Throughout this section, I will discuss a wide range of educational and performance opportunities. Master classes seem like the perfect first topic because a master class educates through performance.
A master class is a series of intense, brief public coachings led by an expert teacher or artist. Singers perform selections that have been thoroughly prepared, and the master teacher then works with them on one or more aspects of their performance in front of an audience. The focus of the master class is determined by the specialties of the master teacher – there are master classes that address vocal technique, musical or dramatic interpretation, and specific repertoire categories (e.g. German Lied or Baroque ornamentation).
This format generates tremendous excitement and intensity, so master classes have great potential to accelerate your progress. You have been given a rare chance to work with a prominent expert, and the audience is rooting for you to transcend your current skill level. A master class thus creates conditions where major breakthroughs can sometimes occur, and when they do it's thrilling for everyone - the singer, the audience, and the teacher.
This format also creates tremendous pressure, and the quality of your experience depends upon your ability to embrace that. Participating in a master class means a willingness to air your dirty laundry in public. You are there to serve as an example so that the teacher can not only help expand your artistry but also give the audience insight into the vocal preparation process. They will focus on your weaknesses, not your strengths; you must be strong enough to give your most committed interpretation as well as humble enough to allow the teacher to completely disassemble it and put it back together again. Effective participation in a master class requires an open mind, tremendous artistic flexibility, and a willingness to take risks. You will be asked to try new things, with unpredictable results.
I cannot overstate the importance of exhaustive preparation. Research every aspect of your repertoire as completely as you can. It is highly likely that you will be asked about such details as the precise meaning of a foreign-language word or an orchestral instrument represented in a piano/vocal score. The master teacher usually has a mere 20 to 30 minutes to help take your performance to the next level. If you don’t know the answer to these questions it not only reflects poorly on you but also interrupts the flow of the teacher’s process.
Master classes can be offered as a stand-alone series of opportunities, such as the ones offered at Carnegie Hall through Marilyn Horne’s annual festival The Song Continues and Joyce DiDonato’s Perspectives series. They are also often integrated into the structure of vocal training degree curricula, summer festivals, and young artist programs.
Be Exceptionally Well-Prepared
It bears repeating: Prepare all details of your repertoire to the very best of your ability. Be rigorous in your attention to detail regarding diction, performance practice, and dramatic interpretation. If you are offering a piece excerpted from a larger work, study the entire work and know the context in which your selection appears. If you are offering a piece intended to be performed with orchestra, study the orchestral score and be aware of the details of the composer's orchestration. These details should be part of your preparation anyway, but it is particularly vital to include them all in preparation for a master class. You want to be able to take advantage of the clinician's specialized knowledge, not invite them to get bogged down in the aspects of performance that you ought to be capable of addressing on your own.Know Everything You Can About Your Clinician
Read their bio, even if you think you are familiar with their background. Know their specialties and choose repertoire that plays to their strengths. If possible, familiarize yourself with their demeanor and teaching style in master classes, either by viewing videos of past classes they have offered or getting in touch with other singers who have worked with them in this context.Be Both Committed and Credulous
Give a well-planned, committed performance - then be prepared to change everything. Be willing to try any suggestion they offer with the same 100% commitment you offered on the first run. If after the class is over you find that their ideas don’t work for you, you are under no obligation to follow them, but be delighted putty in their hands throughout the class. Feel free to ask questions if you need clarification but never contradict or debate them - you are there to learn from them and you are not their peer.Be Both Deferential and Friendly
No matter how much you may idolize the person you’re about to sing for, this is no time to become either star-struck or intimidated. The success of the class depends upon your ability to quickly establish a strong partnership with the clinician, so anything you can do to promote a sense of mutual warmth will work wonders. Expect to have a wonderful time making music and exploring new territory together. If you have a good time, so will the audience; if the clinician has a good time, they will remember you, which could lead to a continued partnership.
Perform Your Designated Role Well
While a master class can provide you with terrific insight and exposure, remember that it is not about you. Master classes are designed to showcase the clinician’s expertise, and singers are their supporting cast. Allow them to set the agenda and do whatever you can to demonstrate their ideas.
Keep Your Expectations Realistic
It’s exciting when a singer has a massive breakthrough in a master class, but a 20-minute public session with someone you’ve never worked with before rarely yields such a dramatic result. A fine clinician will home in on one or two aspects of your artistry that they can help you elevate in a way that an audience of laymen will be able to comprehend.
Learn from Your Peers
If you are not the first singer on the class, pay close attention to the work the clinician does with those you precede you in order to get a feel for their approach. If they make some suggestions that are relevant to your own work, try to apply them to your performance so that you can help make their point and allow them to focus on something else when it is your turn to sing.
Understand That Not All Master Artists are Master Teachers
Effective master class leadership requires exceptional skill at teaching and the ability to be concise and articulate. Sometimes an institution will invite a star performer to give a class, and they may not realize they are out of their depth until they find themselves on stage with you. If they lack the ability to keep their suggestions specific, the vocabulary to express their ideas clearly, or the patience to be supportive when you do not immediately respond the way they would wish, this can create a very awkward scenario. Get through it as gracefully as you can, and do what you can to make yourself and the artist look good.
The Song Continues is an annual series presented by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute and led by renowned mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne. The series is designed to explore the song repertoire through workshops and concerts with the goal of encouraging, supporting, and preserving the art of the vocal recital. Last January’s program included master classes by Marilyn Horne, mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig and coach/collaborative pianist Martin Katz.
I invited several participants from these master classes to share their experiences and offer advice to singers who are interested in pursuing opportunities like these. I am especially grateful for their willingness to share excerpts from the videos they submitted as part of their applications to participate in these master classes. These are useful examples of video performance that resulted in successful applications. As I will discuss in a future post, there are many different ways to go about recording a video demo, and you will see that variety reflected in these submissions. Consider which approach will work best for you.
Kate Jackman performs "La maja dolorosa" by Enrique Granados as part of her audition application for The Song Continues.
Mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne coaches mezzo-soprano Kate Jackman and pianist Mario Antonio Marra on Elgar's "Where Corals Lie," from Sea Pictures, in a master class from The Song Continues series, January 13, 2014.
“It’s a performance opportunity, but more significantly, it’s an opportunity to learn. You are the vessel through which the master technician is demonstrating their skills and knowledge, creating a learning opportunity not just for you but for everyone there.”
“When I sing, I tend to choose my vocal colors based on what I think will sound best in my voice rather than what will communicate the song best. With Miss Horne’s guidance, I was able to let go of that and allow my voice to take on the colors that would really express the text.”
“Thoroughly research the artist presenting the class. Look for someone who can add to your skill set, who you want to emulate – someone whose artistry you admire. The more you know about them, the more you’ll benefit from the resources they have to offer and help them share the best of their knowledge with both you and the audience.”
“The Q&A session they set up for us with [music industry] professionals was one of the most valuable experiences for me… If you want to be regarded as a professional artist, it’s vital to present yourself as a professional all of the time, not just when you walk out on stage.”
Brennan Hall performs "Le temps des lilas" by Ernest Chausson as part of his audition application for The Song Continues.
Collaborative pianist Martin Katz coaches countertenor Brennan Hall and pianist Marek Ruszczynski on Debussy's "Beau soir."
“It’s difficult and time consuming to get together an audition video on short notice, so my advice is to record everything you do. Not all of it will be perfect but when something comes out great, you’ll be able to use it.”
“You never know what someone is going to say, but that is part of the fun of it… You need to be flexible and willing to try anything. Even if I do not end up agreeing with all of the teacher’s opinions, the way she expressed them got me to stretch my limits and take things to extremes in such a valuable way.”
Diana Newman in recital. Part of her audition application for The Song Continues was drawn from this live performance.
“It was the career planning discussion that stayed with me the most – being true to yourself, knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, and how to move forward with all that knowledge. So many different opportunities for exposure are available to singers now, but you have to ask yourself, ‘is it the right time?’”
Natalie Conte performs "Stornello" by Giuseppe Verdi as part of her audition application for The Song Continues.
Mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne coaches mezzo-soprano Natalie Conte and pianist Nathan Salazar on Strauss's "September," from Vier letzte Lieder.
“I loved watching my amazing colleagues sing their hearts out, making swift, significant changes, and taking such courageous chances in public. Christa Ludwig was so demanding of everyone, and they responded by showing us the intensity that art song is really about.”
Emma McNairy performs "Sevillana" by Jules Massenet.
Collaborative pianist Martin Katz coaches Soprano Emma McNairy and pianist Brent Funderburk on Debussy's "Spleen" from Ariettes oubliées.
What have your most meaningful master class experiences been like, either as a participant, auditor, or teacher? Post your stories in the comments section, either as a written narrative or video clip.
Here is a representative list of master classes held as stand-alone events or series:
Three-day intensive focusing on opera arias
Master classes with Marilyn Horne, Anne Sofie von Otter, and Warren Jones
Weeklong series of master classes led by Marilyn Horne and Martin Katz
For choral singers
Vocal master class hosted by the Brooklyn Academy of Music
Annual master class with soprano Carole Farley
Master classes in opera and German Lied
Interpretation of opera arias and roles
Preparatory master class with Mirella Freni
Master classes in singing as well as orchestral instruments and conducting
Series of master classes with prominent artists covering a wide range of vocal repertoire
Master classes in singing as well as orchestral instruments, chamber music and conducting
Master classes in French mélodie
Master classes led by voice teachers and vocal coaches
Master classes form a crucial component of many training programs, including:
Summer festival with weekly master classes by both faculty and guest artists
Summer program at Westminster Choir College
Summer festival with frequent vocal master classes and weekly opera scenes master classes
Summer young artist program
Summer festival with frequent master classes by both faculty and guest artists
Young artist training program that includes public master classes
Frequent master classes with prominent artists
Frequent master classes with prominent artists
If you have had a great experience with a master class, please tell us about it in the comments thread and we’ll be sure to add it to our list!
Thank you, this is really very valuable. I was in a masterclass 4 years ago and was not singing Je veux vivre very well. The teacher, John Norris, told me to turn back to the wall, pretend I'm in the practice room, and sing again. It was way better. Then he told me to flip everyone off at any point during the aria, so I kept doing it during the cadenzas. Everyone was cracking up, I was way less stressed, and I sang it much better. It taught me to not worry about who's listening and to sing like no one's watching. It was a very valuable lesson for me
Esha, your comment raises another interesting point about how participating in a master class can be a vital performance experience! Some singers are natural stage animals, most at home when they perform for an audience; others, especially those in the early stages of their training, may do their best work in more private settings. A master class is a sort of intermediary situation between a private coaching and a public performance, and it can help bridge that gap between them and help you feel your way to a warmer, more trusting relationship with your audience. It sounds like John Norris helped you feel like you were all in this together. Sounds like the lesson was not just singing like no one's watching sometimes but also allowing the audience to see all of you at other times, even the parts that could be silly or potentially give offense!
Yes, singing like "no one's watching" for me was to basically let my guard down and have fun with it. It has helped me in other performing situations.
Sounds like you had a very valuable experience with these classes, Emily! Would you be willing to post information on the program you attended?
Thank! Singers who would like more information on the Russian Opera Workshop can find it here. You can also view this video with program founder and Music Director Ghenady Meiron introducing their 2014 season: