The Importance of Master Classes

It was a delight to be invited to give a master class for EPTA (the European Piano Teacher’s Association) in Brighton last Sunday. The special event entitled  ‘Young Pianists’ Performance Day’ was the first of its kind, and was superbly organised by pianist and teacher, Helen Anahita Wilson, who holds the Regional Chair for EPTA. Our venue for the afternoon, The Friends’ Meeting House  on Ship Street, was resplendent with a Yamaha grand piano and ample space for an audience.

A master class or workshop is essentially a public lesson; the actual definition (according to the Oxford Dictionary) is ‘a class, especially in music, given by an expert to highly talented students’. Classes such as these can be very useful; you don’t have to participate to learn, in fact, those who observe can often absorb more, purely because they haven’t got to worry about the stress of performing. Public lessons have been popular for many years and are frequently associated with ‘star’ performers or celebrity teachers. Most world-class artists, from the late great  ‘cellist Jacqueline Du Pre to current star Chinese pianist Lang Lang, have all at some point given master classes or public lessons, and those who participate invariably come away with greater knowledge and inner confidence.

There were two halves to my class; the first consisting of young players from around age 6 to 10 years old, and the second featured more experienced pianists most of whom were preparing for exams from around Grade 7 to Diploma level. I have given public classes before and have always enjoyed the experience very much; it’s important to share knowledge and it’s  immensely satisfying helping pianists of all abilities achieve their goal, whether that be passing an exam or to carry on improving.

The smaller pianists played a pot-pourri of arrangements and exam pieces, whilst the more experienced class presented a myriad of composers and works; Handel’s Allemande from Suite No. 12, Mozart’s Sonata in C minor K.457 (first movement), Chopin’s Nocturne in F minor Op. 55 No.1, Debussy’s Deux Arabesques, Shostakovich’s Lyrical Waltz, MacDowell’s To A Wild Rose, and Brubeck’s Take Five. Being a ‘Performance Day’ rather than a straight class, the pianists all played their entire piece or pieces first and I wrote a comment sheet for each one, in a similar way to a festival (although this wasn’t a competition, so marks were not awarded), then at the end of the mini concert, each participant came back to the piano and we started work.

One of the great aspects of classes such as these, is the performance practice instilled in all participants. I have written about the perils of performing and how to combat nerves many times before on this blog, but the act of ‘getting up and doing it’ cannot be underestimated. Most of the performers gave very competent, confident performances, but for those who weren’t so happy with their efforts, they can take heart from the fact they took part, because that, in itself, is an accomplishment. This is the reason ‘Performance Practice’ sessions such as this one are so crucial, they play a very important role in the development of young players and must be encouraged. EPTA are a wonderful organisation who do much to promote the advancement of young pianists by holding copious workshops and performance opportunities all around the country.

One interesting feature running through both classes was the similarity of piano playing issues; many young pianists have related concerns and this isn’t always due to having the same teacher (several different teachers had entered pupils at this master class). Larger tone production, more musical line and the balancing of sound between the hands, as well as sound projection, needed addressing during many of the sessions. Each pianist responded very well, because it’s never easy having to change or adjust in public and at once, and there was definite improvement at the end of each participant’s class.

Using the body effectively for good tone production is crucial, so we worked on this issue and spent time exploring ways to employ arm weight, use wrists flexibly and keep shoulders down. Raised shoulders is a frequent problem especially when nerves come into play. Technicalities such as these can’t be solved in a single master class but it is possible to make students aware of these underlying matters so they can be addressed in lessons.

One other facet which ran through both classes was the subject of rhythm; it’s always a biggie and affects virtually everybody at some point or other. I have written before about sub-division of the beat; this can be one of the most compelling and potent methods of keeping and staying in time. It’s all very well using a metronome, but if the beat is broken down into smaller denominations, then students are able to learn to account for every note thus neither rushing ahead or pulling behind the beat. Sometimes it can be helpful to count aloud, and this was what we did a couple of times – complete with audience participation!

Audience members consisted mainly of parents, siblings and teachers, and many remarked how much they had enjoyed and learnt by attending. For those who have never been present at their child’s lessons, this type of session can be a revelation. The whole event was great fun and I wish EPTA Brighton the best of luck with their future piano events.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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