Tuesday, December 2, 2008

So you want to hold a masterclass...

What is a masterclass anyway? The basic format is that a select group of young artists perform and coach their repertoire with an established professional in their field – all with their peers looking on and listening.

How the master professionals choose to use the time is anything but basic. What kind of learning atmosphere will they create? What boundaries will they establish for themselves in terms of what or what not to say? How does one go about giving advice and coaching to a young artist for the first time in front of total strangers?

I don’t know if those were the exact questions on Joyce DiDonato’s mind when she came to hold a masterclass with the HGO Studio last month, but it was clear from the first moment that she came with a constructive vision for how the time would pass (whether or not she’d admit that to you!)

The way Joyce introduced herself to us was as memorable as any of the work we did afterwards.

She talked to us about herself and the way her career began – and didn’t begin in as many words. She readily answered any questions we had about her conservatory training and her time as an HGO studio artist. There is something altogether transcendent and encouraging about listening to a talented goddess like Joyce DiDonato talk plainly and openly about her journey to where she is now, without the slightest hint of bitterness about past failures or boasting about present success.

Before moving on to the singing portion of our class, she reminded us to do something for our own journeys that too many of us forget in the daily grind, “Enjoy the ride.” Then one by one, singers got up to perform a range of repertoire from “Depuis le jour” to “Se vuol ballare” to “Give him this orchid.”

I think the best word to describe what she wanted from us consistently through both sessions was awareness. Awareness of what? It varied from person to person. Often times we default into certain habits when we’re not really living in the moment or being specific with our text. Glazed expression, a careless arm gesture here, a tossed-away verb there – sometimes we give the illusion of being connected to what we’re saying but in reality even the most artistically illiterate audience can pick up on insincerity.

It was this tendency that Joyce relentlessly picked out and made us redo with textual and presentational precision. She helped us take risks that might be counterintuitive but deceptively simple, whether it might mean staring at one fixed point for the first eight measures or smiling during a particularly horrible and traumatic point in the aria.

And you just know that the class is awesome when the pianists are just as riveted by what’s going on as the singers.