The Flute Masterclass - Who needs it

by Amy Rice-Young (1988)

Why attend a flute masterclass? They're great! Ask anyone who's been to one! I'll never forget my first masterclass. It was with William Bennett at the Asilomar Conference Center in California in 1980. Sure, I'd been to other masterclasses, but they were one or two day affairs at a local university. I had to actually leave home to go to California! I was very scared, didn't know a single person there, nor the airport or facilities. I was certain that the flutists would be much better than I, and very stuffy, with nothing to talk about other than the flute. I did not know a lot of the music, and I didn't want to spend 24 hours a day learning it. Plus, I really thought that I was "burned out" or the flute and needed the summer off. So why did I go? I was pushed into it by a very caring friend, and it was great. I haven't missed a year since!

Everyone—yes everyone—needs a little inspiration, and a masterclass is the perfect way to get it. One thing I've learned is how much more there is to learn. An enormous amount is happening in the flute world, with new changes in the flute, new flutes, loads of new music (some of it good!), and hoards of new flute players. As a teacher, it's your responsibility to keep up with it all. As a performer, it's a necessity. Unlike a convention, a masterclass is very personal. You can get to know almost everyone there, have loads of fun, and learn a lot about yourself. Some of my very best friends are flutists and other musicians I've met at masterclasses. Finally, it allows everyone to unleash creative energy that day to day chores stifle. I most cases, you don't need to worry about what's for dinner, paying bills, and watching the kids. This is your chance to get away and do all the "flutey" things you've been needing and wanting to do.

So how do you find out about the various masterclasses? Word-of-mouth is the best source. Talk to other flutists who have been, and ask them about it. You can learn a lot from their experiences. There are also listings of summer masterclasses in all the major flute publications. Especially comprehensive lists are in Flute Talk and The Flutist's Quarterly. If you know of a flutist you want to study with, ask him/her directly where they might be teaching. Ask your private teacher for recommendations. And also check with any colleges, universities, music stores, publishers or instrument manufacturers in your area. All of these people should have a good idea about classes.

Once you have a list, it is important to determine which class is right for you. While all of them have similarities there are a number of differences which can affect your decision. The most obvious, of course, is the teacher. If a class sounds interesting, yet you are unfamiliar with the teacher, ask about past classes, teaching techniques, etc.

Some classes are very competitive, while others have open attendance. Check the requirements for a taped audition to be a performer; if you do not wish to perform, look for other categories of participation. Don't let the audition tape scare you too much, but try to make the best tape you can. In many cases the tape is not only to determine whether or not you're accepted as a performer, but to assist with repertoire assignments. Should you not be accepted, there can be numerous reasons. If you're curious, ask about it. Usually you will be offered an alternate category of participation. Once you've decided about auditioning, look into the other competitive aspects of the class. Are there competitions during the week? Is there a concert of the best performers at the end? Decide in advance if you want to be a part of the competitions. Many classes are totally non-competitive. These can also be quite beneficial, as we all face a multitude of competitions in our everyday lives. It's important to remember the purpose of the masterclass.

Try to determine if a class is geared for a particular age group. Some classes will specifically state ages and/or levels. Others need a variety of ages and abilities to be successful. Still others are directed for professional players, or students, or teachers, or any combination of these. For example, I've taught a flute choir session for the George Pope masterclass, which specifically states that it is for advanced high school and college students. I also teach a flute ensembles class at Wildacres that is most successful when there is a variety of ages, i.e., students and teachers. In this class, the teachers come to learn more about ensembles and the repertoire, but can learn an enormous amount from the students who are there, and their reactions. Performers in classes with William Bennett, Stephen Preston, or Andras Adorjan should be advanced performers who are interested in perfecting their skills. One does not need to be of this caliber to attend as an auditor, as there are many, many musical and technical aspects to be learned from observing, but one should keep this in mind if submitting a tape to perform. If a class does not state age and/or ability requirements, then check the repertoire list and see if you are comfortable with it.

Consider if the class is for a specific specialty area that is of interest to you. More and more flutists are finding that they are able to increase their performance opportunities by knowing the different aspects of the flute. Unfortunately, not all of us are able to play in a major symphony orchestra, teach at the university of our choice, or have successful solo careers. It can be beneficial to increase your options. There are some marvelous classes offered in contemporary music, baroque flute, 18th-and 19th century music and techniques, chamber music, teaching philosophies and flute repair. In some cases, more than one class can be taken in the course of a week. If uncertain about exactly what will be covered, check the repertoire list and/or talk to the director. He or she will be happy to answer your questions!

The size of a class can also be influential. Is it extremely large, over 100 flutists, or more intimate, between 50 and 100, or relatively small, under 50 participants. What size group do you feel most comfortable with? There are many advantages and disadvantages to all size classes. A large class can be less personal, yet allows a greater opportunity to meet people and often offers more "extras", such as ensembles and repair. A small class can be very intimate, and allows lots of personal attention. Yet you can be put on the spot much more easily and frequently. Once again, remember what you want to gain from the class.

Of course, the costs, locations and time of year are necessary factors. While you have little choice in these matters, do keep in mind that distance isn't always so far as it may seem and that the airlines have some reasonable rates when booked in advance. The costs of a class are determined by many factors: size, location, accommodations and food, and especially the teachers. Not only are their salaries, but transportation costs for teachers (especially foreign), pianists and staff.

If the class is offered "for credit", that will be an additional cost. Anyone in need of financial assistance should check to see if scholarships are available. I think you will find in most cases that masterclasses are a tremendous value for the cost.

To get the most out of a class, be prepared! Know which level of participation you want, whether Performer, Participant or Auditor, and what is expected of you. Be familiar with the repertoire. This doesn't mean that you must know every piece, but learn as many as you can. Arrive at the class on time and plan to stay for the full class. It can be very distracting to everyone involved when members of the class are popping in and out, and you deny yourself the complete opportunity. There are always understandable exceptions, but by planning ahead you will be allowing yourself a greater chance to obtain the full benefit of the class. Know any specific items you might particularly want help with or want to discuss. While you're bound to have new ideas or questions during the class, coming prepared with questions will help to stimulate discussion. If you're not quite sure what you're planning to get from the class, or if you're a little nervous and this is your first class, that's okay too. I can promise you that plenty of ideas will be actively discussed!

Here are a few tips I've found which can truly help to make your experience more enjoyable. Follow the instructions you receive for the director. Read all of the materials and meet the deadlines. In some of the classes I have directed, performers have failed to submit audition tapes on time, and are very disappointed to find that the performer category is full. This is not always the case, so call and check if your tape will be late. When forms are not returned on time, specific requests often cannot be met. Masterclass directors do everything we can to accommodate people attending the classes, but we must be given enough notice to enable us to make arrangements. Never bring children or pets without asking first. Be sure to pay your fees on time. When fees are late, you take the chance of sacrificing your place in the class. If you need to cancel, do so as early as you can. In many cases, at least part of your deposit can be refunded. Never assume that the director knows that you've cancelled merely because you haven't paid your fees in full. It's amazing how many times people just forget to pay.

Keep an open mind. You don't have to agree with everything you hear. It's your option to retain what you feel is important and discard the rest. But at least listen, give it a try, and think about it. There may be a whole new perspective to something you already knew!

Finally, be prepared to make new friends, learn a lot and have a wonderful time in the process. Masterclasses aren't all hard work. Some of the best parties I've ever been to, most clever skits I've seen, and funniest jokes and limericks I've heard have been at masterclasses. It's the combination of all of this that makes masterclasses so special and such a terrific atmosphere in which to learn. If you've already been to one, you know. If you've never been to one, go! Hope to see you there!