The Master Class – forging futures while protecting the past

The term Master Class is one that can be traced directly back to Franz Liszt, the creator of this form of learning that has gone on to become a staple of classical music education in the ensuing centuries.

It is interesting to note that Liszt’s thoughts on teaching were not focused upon the idea of driving out technical malpractice or altering mistakes in fingering and phrasing. Liszt’s main focus was on interpretation. He began with a method of visualization that in itself was seen as sufficient to influence the player to a vastly improved reading of the piece:

“Only picture the image and the body will find its own way to project it” – Franz Liszt

Of course, this did not mean that Liszt would suffer the wild flailings of all and every pianist that walked through his door. Quite the opposite. Each student would audition prior to being accepted into his classes and if they did not show a sufficient level of dexterity they would be politely, but firmly, guided to the local conservatory.

This was, after all, a Master Class.

You would be forgiven for thinking that because Franz Liszt invented the concept of the Master Class, he had created a blue print for how they would be conducted in the years and decades to come. For certain, the idea of students of an advanced level of ability, sat together in one room, each playing a particular piece and being guided in their playing by a Master musician, is at the heart of the Master Class concept to this date.

However, if you are fortunate enough to sign up to or be invited to a Master Class, be careful what you wish for. The teaching methods of musicians vary greatly and, it goes without saying, not all musicians are great teachers.

The example of Segovia

Depending on who you talk to, there are glaringly different accounts of the teaching prowess of the great guitar maestro Andres Segovia. Some of his strongest criticism (though not all) has come from the renowned classical guitarist, John Williams – himself a former student of Segovia.

Williams’ assertion (and you are well within your rights to dispute it) was that Segovia was far from the greatest teacher, someone who forced his students to learn through precise imitation, invoked a feeling of fear in his pupils and rallied against any individualism brought to the table of interpretation.

In one interview, he said the following:

‘…Alirio Diaz and myself would teach each other, because Segovia wasn’t always there a great deal, but when he did come, it often felt strained. As I’ve said on other occasions previously, he taught mainly by example – four bars here, four bars there, in which you were meant to imitate him.’

Perhaps it is difficult to judge Segovia in the same way as other teachers, due to the unique position he was in. He had brought classical guitar into the public eye from relative obscurity. By casting himself in the role of protector, it may have been a natural response to attempt to lay down inflexible markers that he felt his students should respect and follow.

John Williams himself came in for some pretty heavy criticism from Eliot Fisk (Segovia’s last student) who complains about his and Julian Bream’s refusal to share their own knowledge by taking on students – so it cuts both ways. You could argue that at least Segovia made concerted attempts to pass on his great knowledge:

“My rebellion is in truth against Bream and Williams… From time immemorial, it has been the practice of one generation to pass on to the next what it learned. But my generation has almost no guitar fathers. Ghiglia and Diaz taught and were accessible, but Bream and Williams were not” – Eliot Fisk

Still, no matter which side of the fence you land on, it wasn’t always easy for Segovia’s pupils, as the guitarist Michael Chapdelain learnt in this video-taped Master Class:

An example from Barenboim

For a different point of view, we can look directly at the teaching of Daniel Barenboim. The great Argentine pianist and conductor has given a large number of Master Classes throughout his career, teaching students who have gone on to have highly successful careers in the industry (think Lang Lang).

Barenboim’s views and methods are the polar opposite of Segovia’s. He himself had this to say on the subject:

“I am by nature a very curious person and I’m full of curiosities to see what it is that such talented young people, from their perspective, with their curiosity, from today’s world, how they come to this music and how we communicate about that. I find that, for myself, a very enriching experience.”

To give you a visual idea of the teaching methods of Barenboim, here is a portion of a Master Class he led with the pianist Alessio Bax:

Final thoughts

I could almost be certain that most people would prefer the idea of receiving a Master Class from Liszt or Barenboim, than from Segovia. But, the choice isn’t always as simple as it may first appear.

Many young musicians would view the Master Class as a type of finishing school, the final preparations before stepping out onto the concert stage and breaking into a career in classical music. But what one student needs and responds to may not be the same as another.

While it may well, from the outside, seem like Segovia gave Michael Chapdelain the sort of roasting that would crush any young musician’s hopes, Chapdelain himself concedes that for a character such as himself (clearly prone to over-confidence), the chastisement of Segovia was as invaluable as it was consummate.

Just like master craftsmen who pass on their knowledge from generation to generation by taking on young apprentices, it is perhaps an essential role of a great musician to ensure the lessons he has learnt will not be lost to the new generation of up-and-coming artists. Classical music can only continue to grow, develop, evolve and thrive through this unbroken chain of the master/student relationship.

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