Coaching Supervision parallels a Master Class: what we can learn from the arts.

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In a previous note, I offered a few examples of experts utilizing coaches of their own. Sports champions and award winning actors rely on guidance from others. I am intrigued by the concept of special coaches or masters outside our field who may offer us new ways of thinking about coaching supervision.

A master class is a teaching method associated with the arts. Maria Callas, one of the most renowned and influential opera singers of the 20th century, taught master opera classes at Juilliard and her work there inspired Terrence McNally’s Tony Award-winning play called Master Class which I saw on Broadway years ago. Many concert performers have given master classes, starting with its inventor Franz Liszt, and including such greats as Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, and Vladimir Horowitz. The difference between a normal class and a master class lies in the format. In a master class, a small group of proficient and capable students observe a short solo performance of a fellow student in the presence of an acknowledged master. Then, all listen to the master teacher guide the student to a new level of proficiency and emotion. In turn, each student performs and receives the attentive focus of the master. Sometimes it is done before an audience.

The purpose of the master’s guidance is to deepen the talent and skill of the student while enhancing their individual style and confidence. This parallels the purpose of coaching supervision. Some techniques of masters may include enthusiastic encouragement, correction of breathing, suggestions about the speed of the piece, singing or playing a section of the piece together with the student, probing the student for his or her feelings about the emotion of the piece, offering some history of the piece or its composer, and cautioning about a weak technique. Corrections occur as needed during the instruction. Often, the student might play or sing the piece again in light of the master’s comments. The goal is to reach a new level of perfection. Through observation, each student in the class benefits from the master’s comments.

I attended a master class taught by an internationally acclaimed contralto, Morgan Smith. He had just played Marcello in Puccini’s La Bohème here in San Diego to great applause. I went to the class curious about this technique and its possible parallels to coaching supervision. For the two hours, watching Morgan guide four different students, I relished many supervision similarities and noted some differences. The first words from Morgan were, “I am not a master. I am not here to impose my judgments nor my technique.” Hearing this, I was assured that Morgan would inspire me about coaching supervision. After some encouraging words for the first student, he cautioned that his pitch needed attention. “How you do that is your choice,” he said. He asked the nervous student, “Are you breathing? Get to know your body sensations as not one size fits all.” Later in the session, Morgan reminded the student as a gracious peer, “We are all trained classically but we are allowed to take liberties.” Morgan’s guidance and genuine presence with this student impressed me. We, as coach supervisors, can learn from this approach.

As other students followed, Morgan offered many suggestions apropos of what we do as coaching supervisors. “It takes a long time to learn NOT to rush… Listen to and act on your impulses…find which note to stress…and, If you feel it, it sings itself.” My favorite guidance, “Give license to feel the piece and get into its space to go further.” Here Morgan demonstrated (in a few musical bars) what he meant and the audience heard the difference between his voice and the student’s. He also asked, “What were you thinking when you said these words?” The suggestion, “Linger more,” impressed me, as I have to unlearn agendas and efficiencies when I supervise.

What was different from this master class and coaching supervision and/or a group supervision session? In general, we do not correct, demonstrate, or have a client repeat and practice a difficult section. Perhaps, with permission, we should do some of this now and then. After all, the purpose is the same: individual mastery.

If this idea intrigues you, Academy Award winner Meryl Streep will star as Callas in a film adaptation of Terrence McNally’s Master Class for HBO, an American TV station. Filming on the production begins in early 2015. You may want to see it to glean the best of what a Master Class can offer and apply what you like to your supervision. That said, Maria Callas terrified some students and inspired others.

Have you ever observed a master class and if so, what parallels do you see in coaching supervision? Do you think, assuming support and presence, that supervisors should push our clients more? Even correct?

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