I “audited” my first piano master class today, and here are some things I’d like to share from it because it was an amazing experience for me. First, though, a little background.
A “master class” is a class given to students of a particular discipline by an expert — the master. In the public realm, at least, a piano master class is a class given by a well-known and respected pianist, to a student or someone less experienced. I don’t know if they call classes from good music professors (who are experts) to be “master classes”, since students would take them regularly from the professors. I don’t take piano or play to know. However, what I’m talking about here the rare and privileged events given by some true masters, sometimes made available to the public.
The one I attended was open to the public, obviously, I not being a music student. Mind you, I’m very particular about my solo piano. I want nothing less than Claudio Arrau playing Beethoven. In fact, I have thrown Beethovenian fits upon hearing pianists rush through the Moonlight Sonata movement #1 (i.e. less than 6:30 long with Arrau taking almost 7 minutes), or commit other such piano atrocities! It’s as if I played and knew enough to be a teacher, but I just know how I like my classical piano music.
I also like Idil Biret for my Chopin, with Martha Argerich being a fine choice, too. I like Rachmaninov for Rachmaninov, where Rachmaninov is available as there are recordings of him for sale, but Vladimirs Ashkenazy and Horowitz are good complements. And Alfred Brendel for Mozart. And so on.
Anyway, the first piano master class I “audited” was at Dalhousie University, for a small fee that was well worth the admission, and given by renowned pianist Anton Kuerti. They call it “audit” because that’s what you do in classes you don’t take but want to see what it’s like.
Master classes are usually in intimate setting, so you are pretty close to the action. This one had the audience on the stage starting just a few feet away from the piano. Unless you have access to watching someone talented play the piano up close, even front row seats at a concert won’t get you this close to the pianist or his/her hands to see what’s going on. And trust me, even if you don’t play, the hands are pretty amazing to watch!
Of course, master classes are not performance. There are a lot of stop and go, try and retry, and retry and retry, sometimes. If you listened to the music alone, it’d probably be annoying. Watch this sample of a documentary video showing pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim teaching Lang Lang, currently a world sensation pianist. They are working on the Appassionata by Beethoven, and you’ll hear why it’s got that name. See how “interrupted” the music gets as they work on it phrase by phrase.
Poor Lang. Didn’t get too far before he got interrupted and criticized, and he’s a world class pianist! In most master classes you might get to audit, there’ll be real students still learning the trade, not a professional who is a student for life, so to speak, like Lang Lang. Anton Kuerti was much more diplomatic and generous in the master class I attended, but that brings up a great point about the students. As diplomatic as Anton Kuerti was to the four students taking the class, over 2 hours, essentially, those students were exposing one of their strengths in life to constant criticism that nitpicked it apart, under the view of a paying public!
Think about that for a second.
What do you pride yourself in doing well? Now, how would you like an expert to come in and tear it apart for everything not perfect about it, even if still good? And have friends, family and strangers pay to watch and find out everything that’s wrong with what they had admired you for doing well? That’s what those poor students were subjecting themselves to, and I applaud them for handling it admirably. They weren’t like Lang Lang who’s renowned enough to be named some UNICEF Ambassador for children. They were just university students. See what else Lang Lang was subject to during his master class that has some vague similarities with what the students were subjecting themselves to.
So why would someone want to audit a master class then? Especially someone like me who didn’t play. Do I just like to see students get trashed so much I’d pay for it?
No, of course not! That’s just my warped sense of humour.
My short answer to why one would want to audit a music master class is so you can know more about the music. Whether you know a lot about the music already, or nothing, you’ll still learn lots. That’s the beauty of good music. It can be an endless conversation of learning. Sure, you’ll learn lots of about playing techniques, and maybe some things about the composer and/or his or her style. Beethoven and Mozart were very different in their markings, for examples, with Mozart having lots of dots on notes whereas Beethoven having lots of strokes, though Beethoven was terribly inconsistent in his markings nobody still knows what to make of what should be what. Anyway, that didn’t need to make sense to you. It’d have made more sense if you heard the demonstration of the difference. More Lang Lang and Barenboim?
Ultimately, it’s the music you learn more about. And you don’t need to be well-versed in music theory or such. Music is its own universal language. You can just “get it” from hearing the differences between what’s played by the student and the master. You learn what to listen for to appreciate the nuances you never knew existed before. You get thinking about the music. Why soft there and loud here? Why choppy there instead of lyrical? What does a little interpretation off tempo does for a piece, or just a phrase? Appreciate all the thinking and consideration of the performance because for a lot of people, I think they just think these artists just play the notes with a little liberty the way someone might strap on a guitar just to play a rock ‘n’ roll song. That’s the sort of stuff you get out of master class. You don’t have to agree with what is taught, of course, but now you know there’s a difference, and the differences.
Aside from knowing more about the music, you also learn things you can translate to life. Again, Daniel Barenboim has an example I can use on YouTube. Here, from the same session with Lang Lang as above, Daniel answers questions from the public about producing a “crescendo (increasing volume) on one note” (on a piano, which isn’t possible because sound fades after you hit a key on a piano). Starts at 1:55 after some interesting questions by a kid.
We didn’t have a chance to ask questions like with this documentary here, but that was fine. Well, I should have stuck around to ask the students how they felt, though. Maybe I’ll write the Dalhousie Music Department to see if any of them would be willing to offer up an interview or quote.
One thing I would have liked to have asked Anton Kuerti, though, was regarding his comment about how no publisher has a version of the Beethoven piano sonatas for which the the dot and stroke markings were well done. He obviously knows the difference, having studied them for years and recorded the complete cycle. Why doesn’t he contribute his opinion to a set, even if just for student use since all the celebrity pianists would want to interpret it their own way anyhow? I mean, wouldn’t you have loved to have known how Liszt would have played them if he could annotate the score as closely to the way he played it as possible? Besides, the first student had a Mozart score which Anton Kuerti criticized as being a poor version immediately and told her to buy some from the Far East (her ethnicity, if not origin) that were magnificent reproductions of the original (meaning staying true to the original score, not some altered version).
Perhaps next time.
Regardless, I would highly recommend you to see if a school near you have master music classes for auditing. I don’t think you have to be a connoisseur of the music at all to enjoy it, and for the price of a movie or less, it’s well worth the experience. I, personally, can’t wait for another one at Dalhousie, but they’re rare.
Meanwhile, if you like to see more piano master classes, YouTube is full of them. The user who had the videos above has many more. This link has the next one after the ones I have, with David Kadouch as the student. If you’re not a fan of Barenboim, try piano master classes videos by Jorge Bolet, Maria Joao Pires, Artur Rubenstein. Just search “masterclass” as one word on YouTube to see what shows up as there are also classes for other instruments.
OK, if you’ve made it this far, I’ll leave you something a little shallower, but funnier. It is a spoof of a music master class, by Hugh Laurie of House. Hugh is also a talented musician and comedian, from the post I had of him singing a song called Mystery (not sure if he wrote it).
p.s. I’m actually not a fan of Barenboim’s playing. I respect his talent and opinions, though I love a lot of classical musician’s opinions on this music, his playing just doesn’t move me like other pianists’ playing. I like Anton Kuerti’s playing of Mozart best, and I have some of his recordings of Mozart Piano Concerti which I rather enjoy.
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Reading Level: 8.1