Don’t Be Perfectly Dumb: Masterclasses Waste Your Time?

Don’t Be Perfectly Dumb: Masterclasses Waste Your Time?

When I started highschool, I had a talented, severe piano teacher.

You know the cliché musicians who moan and bang on the piano in frustration? She was in that crowd.

She held an event every 2 months, mostly masterclasses and performances. Sometimes a performer came in, sometimes the students played for each other.

In the masterclasses, everyone played something. A girl played a Czerny finger exercise once.

This teacher started some massive sadness in my life, but I learned a lot from her. We parted ways because I started crying too often. And she was cheating our money (probably by accident).

Sometimes, masterclasses get too formal. Then it becomes a recital. The feedback is just another opinion.

If a piece of music is 98% perfected at best, then pieces shared at masterclasses should be 75 – 89%.

The feedback is useless if the music is already polished– it’s too late to change anything. The pianist is already in love with their sound.

People who want to practice performing before an exam or competition don’t have to pay experts for a masterclass; a restaurant with a piano would pay them to play for a few hours.

Smart pianists will play pieces that are not polished (about 80% ready) at masterclasses: they can practice performing, and go home with real, usable feedback.

Is it worth the time?

Masterclasses are for sharing and getting feedback on works-in-progress. It’s like jamming, but you want to go home with solid feedback. Other people will notice things that you don’t.

Masterclasses are also a safe place to try new things.

I went to a design masterclass recently. Everyone shared their own designs.

The lecturer thought my magazine spreads stood out, so he taped it on the wall, with two others.

Masterclasses Waste Your Time?

Designs on the wall can be good or bad. I was nervous because that was my first street photography stint (taking photos of strangers).

The first person I approached was a punk cafe owner with a pink headband in her stark-black hair. She didn’t want photography in the cafe, and she wasn’t nice about it.

After that, I got a buddy to approach people. We walked through one of my favourite places in Vancouver.

We stopped by a tea shop– where I liked the tea canisters– and a man reeled us in. He didn’t work there, but he was delighted that I was shooting photos.

“Did you get the sign?” He made a shape with his arms towards the sign.

“I’m going to tell my friends about this place,” I said. He was nice, so I wanted to do something for him.

It’s the Granville Island Tea Company. They have tea from all over the world.

People get nervous in front of a big black lens, so I asked for his portrait in the end.

I didn’t know if I’d gotten good shots. I have blurry eyesight, so I never see details.

Masterclasses Waste Your Time?

Thankfully, the lecturer said my editorial design stands out in a good way:

It tells a story, and reminds him of Brodovitch’s method. Brodovitch was the amazing art director.

It looks like I art-directed the piece, but really, the man chatted with my buddy and did whatever he wanted. Sometimes, I pretended to take photos of the shop, but I was secretly taking photos of him.

Don't Be Perfectly Dumb: Masterclasses Waste Your Time?

The whole tea shop shoot took 20 minutes. I wasn’t confident.

I went to the masterclass because I wanted critique on my photography and design; I wanted to get better.

I figured out that my photography was above average. My mind was always stuck at “mediocre”; I was afraid that the real photographers would scoff.

I never would’ve realized that I could do editorial photography.

Four years of playing around and zero photography classes: I can pull out some big bones, even if my camera isn’t fancy. I have to thank my Mummie for being supportive. (xo)

Talent can come, if you make good choices.

What you get from a masterclass

The masterclass was a safe place to try something new:

Street photography.

It could’ve been a disaster.

I found out that I wasn’t seeing my work properly.

If something flops in a masterclass, it’s softer– you can fix it before it goes into the world. Or you can work on something new.

The point is to share.

How to start a good masterclass

Masterclasses shouldn’t be formal and stuffy.

If you teach music, get a local performer to critique some playing. Students should share their music once in a while.

If you’re nervous about playing in front of others, gather a few people and just groove. Do a piano circle.

It’s about sharing and learning, not showing off. People who share work that’s less than 89% polished will get the most out of it.

It’s also good to bounce ideas off others, in a group. Like, before you launch a business, always get feedback from other entrepreneurs– they’ll see the holes.

The idea is to have people steer you in the right direction before you fall.

Sharing is important, okay?

After I left that severe piano teacher (in high school), I stopped sharing my playing.

Then, for my piano exam, I didn’t bow, and no one clapped.

Have you done a masterclass? How did it go? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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  • John September 24, 2013 at 6:30 pm


    Ok: This will be long comment! Here it goes: Masterclasses are generally good experiences, or should be in my opinion. I did them a lot as a student growing up and looked forward to playing for someone other than my piano teacher and getting feedback. I still look to do them as a piano teacher myself, and I don’t think there is an age limit to learning, esp. at piano. I liked the idea of seeing how other students my age or older played, and how the person/the clinician, the “master” made the piece(s) sound better or fixed things that proved difficult in certain passages.

    I do agree that masterclasses should be places where pieces shouldn’t be perfect and should be a work in progress. I would usually play a piece and think it was pretty good (the way my teacher told me to play certain parts, in the correct style, while putting my own interpretation into it). This was all before youTube, which makes it awesome to look back and how I played without outside influence. And then the person would tell me, “Why did you chose to get louder here?” and I’d have have to defend my musical reasoning with an intelligent answer. I liked that I still had new ideas after I worked with the person, and I had more confidence in my abilities, since the person said my performance was good, and that with added ‘ideas’ it could be even better! No matter how much a pianist or musician thinks they ‘know it all’ there’s always a different set of ears to tell you otherwise, as you could be used to your own sound. And Masterclasses help you be open criticism, and learn to take another person’s opinion interest and humility.

    Finally though, in my 10+ years of participating and watching masterclasses, with the different artists from different countries I worked with, there was only one so far that was a negative experience that was unwarranted and I think, an anomaly, since this particular person doesn’t/didn’t know how to lead a masterclass correctly! I mentioned her before and resist name dropping, to not be mean, but it is comforting in a way, that I was not the only person she has ‘offended’ and has been negative to in my group of musician colleagues, and that sadly, doesn’t help the students she’s ‘trying’ to help, or even her reputation. The story and experiences are the same after the people I’ve talked to that have encountered her, and that is laughable to say the least.

    My point being, is that you mentioned “Smart pianists will play pieces that are not polished (about 80% ready) at masterclasses: they can practice performing, and go home with real, usable feedback” ….well, in working with this particular teacher, I actually did do this for the first time ever in going to a Masterclass voluntarily. It was Chopin’s Ballade No. 1, which I spent an entire year, learning on my own, post college, with no teacher each week, to figure out everything with what I’ve learned from my previous teachers.

    I had the notes down and how I wanted it to sound, and could manage to get through it, until the very end. The fast Coda was annoying, and I reached a plateau of ‘I don’t know how to fix parts, A, B, etc.’ So, I drove 3 hours to said masterclass expecting feedback, even though I knew the piece wasn’t at 80 or even 90%. Before, my pieces would be prepared and I would have a definite interpretation in mind. But this time, I was so nervous before I had to play, I had second thoughts and for a second, thought I would fall back on a nice, slow, lyrical Brahms Intermezzo I also learned on my own during that time, but I knew I was more comfortable with slower, expressive pieces. But, the Ballade was on the program and there was no turning back! (plus I didn’t bring the music for the Brahms, lol)

    Anyway, I snapped out of it and told myself, “take a risk!”, so I did..I sat down, the lady didn’t know my background at all, didn’t bother to ask, and I began the piece. I was going well so far, until the last few pages…I had managed to memorize it, but still the technical deficiencies were still there…and then as I was getting through it with a few more mistakes as it went on, I had a memory slip, but had only 2-3 more pages left. I hadn’t gotten to the dreaded coda yet, but with that slip, I had to stop and reset myself a few measures before the slip up. Since this piece is so long, the lady decided it wasn’t worth her time and stopped me immediately as I was trying to regain my footing and said “Well, it seems you love music and everything..but….I think this piece is too hard for you and you need to do something else. …It seems to me that you just run through your pieces, you don’t know or practice your scales and you missed a lot of what Chopin was trying to say.” ..And then she proceeded to ‘demonstrate’ her ‘mastery’ of it, by playing almost the whole thing, (but not the coda!) as if my performance was nothing.
    I tried being polite, while secretly I was fuming mad and defensive, as she said all these things about what i “didn’t do” and when I asked “well, HOW, would you do the scales,, practicing, etc? and “what books would you recommend to use?” and she shot back with rolled eyes, with “well, any standard exercise book!” (no specific examples..) and then she actually had the nerve to outline what all the students would do when they auditioned to start their music studies at the college.
    It was insulting since 1) I already had a 2 Bachelors Degrees, both in Music Ed and Performance so I didn’t need to hear about ‘how to audition to get into this college music program’ 2) she didn’t ask about my background before she met me, or how I came to start learning the piece or who/if I worked on it with anyone, that I can play other literature and that it was a risk for me to put myself out there with this new piece for someone I’ve never met nor played for 3) That she didn’t have the courtesy, as a professional to offer FEEDBACK! which I thought was the point of a masterclass. To say, “You can’ play this, do something else” is like saying “You can’t play piano, stop now.” If the piece is too difficult, say that, but help me to make it so that it is playable. I got some parts correct, so it wasn’t a complete disaster…Its not like I was playing chopsticks and messed it’s a Chopin Ballade!?.. one of the more difficult pieces in the entire repertoire. And honestly, I wanted help on all the technical parts, as most of it is playable, esp. the lyrical sections. But the Coda, is hard, even for professionals, and that’s not something anyone can just play when they feel like it. I know there’s a process to use to figure it out, but with no teacher to tell me since I graduated, I couldn’t find the answer at the time.

    So, as you can read from this long ranting post, Masterclasses are and should be constructive, for both the student and the audience. Sometimes parents or students don’t know how lessons go or other teachers teach. But that one experience, with that negative pianist, will not take my passion or drive to learn the first Ballade away. It will make it stronger and seek help from those that are willing to help, not degrade or belittle students. Interestingly, before me, two other students went, and she make them feel small as well, getting frustrated when they couldn’t get her concepts, and made it sound like everything was easy and they were stupid. So I had an inkling of what I was in for..but I guess I had wishful thinking.

    Masterclasses can be fun, but it also depends on the teacher and you know how you are going to play by how prepared you are beforehand. But I guess the tradition is to play things that are almost perfected..if not, hopefully the teacher you work with will see that and help you as expected or in rare cases, they will dismiss you as less of a player. I think , in my last negative experience, it was the teacher that made the class worse rather than than the many others that have offered guidance and advice. After all, the class just amplifies their opinion..and if you were to play a piece in front of a different teacher, they would probably give you different ideas in certain parts.

    Sorry for the long post, but for me, Masterclasses are times to learn and show support for other players and be able to play for audience and grow as a person. Esp. in art, like photography, it helps to have others look at your work and find other opinions. You may not have confidence in your own work, but you may be pleasantly surprised or be left with things you haven’t thought about. But playing or showcasing work in public, perfected or not, is a great feat in itself!

    • Grace Miles September 30, 2013 at 10:38 pm

      Hey, John! You don’t have to apologize. Thanks so much for sharing.

      I love the risk-taking.

      That teacher needs to look at why she’s doing the masterclasses, and why the students come to her. We can learn from her. Sooner or later, she will learn from her old self.

      It sounds like she is looking for more or less ‘perfected’ playing. So, she wants to see people practice performing. And she wants to be paid for it.

      Masterclasses and normal lessons are different– masterclasses are specific, and sometimes, we’ll find big ideas (like I did), to use on our own.

      There is a time, after you get the notes down, and you’re interpreting the piece. You’ve put effort into it, and you know it quite well. Masterclasses are good for sharing that, because those masterclass teachers only hear the piece once, and they can give you some direction if you’re lost.

      In normal lessons, the big ideas move into the playing gradually, because the same teacher critiques the playing for a period of time.

      People who go to masterclasses should be looking for real feedback, not showing off– you shouldn’t pay someone to see you perform. It should be the other way around.

  • Marla September 24, 2013 at 9:21 pm

    I attended a Masterclass 2 years ago. It was taught by a husband and wife team, who are amazing duettists. First they played a couple of pieces together, then each one alone. then they invited students forward. I was there to help and observe, not to play. It was amusing to watch the 2 student’s reactions to the critiques. One got very defensive and the other withdrew into herself. the second one was one of my students and I had the opportunity to explain what a masterclass is and then she felt better. I had taken notes of their critique and we went over them and looked at the music in a whole new light. she went on to completely be “in sync” with the piece and to play it at our store’s 50th anniversary recital and got an ovation! this was a turnaround for her. She is my best student and I hope she does something with music in her future. right now, she and I will be playing piano/organ duets in both of our churches.

    • Grace Miles October 1, 2013 at 10:31 am

      Taking critique is a skill too, don’t you think?