Saturday, August 2, 2014

Master Classes

Nearly every article you read in the popular press about music education is about bringing music to the masses. That is a nice thought, but not quite as exciting as it sounds. The number of people in society who have an aptitude for music is pretty limited. Mind you, unless you make at least some small effort to give everyone a bit of exposure to music, then you might miss some of them.

I may have mentioned before that my suspicion is that education--real education--in music is almost medieval in its structure. What do I mean? That genuine music learning is nearly always like the apprenticeship system. Various forms of this exist in the trades in some countries and the whole system of higher education at the post-graduate level has been compared to it. But in music, the notion of acquiring the skills of your trade directly from an established master exists in perhaps its purist form.

This is the case even within large institutions. The performance departments at the schools of music in large universities tend to be run in this way. The major professors of piano, voice, violin, guitar and other instruments each have their stable of students and often conduct weekly master classes. There are also many master classes conducted on an irregular basis with visiting artists and summer and festival courses are also structured this way.

I have mentioned master classes before on this blog, but today I wanted to describe them to people who have not had the opportunity to attend one. What are my qualifications? I have attended a lot of master classes, including ones by Manuel Barrueco, Leo Brouwer, Oscar Ghiglia, Pepe Romero, José Tomas, Abel Carlevaro, Ben Verdery, John Duarte, David Russell and others. These are all guitarists, of course. At this point in my life I wish I had audited master classes by pianists, singers, violinists and composers as well. But my thinking back then was that what you learned in master classes were largely things of immediate, practical application to your instrument, not musical concepts of wide application. For most master classes that is probably true. Oh, yes and I have also given master classes on a number of occasions.

So what is a master class? It is a class given by a master. Nearly every one I have attended has been structured exactly the same way. Each session runs for two or three hours during which time four or five students get up one by one and play a piece they have learned. Usually the maestro waits for the student to finish the performance and then comments, often illustrating the comments on his own instrument. The class is usually held in a classroom or small concert hall. Attending are two categories of students: those who will play in the class and those who are there only to listen. There are one-off master classes, usually with visiting or touring artists, that take place in a single day, and on-going ones that extend for several days or weeks. These are usually ones associated with a summer course or festival.

I have almost no photos of my musical activities over the years, but I will put up a couple of photos from master classes I have attended, just to give you a bit of an idea.

José Tomas masterclass in Alicante, Spain, 1974
photo taken after the class (I'm second from the right)
Leo Brouwer masterclass held at the University of Toronto, 1978
Pepe Romero masterclass at the Salzburg Mozarteum, 1988.
Just before class and everyone is working on their nails.
Pepe Romero and myself at the end of the 1988 Salzburg class
A master class is a joyful, fun experience that you share with a group of very like-minded people. But it is also a baptism of fire. There you are, a young, developing performer with lots to learn and, perhaps for the first time, you are stepping out of your little circle into the wider musical world. And the occasion for it is you have to play, solo, probably from memory, a piece of music to a very critical audience: your fellow students of course, but above all for a famous master of the instrument. Could anything be more nerve-wracking?

There are all sorts of legends from master classes. Andrés Segovia is the source of several. On one occasion he is reported to have been so incensed at the playing of a young Narciso Yepes that he threw a music stand at him. Julian Bream is reported to have excoriated quite a few impressionable students. But on the whole, master classes are quite civil. Oscar Ghiglia and I used to disagree about a number of things, but we never came to blows. Once he told me I was going to go to hell for disagreeing with Segovia's choice of an editorial accidental in a piece by Bach.

The two most valuable master classes I attended were those by José Tomas and Pepe Romero. The first because I was at an early stage in my development and it was a tremendous treat to hear so many different kinds of players and what Tomas said to them. The second, with Pepe Romero because he is probably the best teacher I worked with. He departs from tradition in starting every class with group technical exercises. I don't know why everyone doesn't do this. What he does is to give every student greater technical assurance and confidence, something most guitarists are desperately in need of.

Now for the surprising bottom line: I have actually learned very little from master classes! I have picked up little details here and there from watching people play, from listening, from reading a couple of books on guitar pedagogy, but mostly from my own work and experimentation in my studio. Perhaps the most valuable hints about the right hand I actually picked up informally from a guy at one of the festivals in Toronto: not part of any master class. The truth is that about 75% of everything I know about guitar playing I actually taught myself! Mind you, based on observation and hints from various people. But no teacher at any time ever assigned me the specific, disciplined work that led to my command of guitar technique. I did that myself and I suspect everyone has to. At some point in your studies you are going to spend one or several years on very intense technical work that will amount to two or three hours a day. This will be spent on things like scales, arpeggios, slurs and independence exercises. After that, you will be ready for some master classes for polish and maybe expanding your repertoire.

I think this would be a good piece to end with. My recording of Las Abejas by Barrios:


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