Student musicians learn from a master

This is an episode of Fiat Vox, a podcast that brings you news from, for and about UC Berkeley. Following is a written version of the audio piece. 


We’re at a master class — a session put on by Cal Performances, with the Department of Music, where the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra learns from a top musician.

This time, it’s with Riccardo Muti, the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He’s one of the best conductors in the world. I spoke with two students who took the class — Hallie Jo Gist and Kyle Ko.

Riccardo Muti conducting

Riccardo Muti, the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, teaches a master class at UC Berkeley in October 2017. (Photo by Todd Rosenberg)

“I think there’s a very fine line between a distracting conductor and a useful conductor,” says Ko. “To me, from the very beginning, how he started the basses. He kind of moved his stick a little bit. He made a tiny movement with his chest and his shoulders, like he was going to breathe. But he didn’t ever give a strict downbeat.”

“It was the tiniest little motion,” adds Gist.

“It was ridiculous,” Ko says. “I’ve never heard the orchestra play that soft. You have 36 violins, you have nine bassists up there. That’s a big orchestra. I’ve never heard them play that cleanly and that softly.”

Ko is a fourth-year music major. He’s played the French horn since middle school, when he showed up to band class by accident and the teacher found out he had a good ear. To play the French horn well, he says, you have to have a good ear.

“It’s such a long tube,” says Ko. “You make vibrations with your lips and sound comes out the other end. It’s very minute differences in the lips that will give you different pitches.”

French horns typically sit in the back of the orchestra. He says often, the farther back you are, the less you pay attention. “You’re not supposed to say that out loud.”

Kyle Ko and Hallie Jo Gist playing instruments

Kyle Ko and Hallie Jo Gist play in the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra and have taken several master classes. (UC Berkeley photo by Anne Brice)

But it makes sense — instruments in the back, like horns, tuba and bass, tend to play less. And the less you play, the more your mind might wander…

“But I was amazed at how [Muti] walked on, and he just got the attention of everyone right there,” Ko says. “You could see everyone’s intense focus. You could feel it on the stage.”

Hallie Jo Gist is also a fourth-year student. When she was growing up, her dad was an elementary school teacher and taught an early-morning band class before the school day began. Gist would join her dad each morning.

“And instead of having me just sit there,” she says, “he’d have me play all the instruments. And so I would just rotate; every day of the week, I’d play a different instrument.”

Gist decided she wanted to play either the trumpet or the flute. And eventually chose the flute, which she’s been playing for eight years. “It’s the comfiest. It feels good under my fingers.”

Although Gist is majoring in economics and is on the premed track, she plans to continue playing the flute in some way or another.

“It’s a part of my identity,” says Gist. “I’ve worked on it so hard for so long. It would just be weird to not be a flute player anymore. And also it’s just so fun.”

Ko plans to play the horn professionally. His dream is to play in Berlin. But he’s flexible on the path his career takes. “For now, I’m going to play well and get my sound out there and we’ll see what happens after that.”

Both Gist and Ko have attended several master classes and say it’s a great way stay nimble and to grow as musicians.

Says Ko, “You learn that there are new ways of doing things that you’ve never thought about before. And that’s always a good thing to have in your palette of things to think about as a musician.”

The next master class will be held Saturday, Oct. 21, with pianist Olli Mustonen. All master classes are open to the public.

To view a calendar of all upcoming master classes, visit the Cal Performances website.