The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music notes: Pianist Stephen Hough proves to be a master of the master class | March 2, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

“Those who can, do; those who can’t teach,” goes the old adage, often used unjustly to disparage or malign teachers.

But some people and professionals  – many, in fact – can do both and do, in fact, do both. I speak as a once practicing journalist who also taught journalism.

I was reminded again of that deceptive old saying when last week I attended a public master class given by the British classical pianist Stephen Hough at the University of Wisconsin School of Music.


Hough was in town to perform the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1 with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which he did beautifully three times last weekend, breathing new life into the old warhorse with some subtle phrasing and some unexpected uses of softness, of quietude rather than bombast.

Even before I stepped into the small recital hall where the class was to be held, I knew that Hough was a master performer with more the 40 recordings, many of them prize-winners, to his credit and a full schedule of tours and concert dates.

But Hough also proved to be a master teacher. If and when he ever retires from the concert stage — he already now holds some part-time teaching posts —  the conservatory or school of music or private students who land him as a teacher will be lucky indeed.

As I listened for two hours, several ideas of what makes for a great master class – and probably any great class – and for a great teacher came to mind.

One: The teacher has enthusiasm. Hough allowed each of the four students to play through their piece without interruption and then led the audience in applause and complimented the performers on what they had done well.

Only then did he proceed to suggest ways that performances can be improved. When he said the music in Schumann’s “Carnival Joke From Vienna” (Fashingswank aus Wien) need to dance and have more swing, he waved his arms and stomped his feet. He got caught up in the music. He was involved, not removed.

Two: The teacher has respect, tact and kindness. Done wrongly or insensitively, a master class can be an intimidating experience, even a public humiliation, for the students. You can’t just say “Oh, that’s terrible” or “Your teacher has it all wrong” or “Maybe you should switch to the violin” – although a famous singer once came here and told an older voice student that she should go into a different field because she didn’t have the right preparation and it was now too late to get it. It was a cruel kindness, but a kindness all the same.

Three: The teacher possesses honesty: During the Schumann – which Hough openly admitted he himself had never studied or played – he looked the student performer square in the eye and said “You have to make this interesting. With all that repetition, it can be really boring.” How refreshing it is to hear that kind of candor. And good teachers know that student always detect faking.

Similarly, when a student played Chopin’s “Bolero,” he confessed that he had never even heard the mish-mash of a piece. That admission comes from a man who is hardly ignorant of the piano repertoire and who has recorded and performed a boatload of Chopin and who studied at Juilliard.

Four: The teacher speaks from personal experience but must also be game and open to new experiences, must be willing to learn as well as teach: Although Hough didn’t know the Bolero, he threw himself into the music and on-the-spot made very helpful suggestions that turned the performance into a more musical and more convincing one.

Five: The teacher needs a sense of detail and concrete to be most helpful. Music especially often reduces one to wordlessness. But Hough was inventive at describing the effect he wanted. “The left hand here is more of a carpet than a piece of furniture, “ he advised at one point. “It’s just there, sort of underfoot and supporting the rest of the music.”

To one student, who performed a technically brilliant rendering of Chopin’s sublime “Polonaise-Fantaisie,” which Hough recently recorded, he said simply; “You’re doing all the right things, but I don’t believe you.” In other words, you have to make the music convincing to yourself if it is going to be convincing to the audience and to other listeners. So Hough explored how the student can realize her intentions better, and how music inevitably falls on the ear different than you find it on the page.

He suggested using silence to let the beauty finish. He suggested orchestrating piano pieces with the colors of various instruments — winds, brass, strings — for specific passages. He suggested specific fingering changes – such as focusing on the pinky rather than the thumb (which naturally always sounds louder) in octaves, and how trills always sound better when they are even — with the specific goal of changing the tone or loudness. And he suggested always aiming for a sense of mystery, of improvisation, of the unexpected.

The student tried again and it worked magically well. Great coaching begets great results.

I heard the difference, he heard the difference, the audience heard the difference and – most importantly – the student heard the difference.

In Mozart’s Sonata in A Minor, Hough helped another student overcome a similar problem with the potentially monotonous repeated chords in the bass. “When we repeat something, it always means something different the second or third time – whether in speech or in music.” And then he played the same chords with different inflections, mimicking military brass, and different, clearer pedaling — and again demonstrated what a world of difference it made.

Well, there is more I could on about. But you get the idea.

If I were Stephen Hough, who is a terrific blogger and writer, I would get myself a tape recorder or digital voice recorder plus a video recorder and record all the master classes I do – or have the schools where I do them record them for me. Then I would have someone transcribe them and I would edit them into what I am sure would be a very valuable and helpful textbook, with a helpful CD/DVD for interpreting piano music and specific pieces with specific interpretive or technical problems – and for exploring the techniques that make for great teaching and great piano playing.

Hough doesn’t seem the kind of virtuoso who wants to hide rather than share his secrets.

See for yourself in this sample of a Stephen Hough master class on Liszt:

A lot of classical musicians who come through Madison offer master classes at the UW-Madison. But not many excel as often and successfully as this one did. Thank you to all the students and thank you to Stephen Hough.

Here is another example by another favorite pianist of mine, Richard Goode. Take a look and listen and see if you find some of the same qualities I am talking in his master class at Bard College:

Have you ever sat in on a master class?

What were your impressions or reactions?

Have you ever played for a master class?

What qualities do you think make for a great music teacher?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music

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