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 more than 85 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 using this extended period of time spent at home to learn new things, we’ve been wondering: Is now the time to enroll?
To find out, we spoke to 17 people (from bloggers, to writers, to founders of tech companies), who together have taken some 40 classes, about their experiences. There are a few things they told us in general about all of the offerings, which are divided into categories like film and TV, business, culinary arts, and more (one pupil describes the curriculum 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 5- to 25-minute lessons, which the platform 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.” Musician Fer Rivero, who has a day job at a music-marketing agency in Lisbon, also took the course, telling us it might have more appeal among those in the industry like himself. “Timbaland takes you through how he created his biggest hits with Missy Elliott and Justin Timberlake, and explains how he put his vocal technique of beatboxing into the songs. I got so inspired; my music now has beatboxing and sounds much more dynamic.”
Rivero’s other favorite MasterClass is led by Usher, who focuses more on performing rather than making music. “Usher takes you through the inspirations for his performances, like old Michael Jackson clips,” he says, describing the instructor as “full of energy.” Through the course, Rivero says he developed an understanding of the many decisions that go into staging a performance and “why Usher made every decision.” He admits that most people may not be looking to stage performances on the level of Usher’s, but says the class is nevertheless helpful for “how to find and use inspiration.”
Taj Kokayi, a film major (and filmmaker) at George Mason University who wants to become a TV writer, says that Shonda Rhimes’s MasterClass taught him “so many things about writing for television that you don’t learn in film school.” One example he gives is the class where Rhimes “takes you through a scene from Scandal, where Olivia Pope is confronted by her father.” Rhimes, he says, explains “each line of dialogue, and why this was the way she wanted to introduce the father.” Kokayi adds that the instructor teaches “in a really nice way, making jokes and making sure you stay engaged as you go along.”
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 lifestyle-enhancing MasterClasses
The second-most-taken MasterClasses among our cool people were lessons meant to improve one’s daily life, from how they cook to how they dress. 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.” Tech strategist James Matthews took it, too, telling us he has been “infusing bourbon with beeswax” ever since the teachers recommended doing so. Deloitte consultant Mollie Bowman is a third student, and adds that the class helped her re-create something she — and most everyone — has been missing out on this year: “Going out with friends and trying new, interesting cocktails.”
“Few of us will be FBI negotiators or Disney CEOs anytime soon, but all of us can cook,” Matthews says of the appeal of the lessons that you can immediately apply in your kitchen. He 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.”
Sarah Bedrick, the founder of tech company Compt, says that Queer Eye star Tan France’s MasterClass on developing personal style led her to “look at my wardrobe in a different way and get rid of a ton of clothes.” Bedrick explains that France talks about his “two rules of style: dress your proportions and know your style,” then walks students through case studies to show how the same clothes look so much better when proportioned correctly. France also outlines the idea of a capsule wardrobe — or the basic articles of clothing that every person needs. “I’d always heard you should have classics in your wardrobe, but he expands on that idea even more,” she says.
Bowman, who signed up for MasterClass “after we’d been sheltering in place for a few weeks,” told us her favorite cooking class is this one led by Alice Waters, whom she calls “the grandmother of the farm-to-table movement and sustainable cuisine.” A big reason that she loved it is because “cooking with Waters in her kitchen, and listening as she cooks you a meal, is so soothing and serene.” (Bowman says she was “totally engrossed” by a lesson on folding galette dough.) She adds that the course’s workbooks include recipes that let you to try your hand at what you’re watching its instructor create.
Those who consider themselves semi-accomplished home cooks might be 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
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 three — Bedrick, financial planner Christian Mauser, and entrepreneur Umesh Kumar — actually took the class. All 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.”
Spanx founder Sara Blakely’s MasterClass was named an all-time favorite by three folks. Programmer Melanie Maslem, the founder of scientific-research platform Coalfacer, calls it “very relatable and human, even as she’s talking about hitting goals and building a business.” The lessons include Blakely explaining how she overcame the judgment of men in her field who would often talk down to her (it involved doing stand-up on the side, “so she could always say she’d been in front of harder audiences,” Maslem says.) Liz Thomas, who works in human resources, describes the instructor as “quirky, enthusiastic about her mission, and someone who never took no for an answer.” Self-described “MasterClass fangirl” Joy Buolamwini, the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, adds that Blakely’s class is “so honest. Some classes are great on storytelling but thin on actionable knowledge, but she gives very practical tips that are immediately applicable.”
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.” Mauser took it and liked it, too — enough to buy Iger’s books afterward, he says. Maslem is a third person who recommends Iger’s class, noting she particularly enjoyed his discussions on hiring techniques and the years he spent working with Steve Jobs.
A handful of folks we talked to have also taken some of the writing courses that MasterClass offers. While Sandusky, Strong, and Yannakidis 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.
“Embarrassingly, I was not a good student, and don’t know too much about U.S. history,” says Mauser. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s MasterClass, he explains, is based on “four presidents and their leadership styles.” It not only taught him about “how people become great leaders and develop an emotional IQ,” but inspired him to buy some of Goodwin’s books so he could continue studying the topic after he finished the class. “It opened my horizons on what I want to learn about,” Mauser says.
Veteran Democrat and Republican election strategists David Axelrod and Karl Rove’s MasterClass comes recommended by Maslem — who lives in Australia, and admits it might be more entertaining for folks who may not be as triggered by U.S. politics. “They explain how you define the base of votes you’re going after, and how to craft your story as you go out for those votes,” she says of the lesson. Importantly, the instructors teach students “how to understand the source of someone’s beliefs and explore them with curiosity rather than judgment,” Maslem adds. This approach, she says, makes the class quite practical — especially in the current political climate. “A lot of the discussion is how to talk to people you disagree with, and how not to be hateful from the start.”
Bo Ren, an investor and former product manager at Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr, recommends Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour’s MasterClass on the topics of leadership and creativity. “I loved her advice on building strong convictions in yourself, your taste, and your vision,” she says. Despite its instructor’s notoriously steely reputation, Ren says Wintour inspired her to “believe in myself and my own innate greatness.” The “male-dominated” tech world “makes me question myself,” explains Ren, but Wintour’s class helped her “fortify my core to actualize my full potential.”
Another self-esteem-building MasterClass is led by RuPaul; Mauser took it and says it “taught me all about how to build confidence and why that’s important.” He describes RuPaul’s teaching style as “engaging,” telling us that he actually didn’t know much about the instructor at all before taking the class. The lesson, he concludes, “helped me broaden my horizons on whom to look to for inspiration.”
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.” Buolamwini, who often speaks on the social implications of artificial intelligence, enjoyed this class, too, and recommends it to anyone who needs to “communicate complex topics” in their work.
Bowman says that Dr. Jane Goodall’s class exemplifies one reason folks like her sign up for MasterClass. “This is a topic I otherwise would never engage with,” she says. “I would pay big money to see Goodall speak, but I can’t do that right now. This is another way to spend a lot of time with her.” Bowman’s favorite parts of the class were those where Goodall discussed her work with chimpanzees. “It’s so endearing to hear how she learned about chimps, her first experiences with them, and how they welcomed her into their social circle and grew to trust her over time.” Buolamwini also took the class and says it taught her a lesson important to conservation and many other fields: “You have to connect with those you wish to change.”
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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