I don’t know that I ever really got the most out of the master classes I participated in. I might have gotten marginally more out of the one or two-off lessons I had with visiting artists, but as I frequently point out: I was a less than ideal student. I just didn’t know how to get more out of lessons and certainly was not the most successful practicer, although I diligently averaged 5 or 6 hours a day for years upon years using the brute force method. Now, after lots of teaching and successful shorter practice sessions, here are some tips (as per the poll results on the masthead) to help people who I will be meeting, as well as for those who are presented with other like opportunities.
1) Play something at your level.
If you’re working on something and are challenged by it, don’t make the mistake of trying to impress observers with either a piece that is too easy (lowball) or something flashy and out of your technical scope (screwball). Just bring your current piece. Unless you’re coming to me to work on a piece that is deliberately too difficult and you want to address new techniques, most teachers will feel compelled to work on the interpretive aspects of the thing during a master class. Not pretty when you don’t quite get around in thumb position or have no idea what that teeny little note with all of the ledger lines is. If you are going to have a few lessons, like what you’d get at a summer festival, it might be better to work on a gnarly Popper etude if you want to make substantial technical progress and have a sense that you can then keep up that kind of work once you return home. The best thing you can say to a teacher with whom you have a finite time is “I’m not very good at X.” or “I’ve always wanted to get better at Y.” From there, they can prescribe the right tonic to soothe your restless cello-y soul. Chances are it’s not the piece you’re working on while your usual teacher is not looking.
2) Open up.
I remember keeping a crummy list in my head of all of the stuff a particular clinician said that had some sort of conflict with what Ron had told me. What a waste of time! First off, the guy probably was trying to get me to the same end as Ron was, but also being flexible as a student makes you much more nimble and quick to adapt and change. Which, dear cellist, is the point of lessons and the entire learning process. So let’s say I am your clinician and I tell you to do something like roll your bow to the complete opposite side that you and your teacher have been working on for 5 years.
Just try it! Don’t waste time making a list! If it doesn’t work, I will be the first to back away from that approach. If it works but feels weird, fine! Much long term grief can be avoided if you quickly assimilate changes into your practice. If I had recorded every one of my private lessons on video, you would see some formidable faces: Ron Leonard (of course), Cathy Graff (my cello mama), Hans Jorgen Jensen, Eleonore Schoenfeld, David Aks (CSUN’s secret weapon), John Walz, Vic Sazer. And I could, from those lessons assemble an AFV-style montage of the same advice over and over again. Did I think I was clever? That I had the answer? Of course not. But it was easier to endure the frustration than it was to get real in my practice. I did that thing that I warn you guys not to do: I was looking for magic, for alchemy. There must be some mystical place that I am just not getting to! More pizza! Maybe if I use that rosin with gold flakes in it. Is that pizza here yet? It’s this edition! The notes are too close together. Order the Barenreiter one for $50.
Actually, I needed to un-pronate my left hand (Ron and Vic Sazer), learn to breathe (Cathy and Vic) and be very careful with the placement of my bow (Ron and Hans). And I did. When I was alone, for 10 hours a day during my time in London. I had to be alone with my problems thousands of miles from my old habits with the pressure of performing the Rococo Variations in front of a large audience bearing down on me. There was no other way.
3) Enjoy the experience.
Learning under observation (just like teaching in front of an audience) is another way to broaden yourself as a cellist. It’s a dimension that lots of folks, especially adult amateurs, shy away from. My mission is to give the people I teach the tools to make meaningful improvement while deeply enjoying the cello. It should not be a chore. It is a devotion. It should not make you doubt yourself. It should reassure you that you continue to grow. It is not impossible. It just requires the kind of love and discipline that we only really encounter when dealing with other people; only we are dealing with ourselves. So soak it up. Spending a day immersed in cello-y goodness is a great thing to do. Enjoy it!