Making the knowledge of the best tangible
BY ANJA FAHS
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 3 2017)
Having acting classes with Hollywood star Kevin Spacey, taking singing lessons with Christina Aguilera, learning to have stage presence from R&B artist Usher or attending comedy courses with Steve Martin. Where does Werner Herzog acquire the creativity for his movie masterpieces and would you not love to know the secrets behind the success of Diane von Fürstenberg’s fashion brand? The absolute best in their fields love to pass on their knowledge and expertise. American start-up MasterClass now offers online courses with Hollywood's A-list and top international stars from sport, entertainment and music. Here, anybody can share a classroom with Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman or have Serena Williams teach them the perfect forehand shot.
David Rogier and Aaron Rasmussen founded MasterClass, driven by the desire to learn from the best of the best. MasterClass co-founder and CEO David Rogier tells us how they can make this possible for everybody.
Have you not spent enough time at school yet or how did you come up with the idea of MasterClass?
I always loved learning, but didn’t start loving school till college, even though I had a few amazing high school teachers. After graduate school, I was working for Michael Dearing at a venture capital firm named Harrison Metal. He gave me a chance to start my own company. It was an amazing opportunity I didn’t want to mess up.
I kept remembering this one story my grandma told me when I was young. I had just gotten home from school and was complaining to her about homework. She told me a story I would never forget. When she was a young girl in Poland, she took a family vacation with her mom. Her dad stayed behind to catch up on work but he was supposed to come join them. A week into their trip, the Nazis invaded Poland. They destroyed her home and killed her father. My grandma fled to America and got a job in a factory. She applied to over 20 medical schools and was rejected from every single one. She applied again the next year, and again she was rejected from all of them. She started calling the deans of admissions asking why. One was honest with her. He told her she has three strikes against her: she is a woman, she is a foreigner, and she is Jewish. She tried again and was accepted into New York Medical College, where she went on to become a paediatrician. She ended the story with the important sentence that education is the one thing in life that no one can ever take away from you.
In May of 2015, my co-founder Aaron Rasmussen and I launched MasterClass. At the core, we believed that if we could make it possible for anyone to learn from the very best, that this was a good thing and would make the world a bit better. We wanted to try to democratise genius.
How was your school time? Did you enjoy it?
When I was in school, it was like obedience training. It was about transferring knowledge from the teacher to the student, and that requires a lot of rote memorisation. The internet changed that. Information became easily accessible, which changed the role of schools to inspire you to access that information, and to teach you how to analyse it. I usually got in trouble at school for asking too many questions and challenging the teacher.
“To learn from the best” is a great idea – but how do you get the best ones to teach at MasterClass?
What really helps in the recruitment process is that most masters who have devoted their lives to learning and practicing a difficult skill want to share what they’ve learned with others. For the most part, our instructors have had mentors who helped them along the way, and as a result they are really excited for an opportunity to do the same for students. Kevin Spacey said he felt like it was his responsibility to “send the elevator down” for the next generation of actors. It sometimes feels like the impulse to teach is an integral part of being a master. They love seeing the work of the next generation.
For which topics are you offering classes?
We offer a variety of classes including cooking, acting, writing, singing, and more. We’re adding new classes on a regular basis, including recent additions from Jane Goodall who teaches conservation, Herbie Hancock for jazz, and Garry Kasparov for chess. And of course we love receiving class ideas from students.
Please describe how the classes work – I assume that teaching writing with James Patterson is probably different from tennis lessons with Serena Williams?
Our courses are instructor-driven, which means when you take a screenwriting class from Aaron Sorkin, you aren’t learning the history of screenwriting, or some textbook approach to writing a script, you’re learning the unique way Aaron Sorkin writes a screenplay. You learn about his personal process, the way he developed it over the years, and what he’s thinking about while he works. It’s really a chance to get inside the mind of a world-class professional who has spent years practicing their craft at the absolute highest level. Our students hopefully leave our classes with new perspectives and increased confidence, but more importantly they come away with concrete steps they can put into action right away to get better at what they do.
Are there only online classes available or is there also a chance to get one-to-one sessions in person with the celebrities?
Our courses are only available online. However, we do offer “Office Hours” where students can submit their questions through our website. Instructors will check in and answer the questions as their schedules allow. Plus, our instructors get very involved. For example, James Patterson has plucked two students from his class to write with him. And the Canadian music producer deadmau5 just announced that he wants to feature one of his students on an album.
What are the prerequisites for being a good teacher?
Our hypothesis is that the best in a field have insights that a professional teacher doesn’t. It’s not a replacement, but why wouldn’t you also want to learn from the best? I for example received a great education at Stanford Graduate School of Business and I had amazing professors. But I would still want to take a class from Elon Musk.
Please tell us about the people who join the classes – are they mostly students of the specific topic or what kind of people are signing up for MasterClass?
Each class has a really unique audience that is very dependent on the craft being taught and the instructor. Our students vary from professional athletes, to Emmy award winning actors, to 12 year olds taking the class with their parents. Anyone can sign up for our classes. That’s really important to us. We are trying to democratise access to genius. Each class is available for 90 dollars, so pretty affordable.
Is it possible to fail a class?
Not at all! People have different ways of learning. We developed our classes to ensure that everyone could participate in a way that is best for them, without the pressure of grading.
What kind of classes would you like to add to the MasterClass programme? Which interesting topic is still missing and who would you like to be the teacher?
We’re looking to expand into many new types of categories. The release of Jane Goodall’s class on conservation is a great example. Personally, I’m very excited for us to start producing business classes.
With whom would you personally like to take lessons and in which subject?
So many! I would love to take a class by Elon Musk on entrepreneurship, Jeff Bezos on strategic thinking and Oprah Winfrey on empathy.
What did you personally learn from your teachers at MasterClass?
I’m a stutterer and the hardest thing for someone with a stutter is to read something out loud. I learned from Usher that the trick to being fearless is to admit your own vulnerability. Now, when I start a big speech or even a press interview, I usually say: I’m a stutterer, and I actually stutter less.
DAVID ROGIER AND AARON RASMUSSEN
David and Aaron are both tinkers, David programmed a search engine and Aaron built a robot that helped him at the university. They met a few years ago on a friend date and they wanted to work together on something immediately after. They considered what the most ideal online education could look like and developed MasterClass.
Picture credit © MasterClass