Before a room filled with twenty-three young musicians, Wu Han and David led a discussion, moderated by Juilliard dean Ara Guzelimian, on how to give master classes. The two-hour event, for the Carnegie/Juilliard Academy, included a demonstration by David in which he coached several movements from Britten’s First Suite for Solo Cello.
in David’s words…
We had never been asked to teach about teaching itself, but when the request came to us from the Academy – the program of Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School and the Weill Music Institute – we couldn’t resist the challenge.
The Academy, which trains young musicians in teaching and performance skills in a two-year residency program, has asked for our services before. We have coached chamber music, sat on their audition panels, and presented career seminars and answered the participants’ many questions on making lives in music. This discussion was designed to help these young musicians meet the challenges of presenting master classes – lessons in front of audiences – in a variety of situations.
As usual, it was wonderful having the brilliant, sensitive and experienced Ara Guzelimian at our sides as we tried to jump-start an open discussion on the subject. One question from the group led to another, however, and soon we realized we were off on a subject that could easily fill the time allotted.
During the discussion, we touched on a number of points from our own experiences. Many of the points below were made in response to excellent questions from our young colleagues:
1. One must always recognize that a master class is not a private lesson: information and ideas presented must be audible and accessible to the entire room, and hopefully, even to non-musicians.
2. A good master class teacher is prepared, knows the repertoire and the composers, and has had at least some experience with the music.
3. It does no one good for master class teachers to become angry or impatient, except in the case (and Isaac Stern was referenced) of students who seem disinterested or resistant.
4. The class is a great opportunity for teachers to share their own stories of great musicians and what they may have learned from them that will be useful.
5. The class is the perfect place to present provocative questions which get everyone thinking.
6. Ways to engage the audience: face them when you talk, sit amongst them to listen, ask occasionally if they hear the difference when someone tries something new.
7. Don’t be imperious and don’t distance yourself from the students. Intimidation will get you no where.
8. Remember that good teaching is really a collaboration between you and the student. If you don’t have their trust and cooperation, you won’t get very far.
9. Demonstrate if you must, but use their instruments, not your own. You never know what might be deficient unless you try them.
10. If a student is playing a piece way too difficult, concentrate on a small area, and let the room, the student and the teacher figure out for themselves that this might not be the best repertoire at that stage.
11. Know things – about the music, the composer, the history, the context of the work. This is good information to share with everyone.
12. Provide overviews and analysis of a work.
13. Ask for questions at the end, leave enough time, and be ready for them.
14. Divide your information between multiple students if you have them. Don’t say the same thing to everyone. Concentrate on the few things that each student needs the most.
15. Remember that most master classes present you only one opportunity to help someone. You don’t have the option of repetition to make progress, so your ideas, your principles, anything they can take with them, is really all you can give them.
16. Don’t say “This is how I do it”. Nothing is less useful. They must find their ways. You can, however, identify what is holding them back or getting in their way.
17. Check their editions. Make sure they are using reliable ones.
18. Above all, be encouraging, positive. Remember it’s very difficult to get up in front of people and play for a critic. Thank them for their contribution to your class. You can’t go wrong.
After the discussion, cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir courageously played the first four movements of the Britten First Solo Suite, on short notice, as a violinist for a trio we were supposed to hear was taken ill. She gave an impressive performance, and my only comments resulted from the highest level of critical listening. She has a wonderful feeling for this music and will have great success with it.