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.”