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.