master class (ˈmɑːstəˌklɑːs )

A class given by an expert, especially a musician, for exceptional students, usually presented in public or on television


That's the gist of it, but it's a pretty broad definition because every master class is a unique event. The overall tone and content of a master class is shaped by the personality of the expert giving it, and people who achieve expertise in music tend to have very colorful, strong personalities! The Song Continues series included master classes by mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, soprano Jessye Norman, and pianist Dalton Baldwin. While it was wonderfully informative and inspiring to see each of them work with a group of young singers, the thing I enjoyed most about each class was the opportunity to spend time with these masters and observe how they immerse themselves in the details of song repertoire, engage with their students, and create an experience that the audience could share in as well. 


A master class is a concentrated public coaching for the singers who participate. Because each turn is much shorter than an actual lesson or coaching and because the master must explain everything to an audience that may know little about singing, they'll focus on only one or two very specific aspects of each performance. That way, everyone learns: the singer receives a valuable nugget of information that they can later apply to the rest of their repertoire, and the audience experiences how the master's advice improved their performance. You'll definitely benefit from singing on master classes if you're the kind of person who performs well under pressure! There's incredible leverage and support created by the situation. Not only are you face to face with a prominent expert, but there's a whole audience rooting for you to succeed. So if you can handle it, a master class creates conditions where breakthroughs are likely to happen, and when they do it's exciting for everyone - the singer, the audience, and of course the teacher. 


photo © Jennifer Talyor

Marilyn Horne covered a lot of ground in her master class. Between the four singers who performed for her, she was able to zero in on a great variety of technique, performance practice, and dramatic issues. She maintained a lively rapport with the audience, taking the time to make sure they understood what was going on. The evening began with a compelling performance of Robert Schumann's "Die Kartenlegerin" (The Fortune Teller) by mezzo-soprano Naomi O'Connell. Miss Horne worked on making her German diction more precise and expressive, and the result was a much more vivid picture of this exotic character. Next up was tenor J. Warren Mitchell, who had learned "Pace non trove" by Franz Liszt at Miss Horne's request; she showed him how to use his breath to produce freer, more resonant high notes. Mezzo-soprano Jazimina MacNeil received advice on how to more dramatically embody the narrator of Gustav Mahler's "Rheinlegendchen" (Rhine Legend) and pace the music to allow the storytelling to unfold more organically; Miss Horne also spent a good deal of time working with her on her German diction. The last singer, soprano Lisa Williamson, performed Joseph Haydn's song "She never told her love". Miss Horne focused on sustaining longer phrases and adding some simple ornaments to her interpretation. She highlighted different aspects of song interpretation with each participant, so this class provided the audience with a well-rounded glimpse of what goes into becoming a skillful singer and interpreting an art song. 


photo © Steve J. Sherman

Jessye Norman set a very different tone for her master class. Upon taking the stage, she addressed the audience to let them know that they were about to be privileged to witness artists at work and asked them to be silent and attentive. Her singers were mezzo-soprano Hyo Na Kim, soprano Marina Harris, baritone Nathaniel Olson, soprano Jessica Strong, and soprano Julia Bullock. After Hyo Na Kim presented her first song in German, Miss Norman smiled warmly and said to her, "One of the best things about being a singer is that you get to make every single lovely sound in every song you sing." She proceeded to do highly detailed and demanding work on diction with all five singers, with particular attention to the specialized vowels and consonants of the German language. She was not easily satisfied and would not move on to the next phrase of a song until the singer had articulated the previous one to her very exacting standards. As promised, the audience did witness artists hard at work, and it was obvious to all that attention to detail in diction led to much more expressive performances of the song texts in all languages. Much of Miss Norman's own repertoire consists of opera roles and art songs in German. The singers chosen to participate in these master classes are already highly skilled, polished singers, so it was both humbling to see how much more they had to learn about refining their artistry and rewarding to know that they were in very good hands. 


Jessye Norman and Marilyn Horne © Steve J. Sherman


Musical Exchange member Laurel Recsetar attended a the Dalton Baldwin Master Class, also part of The Song Continues series. Read what she learned about working with a collaborative pianist.


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Replies to This Discussion

I think it's also a great experience for those who are "only" watching the masterclass. I've recently learned a lot watching Joyce Didonato's masterclass at Juilliard (which was also online), because I could identify some things she pointed in myself. We can watch the singers there, receiving a lot of advices that also work for us, because we see that we do the same thing they do. Also, I usually learn a lot by watching stuff (in general), so even if the singer there is completely different from me, I think that can be useful, too.

And I couldn't agree more with this: " it was both humbling to see how much more they had to learn about refining their artistry." Helps us to remember we have a long journey, and that we should never (or will never) stop learning new things...

Thanks for the reply, Mariana - you reminded me of an important point, which is that the intended audience for a master class can vary as well. The Song Continues master classes certainly had singers in the audience but are designed for a more "civilian" listener; however, master classes are often given for audiences of other music professionals, and Joyce's class at Juilliard is a good example. She and I both work with the same voice teacher, so I had a number of my students attend her class, and all of them came away with lots of practical ideas about how to improve their technique and interpretation. 


Juilliard was kind enough to make the class available for viewing as this YouTube playlist.


The bond between singer and pianist is essential to a great vocal recital. Musical Exchange member Laurel Recsetar shares what she learned watching legendary collaborative pianist Dalton Baldwin lead a Carnegie Hall master class.


“Sometimes you have to watch someone love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.” Yeah, that's it! 

Hi Claudia, I love this post. Most of the time I sing with a track because that is what i usually have available to me. But this post explains many reasons why it is waaayyy more fun to perform with live accompaniment because you get to make music together!

So glad you find it interesting and helpful, Jonah! I think that one of the best things about being a musician is the opportunity to collaborate with other artists, particularly those who play different instruments. I find it very satisfying to interpret songs with the help of a pianist I admire. The video tutorial on How to Interpret an Art Song addresses the significant role of the pianist in greater detail, so give it a look if you haven't already. It's wonderful that there are such a variety of tracks available to sing along w/ these days, but never pass up the opportunity to perform with other musicians!

Thanks for posting this, Claudia! I love that i always feel like I learn something new with every activity that I do if it is auditioning or taking a class or watching someone perform. and I try to pick out the biggest thing I learned each time. Like Mariana said just watching a masterclass or "just" reading about masterclasses, i can learn so much. I feel lucky to have the chance to learn from everyone on Musical Exchange!!



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