Masterclass Preparation

Masterclass Preparation


Singing in a masterclass can be a wonderful learning experience, and most singers will eventually take part in one. But not every singer makes the most out of this opportunity. Here are some strategies to maximize your experience.


My first experience in a masterclass was with the renowned cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich in 1974. Although I wasn’t a cellist, so bowing techniques didn’t apply to me, his discussion on how to practice has remained with me all these years. 

What Is a Masterclass?

It is a hybrid, combining elements of a lesson and a performance while, at the same time, the interaction between the student and the instructor becomes its own show. Masterclasses can be conducted by a voice teacher, coach, conductor, director, dancer, agent, casting director, or impresario. It’s a valuable opportunity for singers to receive feedback, guidance, and general counsel, especially when preparing auditions. There’s even the chance that someone may recommend you for a gig. 

But be careful: well meaning auditors may offer unsolicited opinions on your voice, singing, attire, posture, potential, and who knows what else. Some comments will be constructive, some will be contradictory, others may be absurd. Everyone’s a critic. Welcome to the world of the performing arts! 

The Audience

The audience may comprise your fellow classmates, friends, your voice teacher and, if the instructor is renowned, perhaps school administrators, fans, and accomplished musicians. In a typical format, you’ll enter, greet the instructor, and announce your name and the name of piece you’ll be performing, much like at an audition. Before you start singing, the instructor may engage you with questions about yourself and ask you to introduce the song or aria to the audience. If you’re singing in a foreign language, you may be prompted to provide a translation in your own words.  


Preparation and Expectations

Come prepared with three copies of your sheet music—one for the instructor, one for the pianist, and one for yourself. While you’ll be singing from memory, there might be instances where you’re asked to refer to the score. In some cases, you might need to provide the music in advance and have alternative selections ready in case the instructor would rather work on something else. 

Typically, you will perform the piece once and, unless requested otherwise, the audience will applaud. The instructor will make some comments, and then work begins. Anything can happen here. You may work on phrasing, pronunciation, presentation, vocal technique, breathing, characterization, the history of the piece—or the instructor may go off on a tangent and begin to reminisce (“When I sang in Madrid…”). Sometimes they do this. Expect to revisit sections of the piece, though not necessarily the entire piece. Each singer is usually allocated a limited time, typically around 20 to 25 minutes.  

Mark Watson presenting a group masterclass on developing stage presence.

Nerves can affect your voice, breathing, memory, and confidence, so prepare for everything. Practice announcing your name and your selection clearly and concisely—not too fast or too softly—and avoiding excessive articulation, which may sound unnatural, but don’t mumble, either. This skill is fundamental for auditions, yet many singers falter in this regard. You may be asked to repeat your name multiple times until the instructor is satisfied. 

When singing in a foreign language, be ready to articulate the translation, so practice saying it. You can usually find word-for-word translations in the library or online. You have no excuse for being unprepared. Be careful, though, because some scores include English words beneath the original language that might not be a literal translation but a paraphrased, rhyming text intended for singing.  

If you are singing an opera aria, know the story, what you are saying and to whom, and why. Practice conveying the story in your own words until you feel comfortable. The number one complaint of masterclass presenters is singers not knowing the story of the opera. You will be in front of an educated audience, so don’t try to fake this. I have seen singers try, and it’s a terrible idea that never ends well. Besides being embarrassing for you and for the people cringing in the audience, it reflects badly on your voice teacher, your coaches, and your school. Some instructors may silently roll their eyes, and others may publicly reprimand you for your lack of preparation. Avoid putting yourself in such a position. 

Selecting Your Piece 

Choose something that you know well, have carefully practiced, and can perform with confidence. Present yourself as a professional. If you find yourself receiving corrections for rhythms, notes, pronunciation, or a basic understanding of the text, it doesn’t reflect well on you. Save that work for private lessons and coaching sessions. 

Research the instructor’s expertise or specialization in a particular style of music. Consider selecting a piece that aligns with the instructor’s strengths—for instance, performing a Russian piece if they’re fluent in Russian, opting for a Baroque composition when working with someone renowned for that genre, or pulling out your best Schubert song when working with someone known for Lieder.  

Try to communicate with the pianist beforehand. Some pianists can sight-read anything, others request copies in advance. Some are fine reading from an iPad, and some hate it. Find out. A pianist struggling to play notes or rhythms will affect your performance. 

Mark Watson presenting a masterclass.

Selecting a long aria or song is a common miscalculation. After introductions, discussions, and an initial full run through performance, how much time will be left to work? Do the math. The instructor might instead choose to focus on a small section, which may not be the part you intended to work on. Alternatively, before you have even started, they could ask if you have another piece prepared (so make sure you do).

General Tips 

Stay open to feedback and new ideas. You may be hearing suggestions and critiques that may contradict what you have learned or believe. A suggestion may not be the end game but an exercise for a completely different result. Be a good sport and try it. Don’t overthink. Remember, if you really hate the suggestion, once you leave the stage, you never have to do it again.   

Instructors vary in their demeanor—some smile and joke, while others maintain a perpetually serious expression. Just as in sports, where a coach may be more demanding with extraordinarily talented athletes and easier with others, the same applies in music. The warm and fuzzy one could be truly enjoying working with you or be from the school of “everyone deserves a trophy.” The grumpy-looking one may be your biggest fan with your best interests at heart. Just do the work.

However, if you feel you are being disparaged, the classiest response is to rise above it.  Everyone in the room sees what’s happening, and they are already on your side. Don’t argue. Also, remember that the nerves of being scrutinized on stage may cloud your judgement.  


A Few Examples

An instructor interrupted a singer during an aria, stating that she was singing out of tune. The singer responded defensively, but the instructor stuck to their point. The situation escalated, and the singer eventually broke down in tears, leaving the room. This was an uncomfortable moment for all present, worsened by the fact that the singer was indeed off-pitch. The instructor’s intent wasn’t cruelty but honesty. Regrettably, the singer’s voice teacher hadn’t addressed this issue in private lessons. 

In another instance, an instructor abruptly asked a singer to sit down, saying, “Please stop singing. I just can’t stand listening to your voice.”  The stunned singer complied, and the room’s atmosphere shifted, with others turning against the instructor. Word about what happened got around quickly. This singer became widely admired for showing restraint. The instructor was never asked back. 

In a different scenario, a singer in an ongoing masterclass received instructions on how to prepare for the next session—and the next week, after singing less than a page, was stopped with “It sounds exactly like it did before—did you work on this?” The singer said, “No,” and without missing a beat, the instructor said, “Then sit down. You are wasting my time. Who would like to sing next?” There was an uncomfortable silence in the room; the singer said nothing and sat down. The next week, the instructor asked the singer if he had worked on the music that week and was ready to sing. “Yes,” he answered. The instructor smiled, and what followed was a very productive session. 

Final Thoughts

I have noticed that more and more singers are disconnected to their bodies. Their arms, knees, hands, face, and torso are fixed and locked. Since this affects breathing, expression, acting, and support, most instructors will address it in a masterclass. A common remedy is to encourage silly movements or dancing to release the tension. When asked to do this, many singers are mortified at the idea of shimmying or shaking in public, and some act like they are about to face a firing squad.  

If you are uncomfortable at the idea of “shaking your bootie” onstage, then address the problem beforehand. In the privacy of your own space, alone in front of a mirror, move around the room a bit while you sing, then observe and reflect. Be vigilant for telltale signs, such as hands that turn into claws or arms that lock, and then fix it. You can do this! Really, you can. Just smile—and don’t take yourself too seriously! 

Mark Watson

Mark Watson studied on full scholarship at The Juilliard School and went on to win prizes in national and international vocal competitions.  He has sung in all the major concert venues in New York City. Mark was the assistant to Gian Carlo Menotti. He is on the Board of Encompass New Opera Theatre and  is one of the judges for Career Bridges and the Opera Index competition. He is a certified Patsy Rodenburg Associate (PRA) the renowned British speech coach. He teaches the fundamentals of stage presence, coaches and directs.