By Greg Cahill

This past summer, a prominent New York concert violinist lamented in a Facebook post that he had witnessed a master class by a prominent New York pedagogue, during which the instructor made condescending remarks to the student. It was painful to watch, the violinist noted, and surely must have been humiliating for the student.

Yet, the master class—infamous for placing young students in the proverbial hot seat—need not be painful. Rather, it can—and should—be beneficial for teacher, student, and audience alike. “I love teaching master classes!” says cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio, a concert soloist and founding member of the Eroica Trio. “I think the master-class format is perfectly designed to make the greatest impact on a student while being just broad enough that he or she doesn’t feel self conscious about trying something new in front of an audience.

“I start with pointing out all the good features of the performance. When I start to work, I begin with a statement like, ‘Many players have trouble with this issue.’ I also end the session with the player implementing one of the techniques I have shared with him and praising him for the improvement, and I get the audience involved in showing their recognition of the improvement in that short period of time.

“The whole point of any lesson or master class is to empower a student to strive further on his or her own. You want to give them the tools to continue their upward ascent and give them a boost of confidence so that they believe they can attain their goals.”

Each teacher has his or her own approach to this teaching format. Strings asked Sant’Ambrogio and three additional prominent teachers to discuss how to make a master class a rich and rewarding experience.

Barry Green, double-bass pedagogueBarry Green, double-bass pedagogue

1. Get the student engaged. Encourage her to share her goals, so she can tell you what she would like to improve. For example, phrasing, anxiety, breathing, character, and so on. Help her to help herself.

2. Coach through the student’s experience, rather than “do this and do that.” Use her awareness of what she sees, hears, and feels to guide her with your experience, directing her attention to solve her own problems.


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3. Establish a friendly relationship. Use humor when timely. Get her to do something easy while focusing on only one thing at a time. Ask her to exaggerate the flaws, making it fun and OK to make mistakes. That takes the pressure off the student to play with perfection and instead to become conscious of what she is doing. In this way she is able to make instant adjustments. Get the audience to support the demonstration and the student, and engage them as well when validating a positive change in the student.

 Kurt Muroki, professor of music, Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, BloomingtonKurt Muroki, professor of music, Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, Bloomington

1. Students are nervous in master classes and their heart and breathing rates are elevated. Break the ice—get the whole audience and the student to participate in a physical exercise. If the student feels that he is doing something in a group setting, it helps him to relax.

2. Get to the point. Never beat around the bush or turn the master class into a show. If I want to help the student, I need to be as clear as possible. Do not ignore the audience, but do not pander to the audience in a way that distracts the student or makes the student feel awkward. We all have the same issues onstage—nerves, fear, tunnel vision, tightening of the belly, and so on.

Get the student and the audience excited about the piece. Context is everything. Lingering on a single note can change a melody for the better! Anticipation is one of my favorite words. Anticipate the needs of the student, both physically and musically. We all make mistakes onstage, including master teachers in master-class settings, so do as much homework beforehand as possible. If the student does not understand what you are saying, move on. 

3. Differentiate between critical thinking and criticism. I have a dog. If I scold the dog because it did something bad, it will only repeat the bad thing. Come up with clever solutions. This is a lifelong process for teachers. We want action and not a reaction from the student. If I focus on what I want, I will become frustrated. If I focus at all times on what the student wants, I will find the best solution to the problem. I feel the same way with audiences. Communication is what we do, both with words and without—through music. Keep it simple!

Kelly Hall-Tompkins, concert violinist, chamber musician, educatorKelly Hall-Tompkins, concert violinist, chamber musician, educator

1. I certainly remember from my student days examples of really magical and inspiring master classes, and also those fraught with withering criticism and exasperation. I resolved even as a student to strive to the best of my ability to create a positive master-class experience that leaves students excited to reveal and explore their best. Start with honest, positive feedback no matter what. There’s always something to praise: a beautiful sound (even the fleeting occurrence of one); a great bow arm; musicality; facility on the instrument; a lovely vibrato; great interpretation; energy or depth of feeling. Something! This is not a time for empty platitudes, but it’s also not a time to begin with a litany of critique, both of which can diminish the teacher’s credibility or potential positive impact on the student. Everyone needs and deserves to hear their “well dones,” and hopefully sooner rather than later, will learn to find them for oneself. Recognizing the “well dones” while striving for more is the foundation on which we build so many of our successes.

2. Always plant a sound in the student’s ear by playing or describing very distinctly what to work toward. Yes, it’s certainly OK to give counsel and a constructive start to something that will potentially be more longterm work. But it’s also important to choose an objective change that the student and the audience can clearly hear in the moment. Those moments are exhilarating for me and I always let the student know exuberantly when he or she has struck gold. Even more exciting is when they discover that new sound for themselves.

One of the key ways in getting to that moment is explaining why a change will make a positive impact. Because of my scientific mind, I am a big “why” person and I distinctly remember feeling like I didn’t hear enough about why I needed to practice this way or that. When you can illustrate that connection between practice technique or finger position and result—A gets you to result B—it can be a powerful way to get the student to discover that new sound both on the spot, but for many years to come.

3. Violin playing is technical and complex. But remember to speak the language of musicality, nuance, artistry, imagination, and soul. It seems that we often over-groom technical pursuits as an end-goal when really they are only the vehicle that frees us to express the depths of the music, explore the fullness of our humanity, to let our hearts sing and our spirits soar! These are the qualities that attracted us all to music; they are eminently more important than up-bow, down-bow, first finger or third finger. So, no matter what technical issues you hope to solve in those 20 minutes, inspire the student to make music so he or she will remember why it all matters. 


This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Strings magazine.

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