Cello Concerto No. 1 by Camille Saint-Saëns, accompanied by pianist Shelley Ng. Instructing her was Ben Fried, who said after her performance that her ideas were very clear, but that he wanted her to take the music out of the realm of "real life" and make it into something more fantastical.

"The music of Saint-Saëns is so poetic; it is music that allows us to be more expressive," Fried said.

"Do you like this music?" Fried asked.

Ahn said that she did like it, but that she found it technically very difficult. Fried started by working on one of the movement's slower themes.

"Saint-Saëns was a crazy child prodigy - he knew how to write for a performer," Fried said. He pointed out a place where the piano has just a chord, which allows the soloist to play around with time. He suggested that she take some time to enjoy a certain passage, before taking off with the next section. She tried it, and her playing opened up quite noticeably.

"I'm really liking this," Fried said.

Technically, he suggested using more bow in order to open up the sound of the cello in certain passages, rather than sinking deeper into the string.

"Pull on the string a little more and the intensity will come through," Fried said.

During a passage with a harmonic, he asked her, "What is the deal here, what did he want?"

She described it as feeling "eerie," and Fried suggested going for a feeling of total timelessness: "Make us feel like time has stopped."

He also noticed that at times she was flattening her left fingers, allowing them to invert instead of being rounded. He said that this was not something he could truly address in the short format of a master class, but he suggested an exercise she could practice on her own to address it.

After working some time on this slower passage, he went back to the more technically difficult beginning. He pointed out the piano part, in a passage that creates some dissonance with the cello. "Rub it in our faces, that you are playing a dissonant note," Fried said. And don't just feel the syncopations, but actually feel them against the piano part. Working with these ideas, she immediately seemed more connected with the piano.

At the end he reviewed several of the ideas that they'd worked on and encouraged her to "take all your ideas and see how you can vivify them."

After this session, Midori asked Ahn how she felt about Fried's teaching, and she said she was very comfortable with him and liked his ideas. Midori questioned his energy, as his posture was somewhat slouched through the master class. "I liked the way you address the technical point," she said of the exercise that he offered Ahn for rounding the lefthand fingers. She said that if he were interviewing for a teaching position, the committee would want to know that he can teach technical points such as this.

Midori, Michelle Ahn and Ben Fried
Midori, student Michelle Ahn and instructor Ben Fried

She felt he could guide the student a little more and "micromanage" a little less; "let the student discover what you are trying to get at," Midori said. "I liked the summary at the end," Midori said, adding that a master class can be quite stressful for the student, and that it's helpful to conclude with a recap of concrete ideas that they can continue to think about.

The final performer was violinist Kate Lange, who played part of the first movement of Prokofiev's Concerto No. 2 for violin, also with pianist Shelley Ng. Lange had the excerpt well-memorized and played with a nice position and bow hand. Her instructor was Jiwon Sun, who first asked her how long she had been working on this piece. Lange, a mathematics major, had been playing it for three years.

Sun asked Lange what emotions she connected with the first violin entrance of the piece. Lange said it felt dark, private, reserved. Sun suggested that, in order to draw out those feelings, Lange could play it slower and with more weight, "like it is difficult to move from one note to the next." Lange had the tendency to be on the front end of the beat, and Sun continued to ask for a stickier sound, connecting and taking more time with each note. Lange tried this and it worked well, though it revealed a lack of vibrato.

They worked on a fast passage that is a thicket of notes, in which the melody is embedded. Sun pointed out that "out of these notes we have to keep our focus on what notes are important." Lange tried the very technical passage again, but those notes were still not emerging. Sun told her specifically to bring out the D-string notes, using more bow and faster bow to emphasize them, and this suggestion helped her bring out those notes.

Once those notes were coming out better, Sun told her to "keep thinking about where the melodies are in all these chaotic passages," Sun said.

When Midori asked Lange how she felt after her session with Sun, Lange said that Sun really put her at ease. She said that the ideas Sun gave her were helpful, especially about finding the important notes.

Midori, Kate Lange and Jiwon Sun
Midori, student Kate Lange and instructor Jiwon Sun.

Midori asked Sun what technical points she was trying to make, and she said she was going for better bow distribution and more color in the sound. Midori said it could be a little more organized. Midori also pointed out that, at the beginning of the session, Lange did not quite get her violin in tune when tuning it with the piano. Sun said that she did not want to make an issue of it, but Midori said that when this happens it is indeed all right to point it out. In fact, it is important to do so, she said, because the student must have a well-tuned instrument in order to work on things such as intonation. That said, Midori also said she enjoyed the connection that Sun had with Lange and how well Lange responded.

In closing, Midori held a brief question-and-answer session about master classes.

How do you know what level to teach to?

"It's not always easy to assess that level," Midori said, "it really has to come down to what you hear." The trick is to leave the student wanting to reach that next level. Also, there are certain basic points that will always need to be addressed. "We don't want to see the clinician avoiding glaring problems," Midori said.

Most of the time it is possible to involve the student in reaching goals. "We can really partner with the student in getting to that goal together," she said.

It is important for a teacher to take a nurturing tone and not to go on the attack during a master class. At the same time, the teacher should not hesitate to bring up real problems. "Students appreciate learning, and they want to get better," Midori said. "They want to address problems and seek solutions. It's a tricky balance, and you are limited in time."

How can a teacher prepare for teaching a master class?

If one knows the pieces in advance, one can look at those pieces and think about the common problems presented by those pieces. For example, if one will be teaching solo Bach, then some of the common issues for solo Bach include phrasing, chords, beats, style and counting.

In general, it is important for a teacher to be ready to talk about basic technical issues for the instrument such as: vibrato, shifting, bow distribution, different sound points left and right hand mechanics.

"Practice how to share that information, and be able to refer to which etudes address those problems," Midori said. In the end, however, be ready to take things as they unfold. "You can't completely prepare in advance."

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December 31, 2018 at 04:08 PM · It is advisable for the teacher of a masterclass to have a Plan B in the background ready for unforeseen eventualities. An example many years ago was the classical guitarist Julian Bream giving a masterclass on British TV, live I believe, to a number of high-level students. When one of the students had finished performing his piece Bream was clearly stunned for a moment and said it was so good he could not find anything to say, so he reverted to his Plan B which was about structuring a recital programme of a number of short pieces, which guitar recitals usually are, thus filling his time slot for that student.

January 1, 2019 at 03:41 PM · This was more of a master class on teaching than a master class on how to give a master class, although not less valuable because of that. In my opinion, a master class, which is a lesson in front of an audience, has to be aimed at both the student and the audience. The percentage of each of these aspects may vary, depending on the circumstances, but in general, I like to aim for about 50/50.

January 2, 2019 at 12:19 AM · Very fun, Laurie. More stuff about teaching and lessons.

January 2, 2019 at 10:54 AM · Thanks, Laurie and Midori (and teachers and students!) I love reading about excellent musicians who give themselves to teaching, for without them this is a dying art. In contrast, there are lovely people like you and Midori helping shed much needed light on our incredible profession, and this important aspect of learning and teaching. Happy 2019!

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