Professors, undergraduates and School of Music students danced around the Blocker Rehearsal Room this Monday, mirroring each other’s gestures, passing a colorful ball around the room and improvising hand motions reflecting the character of the periodically changing music played from the room’s speaker.

The 20 musicians were participants in concert pianist and educator William Westney’s MUS ’71 ’76 “Un-Master Class” workshop, which is branded as an “lively, engaging alternative to the traditional master class.”

Westney developed the “Un-Master Class” to illustrate that music is subjective and should not be a process where an expert gives knowledge to students, he said. He emphasizes the ideas that one’s body is an expert and that musicians should trust their instincts.

“Physical participation is the source of so much of our understanding and our way of portraying and becoming the music,” Westney said.

At the start of the class, Westney polled the musicians. Every one of them had already performed in several traditional master classes, and some had even taught them.

A traditional master class involves an authority figure or educator who gives a public lesson to a select few performers while an audience observes. One by one, the performers play through their prepared pieces and the master class artist gives comments and suggestions for improvement. Then, they work through short musical excerpts to illustrate the teacher’s points. After approximately half an hour, the process repeats with the next performer.

Westney has given “Un-Master Classes” at many major institutions around the world, including the Juilliard School, Aspen Music Festival and School and Seoul School of Fine Arts in South Korea.

The “Un-Master Classes” are structured so both performers and audience members actively participate. The workshops are comprised of three components: discussion, group exercises and performances.

“It was a good thing to be able to interact with other people [during the class] and observe how different people react to the same music,” said Lucas Oliveira MUS ’20, who performed in the “Un-Master Class.”

The class began with a discussion about the purpose of music.

“We can generate shared meaning with people through playing music,” Westney said. “We have to enjoy what we’re doing and share that enjoyment with audiences, and I hope that through many of the interactions of this class we get some of the feeling of that.”

Then, the class participated in a series of unconventional exercises for classical musicians — the dancing and ball-tossing — for about 45 minutes.

“The exercises we did at the beginning helped foster that kind of attitude, that we’re all here together doing things that are kind of embarrassing for some of us, which breaks the ice,” said saxophonist Nick DeWalt ’21, who also performed in the class.

Westney prefaced the exercises with a story about how babies know how to react to different types of music in different ways.

DeWalt said that the exercises helped him recognize the feeling he was trying to create in his music.

“Sometimes when you play music, you think about the sound but not necessarily the feeling that’s associated with that,” DeWalt said.

While the group performed the exercises, Westney reminded them not to plan their motions in advance, and instead, react to the music in a natural, primal way.

As the exercises progressed, the group dynamic gradually relaxed, which Westney intended. The dancing was freer and less inhibited. Westney then instructed the musicians to return to their seats and begin the performances.

Before each performance, Westney asked the performer what story they hoped to tell through their music. After each performance, the audience engaged in a discussion of the piece. Westney dictated that technical suggestions and standard musical terminology were barred from discussion. The audience could only comment on the music’s emotional affect.

Oliveira said that this discussion process made him realize there are “more ways to connect with the audience than [musicians] think.”

Westney’s discussion comments focused on the performers’ physical movements. He stressed that a performance must contain both visual and aural effects “if the whole craft [of classical music] is going to survive.”

“Some of his ideas of using your body to convey that are a little bit limited because if you’re trying to create a sound, the focus should be on the sound,” DeWalt said. “If you’re really worried about your body language, it can actually take away from [the performance] because music at its very core is a sound that you make.”

Yet Westney and DeWalt agreed on the subjectivity of musical pedagogy.

Westney concluded the class by reiterating that musicians should listen to their instincts.

“Your body knows something, and let it tell you,” Westney said.

Westney gave the first “Un-Master Class” in 1989.

 

Phoebe Liu | phoebe.liu@yale.edu