At this point, you or someone you know has probably been targeted with an ad from MasterClass — the online learning platform that launched in 2015 and now has 82 classes led by famous experts including Kelly Wearstler, RuPaul, and Steph Curry. While we never really thought about signing up before (we, luckily, get to pick the brains of these people for our day jobs), with so many people taking this forced time at home to learn new things, we’ve been wondering: Is now the time to enroll?
To find out, we spoke to nine people (from bloggers, to writers, to founders of tech companies), who together have taken some 20 classes, about their experiences. There are a few things they told us in general about all of the offerings, which are broken down into categories like film and TV, business, culinary arts, and more (one pupil describes as “like a cross between Netflix and a TED Talk”). Each class, which can run anywhere from two to five hours, is broken down into a number of five- to 25-minute lessons, which the brand says you can rewatch at any time. When it comes to “supplies,” like with any class, the folks we talked to say a notebook and pen might come in handy but that you don’t need them, because every class comes with a document from its instructor recapping the main takeaways. Another thing all these people told us: While the classes can go into great detail, they all start at a beginner level, making them great for anyone with a casual interest in topics they normally don’t engage with in their everyday lives.
Note: If you’re thinking of signing up, MasterClass currently charges $180 upfront for a yearlong, all-access pass to every class (which, as the site points out, breaks down to $15/month — but, again, is billed in a lump, upfront charge of $180.) That said, the program does offer refunds for up to 30 days from a user’s sign-up date. Below, the best MasterClasses to take in a variety of subjects, according to our cool people.
The best MasterClasses on entertainment
Of all the genres of MasterClass available, most of the ones that the people we spoke to took fell into the entertainment category. Director Judd Apatow’s was one of the most popular, with blogger Mark Sandusky of Peer Through Media praising Apatow’s “honest, straightforward” style in leading a course full of practical information: “He lays out every side of the film industry and talks through how the different roles in the industry work, also responding to the classic question ‘Should I quit my day job?’” Nonfiction writer and filmmaker Evie Yannakidis, another satisfied student of Apatow’s, told us she’s been able to apply what she learned from him in her work. “He’s not telling you how to write stand-up; he’s taking you through what it means to be funny — essentially, it’s by not trying to be.”
Those interested in the musical side of the entertainment industry can take a range of lessons with superstars in the pop, hip-hop, classical, and EDM worlds. Two of the people we spoke to took Christina Aguilera’s singing class. According to Vanessa Kibsey, a brand strategist at Twitter, Aguilera “starts with the story of how she got into singing in the first place and then tells us how she prepares herself for a show, including all the vocal warm-ups she does. She then gives instructions to rookie students, who sing to her, about how they could improve.” Kibsey found the last portion to be the “most helpful part, because you can put yourself in their shoes.” Sandusky also took the course, telling us he enjoyed the balance between “concrete vocal exercise and insight into what it’s like to be Christina Aguilera.” He adds that the course helped him develop a “performer’s mind-set.”
Sandusky also took producer Timbaland’s course, which he “liked a lot” but says is more about a “top person’s thought process than a step-by-step guide to making a beat.” He adds it’s a perfect class for someone interested in getting a behind-the-scenes look at the producer’s brain and daily life, saying, “It was interesting to me to hear about how he struggled and overcame it.”
Nutritionist Sherry Strong, who gives speeches as part of her job, told us she was interested in adding comedy to her repertoire, so she signed up for a class with Steve Martin, whom she calls an “incredibly generous and vulnerable” instructor. “People can be brilliant but unable to teach,” Strong explains, noting that Martin is both brilliant and leads an “inspiring and instructive” class that she actually learned something from. “He really worked hard to get better. That gave me hope that I can get there too if I put in the work.”
In addition to taking Apatow’s course, Yannakidis told us she also has taken one on acting led by Natalie Portman. She describes it as “more technical and focused on how Portman carries herself on-set and researches her roles,” recommending it to up-and-coming actors or anyone interested in applying acting techniques to their life offstage.
Yannakidis also took Samuel L. Jackson’s class on acting, which she describes as a “great antidote” to Portman’s more technically focused seminar. “He mainly just tells fun stories about coming up in the business,” she says of the class, adding that it “really feels like he’s your professor talking to you.”
The best MasterClasses on cooking
The second-most-taken MasterClasses among our cool people were lessons on food- and drink-making. “Few of us will be FBI negotiators or Disney CEOs anytime soon, but all of us can cook,” tech strategist James Matthews says of the appeal of the lessons that you can immediately apply in your kitchen. Matthews told us his favorite class was with barbecue pitmaster Aaron Franklin, who shows students how to prepare a 12-hour brisket. While the lesson itself is great, offering techniques and philosophies that Matthews has incorporated into his day-to-day cooking, he says the “hilarious” Franklin is the highlight: “He’s like the Seth MacFarlane of cooking.”
Kibsey told us that this MasterClass mixology course, in which bartenders Lynnette Marrero and Ryan Chetiyawardana show students how to make cocktails, “helped me tap into a creative side of myself that I haven’t used for years because I was completing my M.B.A.” Matthews took it, too, telling us he has been “infusing bourbon with beeswax” ever since the teachers recommended doing so.
Those who consider themselves semi-accomplished home cooks might be more interested in James Beard Award–winning chef Thomas Keller’s class, which Matthews says is a bit “harder to work through” given that you’re “trying to keep up with a super-skilled chef.” He adds that “a whole lesson looked at how to boil asparagus,” and says the class was a lot like other in-person cooking lessons he’s taken.
Matthews also took British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s class, which he said was “very Gordon Ramsay” and had “more pizzazz” than Keller’s. While there’s “a lot of Ramsay shaving white truffle and sea urchin, he talks you through how he’s doing it and why he’s using those ingredients,” according to Matthews, who adds that he’s used techniques from the class and workbook since taking it.
This MasterClass led by so-called “Gangster Gardener” Ron Finley is a hybrid gardening-cooking course of sorts. It teaches students how to create planters from unusual household items, grow their own food, and keep everything alive in perpetuity. Photographer and self-described “notorious plant killer” Paige Gribb recommends it, saying Finley’s lessons are helpful whether you’re working “with a windowsill or lots of land.”
The best MasterClasses on writing, speaking, and leadership
Sandusky, Strong, and Yannakidis have also taken some of the writing courses that MasterClass offers. While all three were disappointed by Aaron Sorkin’s class —“he’s not as well-spoken as his characters,” according to Sandusky — Strong and Yannakidis had far better things to say about Malcolm Gladwell’s writing class. According to Strong, “The level of detail and effort Gladwell puts into his class is amazing.” Yannakidis agrees, telling us the Outliers author “is so good because it felt like you were getting something substantial. He tells personal life stories along with the mechanics of how he writes.” Gladwell’s class, Yannakidis adds, doesn’t teach “what to think, but how to think” — an approach that inspired her to rewrite a draft of a book she’s working on shortly after finishing the course.
Many of our panelists told us that former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss’s MasterClass ad is the one that convinced them to sign up, but only two — Sarah Bedrick, the founder of tech company Compt, and entrepreneur Umesh Kumar — actually took the class. Both cite the course on negotiation as the best MasterClass they’ve taken, explaining that it has a ton of practical application. According to Bedrick, Voss does a “phenomenal job at taking expert-level negotiation and breaking it down into digestible tools and concepts that are easy to understand, including role-playing exercises.” Bedrick adds that, after the class, she tried Voss’s negotiation techniques on her (unwitting) husband — and that they worked. “He opened up on a whole new level.” Kumar, who is taking MasterClasses with his girlfriend as a long-distance-relationship activity, told us that he went into Voss’s class thinking he’d only get business-negotiation tips from it, but that he ultimately found it offered much more. “The course,” he sums up, is “about how to enhance the everyday communication that you have with people, whether picking up coffee or at a job interview.”
Kumar also took Disney CEO Bob Iger’s MasterClass, which he says didn’t have as many exercises as Voss’s. Still, he found it educational, telling us Iger delivers “a series of fascinating stories with nuance, and the teachings you can take from them.”
The best STEM(ish) MasterClasses
While MasterClasses offerings, according to Matthews, are “geared toward the arts and not great on STEM,” there are three classes in its science section, led by conservationist Jane Goodall, astronaut Chris Hadfield, and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Kumar took the latter’s class, which he calls “incredibly interesting to listen to and watch.” He didn’t bother taking notes, he adds, because the course focuses more on general interest in its topics than practical applications. “I didn’t worry about retaining it as, obviously, these are never going to be things you try and do yourself.”
Another STEM-ish class is led by iconic architect Frank Gehry, who spends a “pleasant two and a half hours” talking about his craft and career with students, according to Brendan Cormier, the design curator at London’s V&A museum. Aside from discussing its titular topics of design and architecture, Cormier says Gehry uses his MasterClass “as a platform to air his grievances over how certain journalists have treated him,” a tangent he calls “fascinating.”
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