An Un-Master Class in London

On Thursday 27th April, our studios in London hosted a very special event! William Westney, author of best-selling book The Perfect Wrong Note and contributor to the Online Academy presented a demonstration of his unique Un-Master Class ® performance workshop with a group of in-person performers and participants.

If you’re not familiar with the traditional masterclass format, what usually happens is several musicians will perform and then receive feedback on their playing from a pedagogue or artist. Although it can be incredibly useful for the performer, it can also be rather daunting. Furthermore, the audience is largely passive throughout.

William’s approach with his Un-Master Class is entirely different (he discusses the background to his format in a previous blog post). He introduced the class by talking about how music is a universal human birth right and something that children naturally move to and enjoy. So often our focus on getting the notes right, judgmental thoughts, insecurities and inhibitions get in the way of our expressive intentions and rob us of this child-like joy.

William Westney introducing his Un-Master Class

The class starts with a series of warm-up exercises that engage the full group from the outset. These exercises may seem a bit wacky, but they are cleverly designed to create a safe space and to help the group engage with music as a felt sense in the body rather than their minds. Although some participants were understandably apprehensive at first, there was a palpable energy and enthusiasm throughout the group by the end of the warm-up which lead beautifully into the performances.

What did you get?

William introduced the performances by explaining how feedback is facilitated in the session. Instead of giving advice to performers as to how things might be improved, feedback is restricted to a category William calls “Here’s what I got from what you did” rather than “How about you try this” or “Wouldn’t this be better”. This approach is very effective in that it respects the performer’s own creativity and authenticity. It allows them to solve their own problems in response to honest feedback and resists the temptation to step in and do it for them.

For the purposes of this session, the performers were required to perform from memory. This is can be incredibly challenging but there is a good reason for it – one of the objectives of the class is to create a sense of freedom in performance which is difficult to attain when bound to a score.

Once each performer had played their piece, the group provided them with feedback on what they got from the performance. William then worked with the performers by using a variety of different methods to help them solve problems and break barriers to expression. Often these activities involved other members of the audience in interesting ways!

Connecting with the audience

Our first performer played a Nocturne by Howard Blake and explained that she chose it because she felt her spirit soar the first time hearing it. Her intention was to be able to have the same impact on her audience and to communicate a sense of freedom. Although beautifully played and well received, one of the feedback points was that sometimes the journeys the melodies were taking the listener on were disrupted leaving them incomplete.  

The diagnosis was that these disruptions were caused by slips in concentration brought on by nerves and William’s remedy was ingenious. He had another participant stand directly in front of the performer at the piano with him. Then the performer was asked to play and attempt to look at them in the eye. Although this made it difficult to play the right notes, it was incredibly effective in enabling the performer to focus on the essence of music as a form of communication and connection.

William Westney and a participant working with a performer

Loving every note

Our next performer opted to play a Prelude by Bach and shared that he found Bach incredibly challenging to perform (a sentiment echoed throughout the group!), but that he wanted to communicate his feeling of joy at playing the piece without worrying about the technical challenges. William’s approach to helping him achieve his objective was to encourage him to play a difficult section and to “love every note” in order to feel a sense of delight in playing. You can watch the process of working towards an exuberant rendition unfold in this video excerpt:

You can read more about what the participants had to say about their experience of the class here. You can also purchase the recording here if you missed the event and would like to watch it.