Masterclasses: what’s in it for me?

Wihan Quartet_2_photo

The Wihan Quartet

“You’re not going to convince me, Heather, I’m not going.”

“C’mon, it’ll be good! You might find it useful.”

“No, I really won’t. I don’t even play the instrument. I’d rather just practice instead.”

This is one of the many (short) conversations I had with friends during my undergraduate degree. Studying in Manchester, I was right next to the RNCM where many masterclasses were put on and open to Joe public like me.

I often had trouble getting friends to come to these classes. When brass players couldn’t make it (I’m a trumpet player), I’d ask flautists, percussionists, harmonica players, zitherists, Theremin virtuosos…just about anyone. Once, out of sheer desperation, I asked a medic.

Out of all those people I asked, the only person who came was the medic. With all the work we were given, instrumentalists couldn’t justify spending a couple of hours away from the practice room to attend a masterclass that wasn’t on their instrument.

“I don’t play the instrument, so what’s the point?”

“I’m too busy, I need to practice.”

“Stop talking to me, crazy woman, I only stopped to give you directions.”

So what’s the point watching a masterclass? Is it more useful to practice instead? And can you gain anything from them even if you don’t play the instrument?

Being a newbie to Trinity Laban, I was keen to experience the music events they had to offer, which included masterclasses. And as there were no brass classes, I decided to attend the Wihan String Quartet and Sir John Eliot Gardiner vocal masterclass. It was time to see whether my friends were right, or if they were just fobbing me off.

Despite the obvious differences between strings, the voice and the trumpet, it was surprising to see similar themes. This was because the masterclasses looked less at the technical aspects of the instrument but the musicality.

One of the interesting things Sir John Eliot Gardiner focused on was finding the important notes to emphasise in the phrase. Obviously as a singer, this is essential as words are naturally emphasised when spoken and the music needed to reflect this. It’s a good technique to know on whatever instrument you play, especially when learning a new piece. Deducing the important notes in a phrase can help shape a work in a musical way and enables you to see how the music naturally evolves.

Another great thing about the vocal masterclass was the theatricality. Working on opera arias meant that the class looked at the idea of narrative and expressing this to the audience. Although not all music may have a storyline to it, all music has a narrative, and it’s our job as performers to realise this. It highlights that contextual research can really help build this narrative and the attention to phrasing, articulation and dynamics can create theatricality.

The Wihan Quartet on the other hand allowed you to think of phrasing from an instrumentalist’s perspective. Leoš Čepický, the quartet’s lead violinist, put a lot of emphasis on levelling. Whether this was levels of dynamics, or levels of articulation, Leoš used this visual image to help you understand the peaks within the music and when to bring these moments out.

The fact that the Wihan Quartet worked on repertoire by well-known composers as well – in this case Haydn – stylistic elements of the music were easily transferable. Leoš’ focus on visual shapes meant that the overall structure of the piece was easily shown. This became more obvious to me when I was practising Haydn later that evening – Haydn’s style seemed clearer and it ultimately helped me interpret the piece in an informed way.

Although watching a masterclass cannot give you specific advice, what it can do is give you techniques which can be used in your practice regime. I would even go so far as to say that learning from someone who doesn’t know the technicalities of your own instrument can benefit you as they focus more on musicality than technicality.

Jakub Čepický, violist of the Wihan Quartet said to me that “it doesn’t matter what instrument you play – sometimes you gain much more because teachers who play a different instrument to you have a different perspective,” and I think this summaries the whole concept of a masterclass well. They’re to give you a different perspective on things.

So, were my friends being genuine when they thought they wouldn’t learn anything from a brass masterclass?

Long answer: Of course masterclasses cannot give you specific advice, but that’s not the point of them. They focus on stimuli to incorporate into your practice. So it’s easy to see how it can’t help you, but it’s surprising what it can help you with.

Short answer: No, they were just fobbing me off.

…I need new friends.

Trinity Laban released its International Masterclass Series this week. Berlin Philharmonic’s principal bassist Matthew McDonald, and Slovenian violinist Volodja Balzalorsky are just some of the artists visiting the Faculty of Music over the next few months. All masterclasses are open to both students and the general public. To find out more information, please click here.