An Actual Masterclass

You’ve probably heard of the online class startup Masterclass. What I didn’t know is that a “master class” refers to a specific type of lesson style that’s been around since the 1800’s. From Wikipedia:

The difference between a normal class and a master class is typically the setup. In a master class, all the students (and often spectators) watch and listen as the master takes one student at a time. The student (typically intermediate or advanced, depending on the status of the master) usually performs a single piece which they have prepared, and the master will give them advice on how to play it, often including anecdotes about the composer, demonstrations of how to play certain passages, and admonitions of common technical errors. The student is then usually expected to play the piece again, in light of the master’s comments, and the student may be asked to play a passage repeatedly to attain perfection. Master classes for musical instruments tend to focus on the finer details of attack, tone, phrasing, and overall shape, and the student is expected to have complete control of more basic elements such as rhythm and pitch. The value of the master class setup is that all students can benefit from the master’s comments on each piece.

There are lots of recordings of master classes online. Here’s a good one:

It’s pretty stunning to see a kid come out, play an extremely difficult piece, seemingly flawlessly, and then watch his performance get picked apart for the next hour.

It’s also hard not to watch this and be kind of bummed that this is exactly the sort of teaching that is hardest to come by. It is in fact the exact opposite of the Masterclass™️ brand which is “teach complete beginners the rudimentary basics in a few hours.” That is precisely the stuff that so many people are capable of teaching.

The real point of a master class is that there is a level of mastery that’s completely invisible to anyone who is not a master.

That’s what’s so engaging about watching the master class above—bit by bit a rendition of a piece is shown to be lacking in a way that you had no idea existed. But when the fix is implemented you can often hear a totally valid difference. You just would’ve never noticed it without a master pointing it out.

What’s valuable about a master is what they can see—how does that get passed on in an online class?


Sign up for my newsletter if you enjoyed this piece.
I’ll let you know when I write something new!