The cult of the individual

Yesterday I had a message from someone who organises the masterclasses I teach at a university. This year she told me that there won’t be any masterclasses. Students don’t like them and don’t see why they should have to attend them if the music being taught is ‘not relevant’ to them. Masterclasses are an ‘add-on’, not a required module. The organisers have found that if they make attendance compulsory, students complain. If they make attendance optional, students don’t go. Guest professors found they were teaching to no audience at all. It was no different from giving a private lesson, just in a big empty room.

I first came across the masterclass principle when I was a student at the International Musicians’ Seminar at Prussia Cove in Cornwall. Masterclass seminars were a brilliantly economical way of teaching lots of people at once. Three different students played at each session, and the rest of us listened. Everyone heard every lesson. It meant that the teacher (Sandor Vegh, for example) didn’t have to keep repeating general principles. Nobody missed out on precious anecdotes told to one person alone. We learned so much from listening to other people being taught. If they played beautifully, we felt inspired. If they had problems, we discovered how one could work at them. No compulsion was necessary for us to attend the classes – anyone who didn’t go would have been regarded as weird. Although the teaching rooms were large, it was standing room only. People sat on the floor and crowded into the space by the door.

Of course, we had chosen to be there and were eager to learn. It wasn’t part of a larger course offered by an insitution, or a module we were forced to take. It was a special course which happened in the holidays and was always over-subscribed. So perhaps it’s not comparable with the kind of masterclasses I teach at institutions during term-time.

Nevertheless I (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) have noticed a trend away from idealism to a much more individualistic attitude towards what is worth learning. Today’s students are encouraged to think of themselves as ‘customers’ with ‘bespoke courses of study’. They can decide what is or is not directly relevant to them, especially with regard to the job market. Tutors have to state in advance what the ‘learning outcomes’ are going to be, so that students can take a view on whether or not they need to know that thing.

In the Prussia Cove masterclasses we never knew what the ‘learning outcomes’ were to be, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any. In fact there were more than we could ever have imagined. You know what your own problems are, but you don’t know what other people’s are. Likewise your strengths: you may be complacent about your own level of achievement until you hear someone more advanced, and then your ears may be opened.

How can students know what is going to be useful to them or not? Life takes you in directions you can’t predict. When you’re a student it’s so important to absorb as much information and learn as many ways of working as you can, because there’s no way of knowing which of them will enrich your life.

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This entry was posted on Sunday 3rd September 2017 at 11:27am and is filed under Daily Life, Musings, Teaching. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

10 Responses to “The cult of the individual”

  1. Cameron John said on

    ‪Thank you for you article.

    Although disappointing to hear, I’m glad to report that this doesn’t reflect my experience at St Mary’s Music School. Our regular masterclasses are seen by pupils as a highlight and invaluable. ‬Oftentimes we struggle to accommodate all those who wish to play and it is just as likely to find an oboist listening to a piano class as it is a pianist listening to a violin class. In yearly appraisals, so often is it the visit from an experienced performer or teacher which stands out in pupils’ minds as having a hugely positive bearing on their musical development. We strive to bring in performers from differing areas, from jazz, traditional, those with orchestral backgrounds as well as soloists and chamber musicians because, as you rightly suggest, their insight is a gift. J

  2. John Thwaites said on

    Time to start working in Birmingham!

  3. Susan Tomes said on

    Thank you, John. It’s reassuring to know that the appetite for masterclasses is still strong at St Mary’s, though perhaps as a specialist music school it has more in common with the Prussia Cove masterclasses than it does with the ‘degree course’ students at a university. In any case, I quite agree that St Mary’s Music School nurtures a good learning environment.

  4. Susan Tomes said on

    An intriguing comment there, Mr Thwaites!

  5. Mary Cohen said on

    I worry that music students don’t always appreciate the huge range of skills they are going to need in life. How can you teach chamber music if you’ve never watched it being taught? And how can you learn about chamber music if you’ve never watched it being taught? When I was at Music College my teacher had a rule with all his pupils that everyone had to come in ten minutes early to watch the end of the previous pupil’s lesson. We also all belonged to a Sonata Class, where we were coached in front of each other;everyone had to perform in two classes per term and attend the classes to watch. If you didn’t attend classes to watch regularly enough, you were not allowed to perform.

  6. David Marwick said on

    Although I have been retired for nearly 10 years, latterly I had difficulty persuading Computer Science students to study a first year maths course – because ‘it wasn’t relevant’. Interestingly, graduates were often very grateful for having done the maths in retrospect. As you say, how can students really know what will be relevant? So, it is not just in music.

    The ‘customer’ thing is part of it. I wish I had thought of the down side of learning outcomes at the time!

  7. Jon Jacob said on

    There is something remarkable to be observed in a masterclass. First, you hear a complete performance of a movement from a work you may not have heard before. You think you’ve heard something amazing – a moment where the performer has tried to create a magical moment. We’ve all willed them. We’ve all experienced something. Then you hear someone with more experience encourage that same performer to look at the work from a different perspective. Then we hear the resulting performance. In the moment, the transformation itself is amazing. The audience gets the best of both worlds. The performer gets something rare and incredibly valuable. I’ve always felt incredibly humble in a masterclass. I don’t understand why anyone would consider participating in one an onerous task.

  8. Susan Tomes said on

    What a nice comment, Jon, thank you. I agree with you about the remarkable effects of masterclasses. I’ve been reminded by those less enthusiastic that a masterclass can be a vehicle for an egocentric ‘star’ professor to demonstrate their superiority over the students, but that hasn’t been my own experience. I know some people feel it is all too easy for a masterclass tutor to blaze through, make a dramatic impression, and leave the regular teachers to cope with the aftermath. As with all kinds of teaching, there are good methods and bad methods. But I’d say that the best masterclasses can be true highlights of anyone’s learning process.

  9. Nicholas Walker said on

    “How can students know what is going to be useful to them or not?” Well said! I struggle with this problem a great deal. The whole idea of “learning outcomes” is hostile to a holistic education: one never knows what is going to turn out useful; I am very grateful to have been exposed to all kinds of musical and non-musical ideas.

  10. James said on

    Some of my favourite memories from university were from masterclasses, so this is troubling news. I used to feel exactly the same about music history when I was studying – I won the prize for it every single year because I was so interested, the rest were just interested in playing their instruments. I think a lot of it is about age – people in music colleges are quite young and tend to be fairly headstrong in what they “will” and “won’t” do!

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