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Blog // Creativity
October 23, 2021

What Is A Masterclass?

The word masterclass gets used a lot but it used to have a very specific meaning in the world of music.

“You could just give a masterclass on mastery.”

My friend was joking about this current series, but the comment stuck with me because the word “masterclass” feels so overused.

Every other room on Clubhouse advertises itself as a masterclass. It’s the same for so many online courses or in-person workshops. In sports, an excellent performance is often described as a masterclass.

Masterclass has become an adjective, a way of describing how good a service or performance is.

But what about the historical definition of masterclass? That’s masterclass as a noun, a thing, a particular kind of learning experience. Is that definition relevant anymore?

What Is A Masterclass?

Picture a small concert hall. As you enter with the rest of the audience, you see two chairs at the centre of the stage with a row of chairs behind them. You take your seat, and then a procession of musicians come out and sit down in the row of chairs on stage. After a brief wait, loud applause greets the famous concert musician, who takes one of the two seats at the centre of the stage.

The first of the musicians in the back row comes up and takes the empty seat next to the famous musician. They start to perform. The famous musician stops them, points out some technical detail, and then the music starts again. The pattern continues. Interruption, critique, performance. Some musicians get to play their whole piece without interruption. Most don’t. Some interruptions become lectures. Others cause the famous musician to pick up their instrument and demonstrate.

This is a masterclass.

I was in the audience for the scene described above. To me as a teenager, it was eye-opening. I can’t even remember the name of the guitarist who gave the masterclass, but I can remember how good all the students were – good enough to be giving concerts themselves.

These masterclasses are still part of the classical and jazz world. Their name derives from the presence of a “master” musician as teacher. But really, the point of the masterclass is mastery of the instrument and the art of performance.

The Path To Mastery

A masterclass is a high-pressure learning environment. The focus is entirely on the small but important differences between advanced students or good musicians and world-class performers.

The masterclass isn’t about the “master” showing off their knowledge and skill. Instead, the masterclass is about pushing the advanced student to become better, to notice more of the music’s details, to understand their instrument more deeply, and to develop the habits and mindset to perform at the highest level.

The masterclass has three essential components: an excellent teacher who has demonstrated mastery of the craft, advanced students who are on the path to mastery, and the accountability that comes from doing this teaching in a public space.

The Situation We Face

The word masterclass was cleverly co-opted by the online education company Yanka Industries, which markets itself as MasterClass and offers online classes with world-famous actors, chefs, film-makers, musicians, and writers. The company’s subscription-based education model is hugely successful, leading MasterClass to be valued recently at $2.75 billion.

While the MasterClass instructors would all be suitable teachers in the model we described above, what MasterClass lacks is the selective approach to choosing students, personally tailored learning, and the public forum for learning.

Large online courses sometimes offer cohorts as a solution. These present themselves as being similar to university tutorials. But cohort leaders usually lack the domain expertise university tutors have, and the cohort lacks the peer pressure that comes from grades and shared assessments.

These cohorts are more like the small groups churches use. Church adherents come together, often in a leaderless dynamic, to analyse lessons, share experiences, and build connections as a way to reinforce their commitments.

Coaching is a popular alternative that also tries to enter this space. But coaching happens mostly in private, and most coaches are not master practitioners, but more like teachers with specifically developed educational skills.

Where To From Here

We’ve probably lost the battle to save the word masterclass. Much like the word “decimate”, masterclass has acquired a broader and less specific meaning, becoming an adjective rather than a noun, a way to describe the qualities of a performance or teacher.

But we can still look for those comments of the masterclass in different ways. The company of advanced serious students. The access to elite practitioners. The public accountability for our learning journey.

Perhaps the modern masterclass is a thing we construct for ourselves on our journey to mastery?

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