Making Master Classes Fun and Effective Darlene Irwin     February 21, 2014

Master classes are a great way to help students to feel more comfortable performing in a relaxed and informal setting.

My students have been very busy over the last few weeks preparing for our next master class this coming Monday. See below for the chart that I will be using for this master class. There is also a free download of the Excel file that I use for organizing my master classes.

Typically, a master class is a group class where students come together to play for each other and their teacher. It's a wonderful way to foster a sense of community among students in a studio. Students are able to associate with others who share their love of music. Many times I've had a student come for a lesson after a master class asking to play a piece that they have heard some one else play! It also gives younger students a chance to feel comfortable performing in front of others before playing in a larger recital.

A master class is also a great way for a teacher to assess the performance readiness of a piece. It gives students a chance to 'test' their memory. This is especially helpful if they are preparing for exams, festival classes or auditions. I usually have 3 regular master classes a year—one in the fall, one in the winter and one in the spring. This is over and above the two more formal recitals we hold during the year.

Here are some ideas for a successful master class: 

  • Don't make the class too long. My master classes are usually around 90 minutes. This gives about an hour for performances and teacher comments with some time left at the end of the class for the students to socialize. It's a good idea to mix up the longer songs and the shorter songs... don't save all the longs pieces for last!
  • It's always important to have refreshments at the end. The parents can take turns bringing snacks for the students.
  • One piece per student is probably enough. Try not to have too many long songs, especially if there are younger students in the class. I try to have the students perform a variety of music,  including some popular selections.
  • Students can work on 'The 12 Points of Performance'. These points are found on the back of our Sight Reading Cards and at the front of The Student Music Organizer. Students can practice what to do from the time they stand up to perform until they sit back down. These points really help students maintain focus throughout a performance.
  • I don't make memorization mandatory, but I do encourage it. Then they can choose to try it from memory or not. Many times, they do not even look at the score! This way, they don't have to play from memory until they are feeling ready to do so.
  • Make sure you start and end on time. Parents especially appreciate this!
  • Parents are generally not invited to attend. A master class should be more informal than a recital. That way the students feel as if this is their special time with the teacher.
  • Make the class fun by having a theme night. The photo above shows one of my fall master classes. We had Musical Costume Party!  Students could dress in black and white to match the piano keys or they could dress in a costume to match their piece!
  • In the winter, you could have a musical pyjama party. The younger students really like to bring their stuffed animals as an audience!
  • I like to have a class on 'Music Monday' (held on the first Monday in May). This is an official event in Canada, where it started 10 years ago. There are now similar events in the US, Australia, Britain and Hungary. Students are encouraged to "fill the skies with music". This year, Music Monday is scheduled for May 5th. You can even register your master class as an official event on the Music Monday website. My students love to feel as if they are a part of this amazing event!
  • Extra Master Classes can be scheduled during the year for students doing exams. That way, they have an opportunity to play their pieces as a concert group. I also have them play some of their technique... we have a Scale-a-thon. I call a student's name and a scale or chord and they have to run up to the piano and play it! The reward for playing well is an M&M. By the end of the game, they have a bag full!

Master classes can be a fun and effective way to help students share the joy of music.