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Saturday, 1 July 2017

The (Opera) Masteclass and the Heart

Many conservatoires across the world offer masterclasses as part of the education of their students, and many of those are open to the public, at low ticket cost, or free of charge. The master class teachers are artists in the field who have established their high level of ability beyond reasonable doubt; in many cases, they may be beyond the peak of their own performance career, allowing them time to expand into teaching. In this post I focus on opera master classes, as I have attended a number of these as a member of the audience. I expect that some of my observations can be transferred to masterclasses for instrumentalists.

In terms of arrangement, a master might visit a conservatoire to work with a selected number of students. Often, six students in a three-hour session get up to 30 minutes to work with the master, on one or two pieces (song or aria) they will have chosen and practiced with the piano accompanist beforehand. In many cases, the accompanist is a fellow-student. There is probably a very tough selection process for many students interested in being involved in a master class, and students are on record emphasising the honour it is for them to be selected, and how much they practice for the event. There are exceptions here, of course: at one masterclass I attended, the master concluded the session with one singer by asking bluntly (more saddened than annoyed) whether he was prepared to admit that he had not put in many hours of rehearsal with his accompanist, and the student did admit this. In other scenarios, young singers would attend a residence of several days with a master, again following a selection process. Those masterclasses are predominantly private, with a public showcase of masterclass and concert recital at the end of a week or two.

There is a certain etiquette around masterclasses: the student presents the rehearsed song or aria uninterrupted, while the master listens and observes closely. The master and audience applaud, then the master addresses aspects of technique and interpretation, often together. At the end, the student sings (part of) the song or aria again, and in all cases I have observed live or on video, the singer’s performance is much better after having taken on board the master’s advice.

Research into the masterclass has covered aspects of expertise, apprenticeship, etiquette, embodied pedagogy, the master’s experience and personal authority, the impact of the students’ experience, gender and level of study on their evaluation of a masterclass, and general views of students about their experience.

In a recent publication, “Towards a Theatre of the Heart” I explored the heart in relation to spirituality in general terms, and then considered the relevance of the insights of that exploration for theatre and performance practice. I coined the phrase theatre of the heart, and provided an analysis of its manifestations with reference to non-linear performance (Baumgartner’s Catch me if you can: Euridice 2012 Reloaded and Mike Pearson/Mike Brookes Iliad), atmosphere (Peter Brook), love (Zoo Indigo), and wisdom and age (Much Ado About Nothing, with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, 2013). The purpose of this consideration was to re-assess the nature of the experiences of creating theatre and of watching a performance in a way that does not seek to reduce it to brain activities, but allows a wider perspective that in turn can be shown not to rule out the dimension of brain activity as mutually exclusive.

From my experience of live masterclasses, they work best when the master teaches with an open heart.


Atkinson, Paul, Richard Watermeyer & Sara Delamont. 2013. Expertise, authority and embodied pedagogy: operatic masterclasses. British Journal of Sociology of Education 34 (4): 487-503.

Bærenholdt, Jørgen Ole, Jonathan Everts, Brynhild Granås, Nicky Gregson & Ruth L. Healey. 2010. Performing Academic Practice: Using the Master Class to Build Postgraduate Discursive Competences. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 34 (2): 283-298.

Creech, Andrea, Helena Gaunt, Sue Hallam, Linnhe Robertson. 2009. Conservatoire students’ Perceptions of Masterclasses. British Journal of Music Education 26 (3): 315-331.

Hanken, Ingrid Maria and Marion Long. Master classes – What do they offer? Oslo:  NMH-publikasjoner 2012:8.

Lalli, Richard. 2004. Master Plan. Opera News 69(1): 24-26.

Long, Marion, Susan Hallam, Andrea Creech, Helena Gaunt, Linnhe Robertson. 2011. Do prior experience, gender, or level of study influence music students’ perspectives on master classes? Psychology of Music 40(6): 683 – 699.

Long, Marion, Andrea Creech, Helena Gaunt, Susan Hallam, Linnhe Robertson. 2012. Blast from the past: Conservatoire students’ experiences and perceptions of public master classes. Musicae Scientiae 16 (3): 286 – 306. 

Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Daniel. 2017. "Towards a Theatre of the Heart", Annals of the University of Bucharest: Philosophy Series 66 (1): 199-221.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The German primary and secondary school systems, 1960s and 1970s

Now that my daughter Lilwen has completed two of four weeks of GCSE exams, with 26 exams across 9 subjects, I would like to reflect on and share memories of my school education. The memories are also lively because of a reunion of our class 40 years after we graduated from secondary school, which took place in late April.

Primary school started at age six, with four years. In my case, two years were conflated into one, so that I had three years of primary school, covering the syllabus of four years. At the end of primary school, the teachers sat together with parents on a 1:1 basis and discussed the progression path for the pupils, with three choices: Hauptschule, Realschule and Gymnasium, depending on student ability and profile. I remember that for me, progression to Gymnasium was never in doubt, and I also remember my first experience of the problems with this differentiation: I had mentioned in passing to a girl in my class, whom I liked at the time, that I was looking forward to being in Gymnasium with her; she looked at me very sadly and said that she was going to continue to Hauptschule: “You see, Daniel, I am not as clever as you are”. I had never considered the possibility of making judgments on the basis of “clever”.

Secondary school started in year 5, and lead all the way up to year 13. In years 5-10, all pupils of a cohort, i.e., who had started in year 5 in the same calendar year, were taught in three permanent groups, classes, of up to 30 pupils each. The years were named in Latin. The lower grade consisted of years 5,6,7, called Sexta, Quinta and Quarta. The middle grade consisted of years 8,9,10, called Untertertia, Obertertia and Untersekunda. The upper grade consisted of years 11,12, and 13, called Obersekunda, Unterprima and Oberprima. Our school had its own upper grade system, and my cohort was the last cohort allowed to graduate from this gymnasium with its own system. While at other schools, pupils in years 11,12 and 13 abandoned the core class system in favour of coming together only as cohorts of subject-specific courses, in our system the core class cohorts remained across years 11,12, and 13. In those core cohorts we remained for core subjects, Language (Latin or English), Maths, German (with three 50-minute lessons per week) and History, with Philosophy in year 13 and Geography in year 12 (with two 50-minute lessons per week). In addition to the core subjects, we had to select one main optional subject with the highest number of lessons per week (four), and at least one secondary option, with the same amount of lessons per week as in the core subjects (three). I chose biology as main option, and German/Theatre, French, English and Chemistry as secondary options. 

Two core cohorts were added to the three that had been in existence since year 5, made up of students from the Realschule schools in the area deemed “clever” enough to progress to Gymnasium. They were not integrated into the existing cohorts, but became two core cohorts in their own right, and had to struggle against discrimination because of their “difference”. The school made sure that teachers perceived to be particularly good and fair were selected where possible as their core subject teachers. For the main and secondary options, students from all five groups were mixed.

In years 5-10, examination took place through regular written assessments under exam conditions in each subject, with a certain set number of such assessments in each half year, but arranged only by the teacher concerned, and marked only by that teacher, without co-marking by colleagues or external input. The marks received on those assessments were then averaged and if between two marks, the contribution to class discussion was added to the weighting. The marks for each subject were then formalised in a report card in January/February and in June/July. The marks on the June/July report card determined whether a pupil could progress into the next year, or had to retake a year, moving down to the relevant cohort. Each year, each group would thus get repeaters from the year above. Marks ranged from 1(very good) via 2 (good), 3 (satisfactory), 4 (sufficient), and 5 (inadequate) to 6 (insufficient). A mark of 5 in two subjects, or a mark of 6 in one subject would count as grounds for a pupil to have to repeat the year.

In the first half of year 11, teaching in the core subjects continued normally, while the rest of allocated hours was given over to tasters of the option choices on offer. Each pupil could opt for a maximum of six of those tasters, which were taught by the teachers who would also take on those subjects for good for that cohort. At the end of the first half of year 11, pupils made their choice of optional subjects to continue. In the 2nd half of year 11, options were taught at full workload, but none of all year 11 marks counted towards the Abitur, the general qualification for university entrance.

In years 12 and 13, core subjects were taught in the established groups of pupils, each with their dedicated class teacher, in their dedicated classroom. For lessons in the main and secondary options, pupils went to the classrooms allocated to the options. Assessment for core and option subjects were in centrally timetabled assessments, two per half-year. The marks for each half-year report card were arrived at in the same way as before, averaging the assessment marks and adding the oral contribution where needed. In the 2nd half of year 13, one set of assessments followed the procedure established for years 12 and 13, followed by the main Abitur exams, which were longer (6 hours compared with four hours across years 12 and 13). For each subject, an average of all year 12-13 report card marks (two for year 12 and one for year 13) was further averaged with the marks of the 1st set of assessments from the 2nd half of year 13, and the resulting mark was finally averaged with the mark achieved in the Abitur exam proper. The Abitur-exam was double-marked internally. The entire body of teachers then discussed the marks profile for each pupil before finalising the final mark. Sometimes, pupils would be invited to an oral exam, and improving marks in an oral exam was also an option for pupils. 

To give an example, my profile in maths was:

Year 12 assessment 1: 1
Year 12 assessment 2: 3
Year 12 report card mark for the first half year: 2

Year 12 assessment 3: 3
Year 12 assessment 4: 4
Year 12 report card mark for the 2nd half year: 3

Year 13.1 assessment 1: 4
Year 13.1 assessment 2: 3
Year 13.1 report card mark for the first half year: 3

Year 13.2 assessment 3: 2

Years 12 and 13.1 average: 3
Combined years 12/13 average (3) and year 13 2nd half averagec(2): 3

Year 13 Main Abitur exam: 4

Average of combined years 12,13 (3) and Abitur exam (4), and thuis final Abitur mark: 3 (taking into account the fact that several of the previous averages were rounded up rather than down). 

Sadly, we were the last cohort following this system. Our head teacher lost his battle against the politician-bureaucrats in charge, who made sure that after his retirement, his successors never had his kind of intellectual power, but were good at pushing through orders from above…

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Opera in crisis?

Every now and then, art forms are considered as undergoing a crisis. Those who make that diagnosis are usually critics for the media or from an academic background. In 2015, Detlef Brandenburg, editor of the German Die Deutsche Bühne, published twelves statements about the current state of affairs of the art form of opera, with focus on the German scene, with its opera houses and opera sections at multi-section theatres.  

Detlef Brandenburg
Brandenburg argued that many new operas are being composed and staged; however, hardly any are taken up again at other opera houses after their premiere productions. Thus, these operas do not become known to a wider opera audience, and the composers do not get a chance to develop their work further to gain experience for future compositions. 

Conventional, canonical opera has attracted its audience because of very specific characteristics. These include a very emotion-laden plot, and, most importantly, beautiful music and singing. Many tunes, melodies or arias from canonical operas have become well-known because of their beauty. For some reason, contemporary composers seem to be developing a different understanding of musical beauty, which has not yet caught on widely, or they go against the canonical concept of beauty, or they are not trained or capable of creating beautiful sounds. I have not yet found a convincing argument in this context, but I find hardly any of contemporary opera music or singing beautiful. I am therefore not surprised that opera houses do not often revive new operas, and I admire the courage of artistic managers to invite new work to be created in their houses if they can predict that the result will not sound beautiful.

Brandenburg refers to potentially problematic assumptions that audiences tend to be conservative, and actually happy with an apparently never-changing status quo of conservative productions of a conservative repertoire. Artistic managers therefore hesitate to introduce too much by way innovation, both in terms of innovative productions of the core repertoire and introduction of new work. 

As far as innovative productions are concerned, they can be refreshing and interesting, but they are very rare. The reason that many productions of the Regietheater, director’s theatre, however, may be problematic is that they just do not make any sense in relation to the music and the libretto. Directorial concepts then come across, at best, as inconsequential and as such they do not distract much from the music. I remember an interview with conductor Peter Schneider where he talked about a production of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. In one of the scenes in which the three Norns weave the rope of Destiny, the music is fairly dramatic. However, the scene had been directed with the Norns sitting down doing some knitting. Schneider showed some despair in his comment that it is simply impossible to conduct the dramatic music of this scene as “knitting music”. 

At worst, unfortunate directorial choices or concepts are downright annoying, constituting obstacles to the enjoyment of the performance, and to the achievements of the musicians. As with theatre, there is no objection to innovation in principle. If it works well, it can be great, as with Thomas Ostermeier’s 2005 production of Hedda Gabler, that I still consider as the best example of a very successful contemporary approach to a canonical play text. I have not yet encountered an opera production quite reaching the consistency of narrative of that Ostermeier production. I have commented extensively on that production, and have posted that comment separately for reference.