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 (pictured below) 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 (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 (which can be very useful incidentally), 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.

www.epta-uk.org


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


A Master Class with Andrei Gavrilov

20131125_200747_11

Master class opportunities are usually plentiful and they can be useful on many levels, but coaching sessions with outstanding artists are indeed rare, especially those encouraging the inclusion of pianists who essentially play for their own pleasure. Andrei Gavrilov is a pianist of the highest calibre, with a once stratospheric career. This week he has been giving master classes to both amateur and young professional pianists in the West Country here in the UK. It’s hardly surprising that many of the classes were over-subscribed, but I attended one on Monday near Bath, featuring just four lucky participants who all benefitted from Andrei’s undivided attention.

Monkton Combe School provided a fabulous backdrop for this event. The stunningly beautiful wood panelled concert hall, is complete with Steinway Model B and perfect acoustics.

Since winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1974, Andrei has enjoyed an outstanding career; performing around the world with major conductors and orchestras. He has taken several sabbaticals from the concert platform, returning more recently with renewed vigour, energy and particularly, sharing his love of music, which was evident right from the start of this class.

The first young pianist, a student at the school, presented Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 in C sharp minor (Op.Posth.). Andrei has recently recorded the complete Chopin Nocturnes (his first recording for many years) and offered copious demonstrations, whilst seated at a second piano. The young pianist gave a competent, musical account, but under Gavrilov’s tutelage, many aspects of her performance changed instantaneously; a credit to her flexibility and perception, as well as Andrei’s expert guidance. The importance of sound quality, varying dynamic shades and rhythmic stability were discussed at length. The right hand scalic passages, which close this work, improved dramatically, and were eventually executed with gossamer-like conviction.

Scriabin’s Poème Op. 69 No. 2 was played enthusiastically by the second young pianist. For me, this was possibly the most interesting part of the afternoon. Not perhaps from a performance view-point, but rather from Andrei’s ideas about this great composer’s music. Scriabin, whose often complex style exudes exotic mysticism, was glimpsed in all its glory, though the eyes of a fellow Russian. This quirky, capricious piece was suddenly brought to life through explanations of Scriabin’s fascination with Mysticism, Theosophy and the ‘mystic’ chord. The young performer’s sound (a crucial component in this miniature) changed markedly as she was exposed to Andrei’s descriptions and illustrations at the piano.

The final participants were both music conservatoire students. The first presented the last movement of Beethoven’s ever popular Pathétique Sonata (No 8 in C minor Op. 13). Andrei highlighted rhythmic precision and lightness of touch as priorities. He also stressed the importance of pedal control, and the significance of producing an orchestral sound.

The master class ended with Schumann’s heroic Symphonic Etudes Op.13 and one of Rachmaninov’s impressive Etudes Tableaux Op. 39. Gavrilov’s views regarding colour, touch, melodic line in the Schumann, and technical fastidiousness in the Rachmaninov, were compelling, insisting the only way to approach the latter composer convincingly is to a acquire a total understanding of the Russian Orthodox faith.

The high point undoubtedly came at the end of the class, when we were treated to a performance by the Maestro himself, consisting of Chopin’s C sharp minor Nocturne Op. Posth., swiftly followed by  Prokofiev’s extraordinary Suggestion Diabolique Op. 4, ably illuminating the technique and musical prowess that have earned Gavrilov his reputation. Master classes are important for participants and observers because they proffer an excellent vehicle for sharing interpretations and ideas.

You can view my interview with Andrei Gavrilov next week as part of the Classical Conversations Series here on this blog.

Image: Andrei Gavrilov performing at the end of his master class.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.