Attending master classes has been an avocation for more than 30 years. We have listened to, and learned from: Alexis Weissenberg, Menaham Pressler, Karl Ulrich Schnabel, Leon Fleischer, Misha Dichter, Andras Schiff, Lynn Harrell, Evelyn Glennie, William Preucil, Miriam Fried, Kiri Te Kanawa, Murray Perahia, James Conlon, Michelle DeYoung -- and many others.
These private, away-from-the-concert stage events are often quite remarkable. They provide insights not only into keyboard, string or voice technique, the hard-core “how to’s,” but more significantly, insights into the personality of the artist, that je ne sais quoi that we call ‘charisma’ that attracts and compels fans around the world. It is rare for an artist to speak to an audience at a concert, (not even to name an obscure encore, e.g.), but in master classes, of course, the artist is doing nothing but: talking, explaining, cajoling, scolding, quoting. (And, if we are lucky, occasionally demonstrating. Ahhhh, that’s how it should sound!) Onstage is the artist, but here is the person -- fully revealed, as the saying goes, warts (if they have any apparent ones) and all.
Speaking of which.
Not long ago, we attended a violin master class held as part of a major music festival. We came away rather struck by the fact that, without meaning to, the artist gave ‘a master class in how not to give a master class.’ We’ll not divulge the artist’s name, because on further research, this particular artist has, at times, had a bit of a rough go of it, and we don’t wish to pile on. Please forgive.
Here follows a description of the class.
First, the artist slipped into the front row in unassuming fashion, and then some minutes later was introduced to the audience by a festival official. The microphone was faulty, crackling, breaking in and out. In many if not most master classes, given by the artists listed above, the artist himself or herself says a few words to the audience, outlines what is to follow, and establishes a bit of a bond with the audience, a conspiracy, if you will, that together, we’ll investigate the works at hand, have some fun, and learn something, together. A little of their magic pixie dust falls on the in-thrall audience, and everyone is put at ease from the very outset. (Here, a few enterprising audience members approached the artist before the introduction, and in so doing, attempted to lay in a supply of pixie dust for themselves.)
But that sharing with the entire audience: not here at the outset, nor later as we’ll see. Back to class.
The students came on, a major violin sonata was performed. After the applause, in response, the artist took the stage, and launched forth a series of comments that were truly subjective, nonmusical, contradictory, and ultimately incomprehensible. We really felt for the students. What changes were they being asked to produce? The artist advised the student to play a ‘more beautiful line,’ (what is that? -- impossible to be quantified, most clinicians hate this phrase) or ‘tell the story of the work,’ (only program music truly has a “story”) or ‘next time feel it more inside.’ (Objection, you honor, the artist can’t criticize what the student is ‘feeling,’ only what the student is ‘playing’ or ‘producing.’) “Pick a person in the back row and communicate only and directly to that person.” The commentary was occasionally peppered with slang, and more often annoying word mannerisms, like saying ‘yeah?,’ in a rising, inquisitive voice, over and over again.
One of the most striking features of a master class: change. When a teacher really reaches a student, and elevates their ‘game’ an entire level, the audience hears it. The ooooh’s and aaaah’s sound forth. There was no discernible change in the playing of any student in this class. It was not the fault of the students, who were superb. They simply couldn’t understand what “change” was being requested. This is the chief gripe of grizzled orchestral musicians: conductors who talk too much, who don’t know what they want, and don’t know how to get it, even if they did.
Most students stood there, somewhat dumbfounded, taking in the advice that amounted to something like go left, go right, go up and go down -- simultaneously. One older and enterprising student took it upon himself to attempt to inquire of the clinician. He tried to translate this gibberrish into meaningful, actionable points, what the artist was trying to say, and had some success with this when he simply asked if the artist was urging him to “exaggerate” the line here, and here, and there. Even that couldn’t draw a straight answer. The answer, such as it was, came back: “it may seem exaggerated to you but not to the audience.” Oh. OK. I think. Exaggerate. Why not just say so? Calls to mind ‘you have not because you ask not.’ Here, it was up to the students to ask -- for clarification. It shouldn’t be that way.
The artist eventually, seeming somewhat exasperated, retrieved a violin, but never actually played it, holding it in hand for the better part of an hour while keeping up the meaningless patter, all the while smiling and saying ‘yeah?’ How well we remember Andras Schiff cutting through all the confusion on the part of a student wrestling with Schumann just by taking the artist bench himself and playing one or two impeccable lines. He was cutting through the plethora of notes, harmony, counterpoint, and bringing a somwhat simpler singing, melodic line to the fore. OK, I hear that, I know what to do. All was then clear. We remember Lynn Harrell, in similar fashion, bringing a tone that was at least twice as big as any of his students, and directing them to dig the bow deeper into the strings to produce same. OK, that’s clear, I can do that. More bow pressure. But ‘play a more beautiful line,’ or ‘tell the story’ where there is no ‘story’ per se? Most of the artists listed above demonstrate a bit. Not here. Not once. Not one note. All the while holding the violin.
In addition to playing along with the student, or for the student, to make their points clear, many clinicians will delve into music theory. One clinician said he always studied the harmonic structure of the piece as an aid to memorization. The I to the IV to the V, and so on. OK, that’s specific, and actionable. Others will tend to emphasize music history, especially psychological insights into the composer, his life, times, circumstances surrounding the piece at hand. Lynn Harrell: “Did you know that Schumann was insane?” he inquired of some particularly buttoned down Northwestern U. students. They nodded tentatively. Harrell: “I’m not hearing that here.” But in this particular master class, no mention of music theory or history here, however.
Similarly, going a bit further afield, occasionally a clinician will address real world musician issues, for those who fly under the ‘superstar’ status they enjoy, i.e. most everyone else, i.e. how to get a job, how to prepare for an audition, what it takes to break through to make a living out of these thousands and thousands of hours of study and preparation. It shows a caring. Kiri Te Kanawa did a remarkable job on this, and perhaps it is asking too much of every artist to bring these concerns, but there was nothing of the sort here. OK.
This particular class ran some two hours without a break, no intermission. A few slipped out at the halfway mark, but most audience members shifted uncomfortably in their seats, not wishing to disrupt or show disrespect. Two hours to sit and concentrate without a break is asking a lot; a short intermission would have been helpful.
Nevertheless, when it was all over, the audience, still in awe of the artist, applauded across an extended time frame, but the artist, busy with repacking the violin in the case, with back to audience, never acknowledged the applause with even a turnaround or nod. Rather ironic (yet consistent) ending to a master class that had seemed to try to stress communication with the audience.
Now, to add a bit of real world complexity. We went looking on Spotify to hear a recent recording by this artist, a major 20th century violin concerto. We were impressed, and fairly blown away by how expressive this reading was vis-à-vis competitor recordings. What the artist had failed utterly to communicate to others, was realized in that artist’s own performance. A standing on the head of the old saw: ‘those who can teach, teach; those who can’t, do.’
A master class is an invitation into the psyche and soul of the artist. It is the poet allowing the reader, so to speak, to see him or her at work, with pencils and erasers, and brainstorming, and thinking out loud, and choosing this word and rejecting that -- all the work of artistic creation. In so doing, it is incumbent on the artist, having already invited the audience in, to be a good host. Nothing more and nothing less. A few words of kindness, some needs addressed, and a generosity of spirit. One can still be a great artist without these traits -- and one can still be an effective educator without these traits, too -- just not in the way the artist may imagine.
Interested, as always, to read your comments as well....communication is two-way, after all, isn’t it? Else it is not communication....
John A. Sarkett is the author of Obscure Composers, and Violin Scale Charts. More at sarkett.com.
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