The Masterclass: Learning in a Group Setting

There are many ways to prepare for a performance, including taking your practice out of the practice room and into a masterclass setting. (Photo by David A. Wolfe)

At Kennedy Violins we often offer people tips on how to practice more efficiently or sightread or learn music theory. But it’s hard to teach someone how to become a better performer. Why is performing so difficult? Probably because as musicians, we spend far more time playing for ourselves, alone, than we ever do playing for other people.

I mean, this makes total sense. Say you spend 100 hours practicing a piece before it’s “performance ready.” But once you’ve worked on a piece, having played it for yourself and for your teacher, does that mean you’re ready to take it to the stage in a recital or concert setting?

Perhaps. But there’s another step, another place and setting where you can “perform before performing,” and prepare yourself even more effectively for your upcoming debut. That setting is in a masterclass.

What is a Masterclass?
A masterclass is a session where a group of students have the unique opportunity to perform for and critique each other. Typically, a masterclass is a gathering of all the students under the tutelage of a single teacher. At each masterclass a few students will perform a piece they have been learning in their private lesson. After the performance of their piece, the teacher and/or students will offer their commentary, critiques, suggestions, and (if you’re with nice people) praise and encouragement!

Guest Artist Masterclasses
You might have the opportunity to attend a special masterclass with a guest artist. Accomplished performing artists often offer a masterclass in conjunction with a performance held. For example, an artist might perform a recital at a university, then conduct a masterclass with music students at the school. This allows students to gain an even broader perspective from a musician other than their private teacher or professor.

Where are Masterclasses Held?
Almost all college and graduate schools incorporate masterclasses as part of the music curriculum. Younger and older students who aren’t studying in a conservatory setting may have the opportunity to attend masterclasses through their schools, private studios, youth symphony programs, camps, festivals, or other music forums.

The Benefits of Performing in Masterclass
Performing in a masterclass is one of the best ways to conquer your nerves, overcome performance anxiety, and stand up to perhaps the toughest audience you’ll ever have. I’ve often felt more intimidated to play in a masterclass of five students who play my instrument than to play for an audience of 100 people who may have never even heard a string bass solo. But that’s the beauty of the masterclass: you get the best tips from people who understand what you’re doing and how to do it.

Masterclasses offer you extra sets of ears to hear things you don’t hear, different perspectives on the interpretation of the music, and a “practice audience” who will give you extra-useful feedback on your performance. A thorough critique of your performance by a group of musicians may be hard to swallow, but it will help you develop as a musician far more than the 100th “Good job!” someone says after your recital.

Of course, those “good jobs” are so, so worth it to hear because it means you accomplished something AMAZING by performing live music! And attending masterclasses can be a huge help towards the successful accomplishment of that great task.

The KV Concert Series: Upcoming Workshops
Speaking of guest artists and masterclasses, we invite you to attend the first performing in our fall concert series! Dan Levenson will be performing on Friday, September 27 at 7:00pm in our recital hall at Kennedy Violins (508 SE 117th Avenue, Vancouver, WA 98683) and conducting workshops on Saturday, September 28 at 4:00pm and 6:00pm.

Hope to see you there! Visit kennedyviolins.com/concerts for more details.

Back to School Tips for Parents: Practice vs. Homework?

It’s that time of year again!  I’m seeing photos pop up on Facebook and Instagram of my friends’ children ready for their first day of school — backpacks on, fresh new outfits, big smiles. And while these courageous kids may be a little nervous to tackle a new year, it’s often the parents who feel more overwhelmed when school starts up again.

We’re getting a glimpse of that at Kennedy Violins as parents call us in preparation for orchestra season. There is so much to worry about — filling out registration forms, buying new school clothes, sizing up that endless list of school supplies, getting everyone fed and dressed in the morning, meeting with the PTA, getting to know your child’s teacher, hoping your child has good friends and stays out of trouble . . . it’s enough to make you want to just sit still at a desk for a few hours while someone lectures you about the Civil War.

And then there’s homework. Before you know it, the dining table is buried in notebooks and papers and textbooks and (these days) a laptop or iPad or two. And somewhere, underneath a pile of backpacks and sports equipment you might find your child’s violin.

For children in school music ensembles, there’s yet another somewhat-intangible task that needs to be accomplished between all that homework: PRACTICE. Because not all music teachers require their students to keep a practice log that will be graded, the expectations to practice are vague for most studens who don’t know how much, how often, or simply when to practice during the school week.

As a parent, you want your child to succeed in both academics and extracurriculars, but finding a balance can be a real challenge. (See “Back to School: Music, Extracurriculars & Life Balance.”) So when your child is stressing out about a book report due on Friday, is it possible to step away from Bronte to spend some time with Brahms? Does practice interrupt study time, or does study time interrupt practice?

Hopefully neither. When it comes to encouraging your child to practice AND do well with their studies, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Homework, homework, homework. (Photo by John Morgan)
Homework, homework, homework. (Photo by John Morgan)
  1. Homework and practice are both important. Neither are superior to the other; rather, they complement each other. If you want your child to take music seriously, emphasize how important practice is to becoming a great musician. Likewise, your child’s love for music shouldn’t keep them playing Rock Band for hours on end when there’s a huge exam coming up. Balance is key (see below).
  2. There IS time to practice during the week. Hard to believe? Yes. Impossible? No. Scheduling and setting aside time for both homework and practice is key. For elementary students, even ten minutes of focused practice every day is a huge accomplishment! Older high school students serious about their musicianship might commit to practicing an hour+ per day. Maybe practicing every other day works better for your child. But no matter what the goal is as far as how much time to spend practicing, the key is consistency and regularity. Practicing doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking. Just carve out a slot of time in the morning, while dinner is cooking, right after school, or whatever works for you and your child.
  3. Establish a place to study and a place to practice. Most students have a study space at home, whether at a desk in their room or at a table or in an office. Similarly, designate a place to practice. It could be a room or simply a corner somewhere where there is already a music stand set out, a metronome at hand, a shelf for music, a storage spot for the instrument, and decent lighting. So when you say, “Hey, Johnny, it’s time to practice!” he knows exactly where to go to make it happen.
  4. Being well-rounded is a good thing. Academics, arts and music, and sports/physical fitness are all wonderful and each require discipline. Encourage your child to embrace both academics and practice as exercises for different parts of the brain. Music sharpens the mind and will likely help your child do better academically as a direct result of learning an instrument.
  5. Practice can be seen as a nice break from time at the desk. When you notice your child’s eyes glazed over and drool trickling down onto George Washington’s face in the history textbook, try for a change of pace. Doing something physical like standing up to play an instrument is so invigorating after reading or writing for too long. Practice can be actually be really relaxing and rejuvinating when the brain is otherwise fried.
  6. Homework can be a nice break from time at the music stand. After practicing a really difficult exercise or piece, encourage your child to take a break–like flopping down on the couch to read an assigned chapter before returning to the music stand to finish up.

    Need a change of pace? Try practicing outdoors with a friend! (Photo by John Benson)
    Need a change of pace? Try practicing outdoors with a friend! (Photo by John Benson)
  7. Practice can be fun. Mix things up. Keep the act of both practice and study far from grueling. Keep a positive attitude about practice by talking about practice as if it is (and because it totally can be) an enjoyable activity and something fun to do. Talk about the instrument as something special and worth respect. Avoid treating practice as a form of punishment or your child will begin to view practicing and eating slimy green vegetables as similar forms of torture.
  8. Practice is a form of homework. If practice is seen as an optional activity, it may never happen. Treat practice like an assignment, as something that must be accomplished.
  9. Family time is essential. Doing homework and practicing don’t have to draw away from positive family relationships and time together. Try practicing with your child. Ask them (in a positive, inviting way) to play what they’re learning for you or to perform for the family. And when it’s time to hit the books, try sitting down to study with your child by helping them with their assignments or simply sitting next to them while you do your own reading, study, or work. Being present is a simple way to be supportive.
  10. Don’t take anything too seriously. Keep calm. Don’t panic. Everything is going to be just fine.

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We wish you the best with the new school year, whether you are a parent or student. As always, feel free to contact us with all your musical questions–we always happy to help. Visit us at kennedyviolins.com or on Facebook and keep in touch. It’s an exciting time, so we hope you enjoy the ride!

Feature image by Phil Roeder.