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Rethinking the master class

Recently, my husband Louie and I presented a joint master class at the Mississippi Music Teachers Association State Conference. We have developed a different format for these educational, and sometimes intimidating, sessions where a student performs before an audience of peers and teachers, and an invited guest teacher, by reputation a "master," makes comments.

In our master class, Louie and I spoke separately with each student performer regarding pedagogical issues (Louie) and psychological feelings (Julie) that are part of the student's total experience when playing in public. The addition of a psychological component allowed for student to talk with me about their emotions regarding self-esteem, anxiety, embarrassment, competition, and audience/teacher approval. After a brief discussion with each student who articulated performance concerns, I offered some specific ideas about how to deal with their worries, emphasizing that it was important not to stigmatize or minimize feelings, and that it could take longer than we had in the class to learn how to better manage them.

While limited by time and respect for privacy and propriety, the joint pedagogical and psychological approach addressed the piano student as a whole person. This two-pronged "master class" format has proven very successful and beneficial, although I admit my own initial anxiety that students would feel too inhibited to speak with me in public. I have found quite the opposite occurs; students not only talk openly but feel relief that they have the opportunity to do so.

I have seriously rethought my ideas about a "master class" that addresses feelings as well as technique and repertoire. The master/student concept is a time-honored event at schools and conferences. Although an experienced and often famous performer conducts these classes, there is the implicit expectation that a "master" will offer some "magic" advice, different from the everyday teacher's instruction. Perhaps the "master" will emphasize what teachers have already said, thus reinforcing the teacher and enhancing a student's performance. The opportunity for fresh pedagogical input can be refreshing. But is it enough?

All teaching and master classes imply experiential, age, and status differential between teacher and student. There is a master and there is a student. This idea brings to mind a recent column I wrote in Clavier Companion, "Are you a Genius?" where the question was raised, does a book editor make an author "better" or "just different?"1 I find myself asking some other questions about the master and student involved in a master class. Can a master class be more than public piano instruction? Is there something the master can learn from the student?Should we rethink the type of instruction offered in the master class? My answer is "yes" to each question.

I have begun to think of a master class as something more than what is traditionally offered. Empowering students with the belief that they are more than fingers and technique, but are people who are importantly bringing thoughts and feelings to the music, can add greater mastery to performing at all ages. Interestingly, a question that typically arises in a psychological component in a master class addresses the motivation to play the piano, and also how one might use music throughout one's life. When thinking about the motivations to study music and perhaps to seek a career in the arts, a discussion can expand avenues that are available to students who study an instrument, whether they pursue it professionally or not. In addition to instruction on how to play an instrument, music lessons and master classes are life lessons, but also can be lessons in how to use music in multiple, meaningful ways.

It is not unusual to talk with students about topics such as, "Why are you taking music lessons?" and "Why do you perform?" Teachers also can ask themselves similar queries such as "Why do I teach music?" "How do I communicate with the whole person—not just the pianist?" "What is my contribution to the field of music?" These questions are pertinent for everyone at all levels of accomplishment who are involved in music study, teaching, and conducting master classes. Data show what music teachers already know: students begin lessons in childhood, 90% before the age of twelve and 46% younger than seven years old. Some children start even younger.2,3 For those students who seriously pursue a career in music, the path is neither easy to find employment nor sustain it. Unemployment rose faster for artists than civilians in 2007-08, and artists left the workforce more than the general population.4 All musicians (those on payrolls, but particularly the 44% who are self-employed), earn less than typical U.S. workers.5

Not every music student is going to compete in competitions or pursue a professional career. Yet studying music provides lifelong options. This is one lesson I learned after graduating from Juilliard, when I pursued a second career in psychology and psychoanalysis and blended my educational backgrounds. I would not have believed this possible if someone suggested that to me at an early age. I had been intent, indeed blinded, on a career in music performance. Looking back, I wish I had heard about options and careers in music. In our 2017 musical marketplace, it is the responsibility of teachers to broaden the concepts of what it means to be a musician.

Since my career redirection and consolidation (not career change!), I have found great meaning and focus for my thinking in a book written in 2005 by Joseph Polisi, President of The Juilliard School. Dr. Polisi was not President when I was a student there, but has led Juilliard for the last 34 years, recently announcing his retirement for June 2018. Dr. Polisi's many far-sighted accomplishments include the publication of his book The Artist as Citizen (2005, revised 2016). The wisdom in this publication for musicians of all ages and levels of experience in the 21st century cannot be overemphasized.

A leader, musician, and administrator immersed in the training of highly skilled musicians, Joseph Polisi has consistently emphasized that it is imperative to educate all musicians to participate in social discourse on every level. He notes that, "It is the responsibility of all artist-citizens to use their unique talents and perspectives to effect positive change in our schools, institutions, and the world. It may very well be the arts—and artists—that provide the passion and focus needed to energize this nation as we move through the next millennium."6

It is time for the time-honored master class model to expand its scope from the master teacher/student-performer paradigm to encourage each teacher and student to use music creatively to contribute to social justice and to the complex political society in which we live. This could include greater interaction and immersion through music with people of all ages and socioeconomic brackets, physically ill and emotionally suffering patients, retirement and nursing home residents, police and fire departments, the Red Cross, government agencies, and music appreciation programs at local community organizations. Performers can use music (live or recorded) as outreach at locales such as libraries, churches, synagogues, nightclubs, book stores, and shopping malls. Musicians can engage in discourse with their audiences and illustrate the relevance of music and the arts regarding the quality of our everyday lives. Master classes/teachers can inspire students, through their own examples, to become musician-citizens and artist-ambassadors. By rethinking and expanding the concept of the master classes, teachers-as-citizens can facilitate this process. 

1 Nagel, J.J. (2016 Nov/Dec). Are You a Genius? Clavier Companion 8(6), 54.

2 Nagel, J.J. Nagel, J.J. (1988, Dec.). In Pursuit of Perfection: Career Choice and Performance Anxiety in Musicians. Medical Problems of Performing Artists 3(4), 140-145.

3 Fishbein, M., & Middlestadt, S.E. (1987). The ICSOM Medical Questionnaire. Senza Sordino 25, 1-8.

4 NEA (2009 Mar., 2010 Jan.). Artist Unemployment Rates for 2008 and 2009; Research Note 97; Addendum.

5 NEA (2014 Mar. 28). The National Endowment for the Arts Announces New Research on Arts Employment.

6 Polisi, J. (2016). The Artist as Citizen. Qtd. in The Juilliard Journal 

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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