The Masterclass

I was lucky to have amazing jazz vocal masterclasses throughout my time at Western Michigan University – arranging with Clare Fischer; group masterclasses from The Real Group, New York Voices, and more; and solo masterclasses with the likes of Kurt Elling, Mark Murphy, and Janis Siegel. But there is one masterclass and performance I’ll never forget for an unintentional lesson learned.

The singer and the pianist (both established recording artists with devoted followings) had flown in together for a feature performance at the Vocal Jazz Festival, and were giving an afternoon class coaching student duos. As one student singer/piano duo faded into the next, you could sense growing apprehension from the pros – these kids really knew what they were doing! The singer had little constructive criticism, and by the end I remember just nervous acknowledgement of the students’ obvious skill. I remember them closing by saying that they “better get some practicing in” before the concert!
That evening, these pros came out to an enthusiastic crowd and presented their material. Nervously. And the truth is, their nerves were justified. Their music was underrehearsed and unpolished. They were pros, so they knew this – and kept apologizing throughout the concert, in speech and in demeanor.
The fact is that they were probably fine with being underrehearsed until the masterclass clued them in to the level of sophistication in the audience. My impression was that, coming from a coastal big city, they viewed Kalamazoo, Michigan as flyover country and unsophisticated. They cheated on their preparation because they were certain no one in the audience would know the difference.
I carry that story with me as a reminder to assume any audience I have is more sophisticated than I am. I try to prepare accordingly. There isn’t a penalty for being over-prepared, but the under-preparedness can turn people off to your message. Forever.

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