"Classical music in the desert?" writes world-renowned Israeli pianist Alon Goldstein in his blog. "Can Mozart and the 'Wilderness of Zion' find a common language? Will Beethoven find his way through the spring of Ein Avdat?" The answer, Goldstein concludes, is a resounding yes. This August, Goldstein returns to teach at the three-week-long Tel-Hai International Piano Masterclass, located at Midreshet Ben-Gurion in Sde Boker. "It's a very special blend of a very high professional level and informal, collegial atmosphere - a synthesis of academy and kibbutz," says artistic director Emanuel Krasovsky. Over the course of three weeks, the master class offers its approximately 70 students ample opportunities to learn and grow as pianists. Each day, the students take private lessons in the morning, attend a master class in the afternoon and enjoy a concert featuring the students themselves in the evening. "The center of gravity of this course is on the students. The whole idea is to create opportunities for the students to hear as many opinions as possible from as many teachers as possible," Goldstein says. One of Goldstein's goals as a teacher is to empower his students to be their own teachers. "For example, I will have a student who uses the pedal too much, which makes the sound too muddy. I ask him to judge his playing, ask him what he thinks, so that he can start to be his own teacher. By the third week, the student hears a concert and says, 'Did you hear how he used his pedal?' Wow, it really changed their ear," Goldstein says. In their lessons, master classes and concerts, the students generally focus on the piano's solo repertoire. But for students interested in flexing their collaboration muscles, the master class offers a Piano Duo course, a Chamber Music Workshop (focusing on sonatas for violin and piano) and an Art Song Workshop (focusing on Schubert's song cycles). "The importance of collaboration cannot be overstated," Krasovsky says. "The greatest pianists - let's just mention Daniel Barenboim, Radu Lupu, Andras Schiff, Alfred Brendel - are marvelous collaborators. But even for the development of soloistic qualities, the collaboration experience is of utmost significance as it makes - indeed, forces - the pianist to listen attentively to what he or she is doing, to be responsive to various textures, dynamic gradations and so on. In a word, it makes one listen, which is the most crucial characteristic for a musician. This may seem self-evident, but, sadly, so many aspiring professionals do not appreciate it." IN THIS spirit of collaboration, Tel-Hai invites the public to take part in the musical process as well. Visitors are invited to attend all of the private lessons, master classes and student concerts at Midreshet Sde Boker. "When an audience comes to a concert, they hear the finished product on the stage. But here, people can come into the kitchen and see how it is we prepare things. If they go to a lesson and then hear that student in concert, suddenly they can create a certain dialogue: They heard this student, remember the teacher saying this and that, and now they see how it works on stage," Goldstein says. He encourages anyone to "just knock gently on the door and walk in. You can ask questions, challenge us and suggest things if you want. And you get to see the other side of how to create an interpretation: What do we ask, how do we look for answers? I think it's a wonderful atmosphere." Because of the master class's location, members of the public aren't the only visitors Goldstein has received. "I was teaching a lesson one day and suddenly we saw an ibex at the window, coming to listen!" Goldstein said. In addition to being able to enjoy visits from the local wildlife, Goldstein says that the desert location can also benefit the students musically. In a blog entry written during last year's Tel-Hai Masterclass, Goldstein wrote: "It seems to me that most students are going through a period of transformation - they spend most of their time outside, rather than inside, some even decide to sleep out in the desertâ€¦ I truly believe that the answers to the questions we encounter, when we learn a new piece, do not lie all inside the practice room. They are also found outside - in a place, in a conversation, a hike, a visit, and sometimes also in just marveling at the surroundings of a place like Sde Boker." This year's master class will conclude on August 20 at 8:30 p.m. with a gala concert at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, featuring the Masterclass's three concerto competition winners. Each will perform a concerto with the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion. Students will also compete to perform the world premiere of a new composition by Israeli composer Gideon Lewensohn. The winner will perform with the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion on October 1. "Gideon Lewensohn's piece seems to be emotionally powerful and profound. It certainly isn't a glittering virtuoso showpiece; rather, it should have young performers search their souls and find interpretive responses to the none-too-easy questions posed," Krasovsky said. The Tel-Hai International Piano Masterclass takes place August 2-20 in Midreshet Ben-Gurion in Sde Boker. For more information, call (09) 958-8468 or visit www.masterclasses.org.il.