Trained musicians frequently use the term “masterclass,” but this term is not as well known in other professions. It’s like a secret musical word; we see it in brochures or hear artists talk about “that masterclass I sang for.” But for the most part, musicians learn about masterclasses during college. And if music isn’t your major in college, why would you know what a masterclass is?
Even if you aren’t familiar with masterclasses right now, if you ever have the opportunity to sing in one, you should absolutely take it. Masterclasses present a special opportunity to share, learn, and perform in a safe and supportive environment. Some singers come out of masterclasses completely transformed.
Part Performance, Part Lesson
In a normal music lesson, it’s just you and your teacher. You warm up, do vocal exercises, and work on assigned repertoire.
A masterclass is a special type of music lesson. In a masterclass, you (the musician) are having a shortened lesson, or coaching, in front of a group of people. Oftentimes, it is a special event where musicians have the opportunity to perform a song for a renowned professional.
In college, a masterclass where you perform for your teacher and fellow students may occur weekly. Three to four performers often fit into the space of a single class.
How It Works
During a masterclass, you perform one song for the instructor/artist and audience. At the end of the song, you’ll often get applause–it’s not easy to sing in front of a group of peers! Then the instructor might begin to ask you questions. She or he may ask you:
"How did you feel about that performance?"
"What were you thinking as you sang?"
"How does the character feel?"
"Where is the climax of the song?"
"What kind of body language do you think you should be presenting?"
The teacher may also ask you to experiment. You may get instructions such as:
"Try singing this with your eyes closed."
"Sing the first phrase on 'oooo.' "
"Please run around as you sing the chorus."
Through these questions and suggestions, the instructor may ask you to sing a particular part of the song again (or again and again!) He or she may ask you to try a new warm up or even engage in a physical activity. Some instructors also like to engage the audience in their reaction or impressions.
Masterclass Memory Lane
My first public masterclass was with famed soprano Sylvia McNair in front of The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus. I was 20 years old and I chose to sing the aria "Porgi, amor" from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. It was very exciting, but also quite daunting! The translation of "Porgi, amor" is:
Grant, Love, some relief to my sorrow, to my sighing!
Either give me back my beloved, or just let me die!
In my 15 minutes with Ms. McNair, I learned to channel my inner heartbreak and despair. She helped me find new ways to express the song through posture, movement, and tone.
How To Ace Your First Masterclass
So how can you nail your first masterclass? It’s important to select something you are quite comfortable performing. If you have the music memorized, you can connect better with the music and text, but be sure to bring a copy of the score for the accompanist still. Also, know that even if you choose a song you’ve sung many times, the teacher in a masterclass may find new ways for you to perform the song.
Above all, know this: A masterclass is a safe environment. The instructor, performer, and audience are all there to learn how to improve. It’s a wonderful experience because you learn from professionals, gaining insights and techniques that you might not have learned otherwise. So if you are ever asked to sing in a masterclass, seize the opportunity! You’ll be glad you did.