Master Classes

What, exactly, is a master class?

A class taught my a master, no? Seems to make sense.

I have seen my share of master classes, unfortunately, by people who have not, themselves, mastered anything.

One memorable one was taught at Juilliard by a very very famous accompanist who had worked with all sorts of important opera singers. This gentlemen was truly a master at accompanying but his style of doing the class was to bounce around all over the stage, waving his hands and making remarks that were sometimes clear and sometimes not, sometimes helpful and sometimes not and spending a lot of time talking about his own experiences as an accompanist. There is nothing wrong with any of this, of course, but only some of it seemed useful to the students.

Then, at the end, out came a counter tenor. I don’t remember what he sang (this was probably over 20 years ago) but it was an early music piece full of ornamentation and the young vocalist was very secure in what he did and how he did it. The master teacher was clearly not tremendously familiar with this material, but instead of admitting it out loud, he boldly rushed in, (and the angels are right in that they fear to tread in such circumstances) and asked the young man to do something with a phrase. The singer said as politely as possible, “but that would be wrong to the style of the music and to the way period embellishments are performed”. The master teacher quickly brought the session to an end. It wasn’t the student who looked bad.

I have countless other stories like this but I also have seen master classes that were truly brilliant. Classes in which the master teacher was able to find something vital, something special and important, and in the flash of an eye make the moment seem like a miracle. The audience could tell, the singer could tell and the master teacher quietly knew as well.

There is no specific way to learn to be a master teacher. You are asked, eventually, by others who perceive that you are a successful artist who might have something to teach rising young singers (or instrumentalists, if you play). There is no guarantee, however, that you will be able in 15 or 20 minutes, to say something that is profound, or even useful and specific. If you do enough of them, you will likely improve but I think some people will always be better at it than others.

In a recent “belting” master class I witnessed, the teacher said things to the student that the student tried hard to understand and use. You could see and feel his earnestness. I wrote a few of the teacher’s comments down. Here they are:

You see the G and you get tight. It’s totally mental.

You have to breathe into your cheekbones.

You are hooking into the low space.

Make more space in legit.

Connect to the sound.

The jaw should never be active. It’s useless. It should always be out of the way.

You are closing.

Feel the burn in your solar plexis.

Connect through the middle.

Think “droopy gooey” more.

Get rid of the jaw. You “hook” into the jaw.

Belt is an upside down triangle.

The jaw should not be part of the equation.

Use your “superbelt”.

If you activate the jaw you will be in trouble.

Move into a mix.

Use more resonance up there.

Don’t disconnect the chest.

Don’t disconnect from the support from the solar plexis.

By and large, most of these phrases are meaningless, in that, if you were to present them to an untrained but good belter, he or she would have no idea how to interpret them. Without precise language, coupled with an understanding of the vocal function of the mechanism, you might as well go back to the old ideas of vibrating your sinuses and supporting from the diaphragm.

This teacher also considered “mix” a “resonance strategy” (many men think this way) because he, himself, doesn’t really change vocal quality to get into a mix. (I didn’t think his belting was very belty. He was obviously a classical tenor). To this man, belting is just changing vowels. Sometimes, in the male voice, this is enough. In a classical female, one who is head register dominant, however, it is not. If the student can’t “move into a mix” how do you get them to? How do you even convey what a mix is?

And, unless you are in some kind of accident or have jaw cancer, you have a jaw. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to swallow or eat, and it would be very hard to talk. You can’t help but use it when you sing and if you want to “make more space” one of the most accessible ways to do that is to open your mouth by dropping your jaw straight down. The jaw is interconnected underneath the mandible to the muscles of the tongue and the larynx is hanging off those muscles in the front of the throat. Therefore, if you do not move your jaw, you can’t move much of anything else. Instructing someone to act as if a vital part of their vocal production machinery was not there is crippling instruction.

Sophisticated classical singers can keep the back of the mouth (velo-pharyngeal port) open with the mouth closed, like a ventriloquist, and this can be very effective. Belters, however, never sing with a closed mouth. NEVER.

Fear, of course, is a factor in singing. No one wants to sing something that is unstable and unreliable, lest the voice go off on its own and do something you don’t want. That does cause fear. In most beginners, it is always present and it is the teachers job to make it go away by improving the skill set of the student. If you are taking a baritone into higher pitches (a G is a very high note to a baritone) and you are a tenor, who can sail easily through a G, you do not understand pitch in relation to range and tessitura. Yes, you can make a person yell, that usually works, but it doesn’t sustain as a viable method of actually singing the pitch, in a mixier manner, because that is something that has to be achieved gradually, through training. If the student knows beforehand that he is going to crack, yes, he will be afraid of the “high note” but blaming him for that fear is as useless as blaming him for having a jaw. If I took you to the edge of a cliff and you were afraid of falling and then I stood very close behind you and leaned over your shoulder, unless you were very unusual, I would frighten you. It would be an appropriate response and I would be the reason you had it, not you and not the cliff.

I could go on, but you get the point.

Master teachers are few and far between. If you go to a master class, ask yourself if what you see and hear was actually useful to the student. If it was not, blame the teacher.

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