Masterclasses are strange things.
Who are they for? The audience - who want a sneaky peak at what it is to attempt to master a musical craft, or to revel in the discomfort of the student under pressure; The teacher - hoping to bask in the glory of nit-picking at the student or to revel in the joy of passing on a snippet of golden knowledge, and watch a performer grow; The student - hoping to build their craft, their confidence, and their repertoire; or all three?
Masterclasses are very strange environments - part classroom, part concert hall - they are pressure cookers and can work wonders or wreak havoc. This April, I was lucky enough to sing in two masterclasses that really opened my eyes and taught me excellent tips about singing and about musicality.
The first took place in the cosy, but much maligned, lecture room at the Cadogan Hall, at a very daunting 10:30am. This intimate space really enhances the opportunity to learn and makes the masterclass a real teaching experience. The audience is a fly on the wall of the practice room.
Most importantly, the masterclass was taken by the phenomenal Janis Kelly. As much an actress as a singer, with a reputation as an inspiring and career changing teacher, the chance to work with her was a real gift.
I performed E Susanna non vien...Dove sono. This aria comes from the second half of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and captures the Countess' heartbreak, as well as her determination not to despair, but to beat her cheating husband at his own game.
Janis created a safe atmosphere in which to play with vocal technique. We discussed posture and getting more width in the rib cage, so that the body filled with sound as the music grew in volume. Rather than risk pushing sound out, Janis showed me how to pull sound in and fill myself with passion and power. This was a great pointer and one I shall work on in the coming months.
We also looked at the drama of the aria - how do you keep a sense of presence and urgency in such formal and restrained music? She directed me, using the space and creating the events of the opera in my mind's eye.
Finally we looked at breathing - keeping the whole mechanism flexible and flowing, with air moving at the right pressure and speed. It was incredible to see her sing and the way she used her body as an instrument.
The second masterclass took on a very different guise. It took place at the beautiful and hipster Shoreditch Treehouse, as part of Debut Opera's new Masterclass series. It was also, unusually, led by a world-renowned accompanist, rather than a singer - Iain Burnside. This took the pressure off fractionally, as I knew I would be sharing the scrutiny with my wonderful duo partner, Panaretos Kyriazidis.
I had chosen to sing Song of the Nightclub Proprietress by Madeleine Dring and I hear and army by Samuel Barber.
We started with the comedy number; playing it for laughs and interacting outrageously with the Sunday afternoon audience enjoying their drinks.
Then Iain laid his hands on it.
We made the whole performance more internal, and looked at key words, and how the alliteration in Betjamin's poem can be best brought out. We talked about the character's inner tragedy, and how sometimes, humour comes from simply being more natural and capturing the truth of a text and a situation. We pared our performance right back to excellent audience feedback.
Next we took on the Barber. This is a real barnstormer of a piece. We looked at cleaning up rhythms and at finding times to bring down the volume and power of the piece and make it more mysterious. Iain worked with Panaretos to find new colours in the piano part.
This was a fantastically insightful masterclass which really got me thinking about the choices we have to make as performers and how those can depend on a venue, a time of day or even a mood.
My fortnight of masterclasses was immensely enjoyable and hugely helpful - but it also taught me great respect for those who have international musical careers, but who take the time to go back to the roots of classical music and share their wisdom with the next generation.