Tips for student chamber music groups

One of my goals for the semester is to improve my skills as a chamber music coach. This week I set out to explore some resources on the techniques of playing chamber music, and found surprisingly little in my initial search besides historical surveys and repertoire listings. (A fuller search remains to be done, but in the meantime I welcome your tips and suggested resources in the comments below.)

So, in hopes of making someone else’s search just a little easier, I’m putting in writing a few of my favorite basic tips I use frequently with my college chamber music students:

Photo, euthman
Photo, euthman
  • Arrange your chairs and music stands so you can see everybody (at least in a group that is small enough to do so). If you are the one cuing the start of the movement, make eye contact with everyone first.
  • Start each movement by breathing together, even if not everyone plays the first note. Also breathe together at appropriate places within each movement. I think this is better than someone giving a visual downbeat for a variety of reasons: it’s aural, it’s unifying, it’s non-distracting to the audience, it’s easy and natural. (It particularly makes sense for wind or vocal chamber groups, but I think it’s a good idea for others as well.)
  • Move a little. If everyone participates in some subtle “conducting,” it can really help to reinforce and unify the tempo and phrasing, and even indicate a rehearsal mark for someone who is lost. (Too much movement is awkward and distracting, but mostly my students err on the side of being statues.)
  • Get detailed about matching your sounds. Not just note attacks, but also note shapes and endings. Coordinate breaths if appropriate. If there is a crescendo, don’t just get louder at the same time, but get louder at the same rate. Match and blend tone colors—for example, maybe the flutist tries to sound like a clarinet, and the clarinetist tries to sound like a flute, and they meet somewhere in the middle.
  • Especially for less-experienced groups, it may be wise to talk through (and maybe even rehearse) some things like stage entrances, exits, and bows, so you aren’t awkwardly trying to figure it out with an audience watching. Make sure you’re one the same page dress-code-wise as well. I personally find matching or overly-coordinated outfits a little silly, but do at least be sure you’re agreed as to an appropriate level of formality so no one feels uncomfortable.

Please do jump in and share your best tips, or your resources on how to be a better chamber musician.

Playing flat on the clarinet

I frequently see this kind of question asked on online message boards:

I have a Nabisco clarinet with a Palmolive C43 mouthpiece and Marlboro 3¾ reeds. I am 30 cents flat all the time. What piece of equipment should I buy to solve this problem?

The answers are always varied (harder reeds, softer reeds, someone else’s favorite brand of reeds, an expensive mouthpiece, an abnormally short barrel, a specific model of clarinet) and generally completely off base.

On further prodding, the clarinetist with the flatness problem invariably turns out to be self-“taught,” sometimes with some degree of prior achievement on another wind instrument. This is a huge red flag that we are dealing with operator error.

Photo, matsuyuki
Photo, matsuyuki

The correct solution to this problem is to take at least a few lessons with an excellent clarinet teacher. A good teacher faced with this problem will review the fundamentals of tone production with you: breath support, voicing, and embouchure formation. With some dedicated practice, you will almost certainly see your pitch improve (as well as your tone, response, and more).

On the rare occasion that I do see this course of action advised, the poor flat clarinetist often has a number of excuses at the ready:

  • “I don’t have money for lessons.” (You should be able to get at least one and probably several lessons for what you would have spent on that new mouthpiece or barrel.)
  • “There aren’t any teachers near me.” (Have you really checked? The world, sadly, is full of very talented musicians who are underemployed and very much available for lessons. Check in with your nearest university music department, consult a school band director, or even try “Skype” or other online live-video lessons if you must, which are being offered more and more frequently by qualified teachers.)
  • “I already play a different instrument really well, so I’m pretty sure I can figure the clarinet out by myself.” (Learning a new instrument requires much more than a fingering chart and brash confidence. In particular, the clarinet’s voicing technique is unique among the major, modern wind instruments, and doing it wrong will result in—you guessed it—significantly flat pitch.)

Message boards and other text-based communication methods (even books) have their uses, but they aren’t a viable substitute for having a real, experienced clarinet teacher diagnose the problem and make some suggestions. Even if it does turn out that an equipment purchase is in order, do it under a teacher’s guidance—the money you spend on lessons is an investment in avoiding mistakes that are much more expensive.

Creativity, hard work, and beginning jazz improvisation

I occasionally teach a university course in jazz improvisation, geared toward beginning improvisers. Sometimes I think prospective students are afraid to sign up because they don’t consider themselves already to be musically creative. On the other hand, I have some students enroll in the class with unrealistic expectations about the results, thinking that they will learn all the tricks and secrets and be ready for some fantasy gig.

It doesn’t make sense to avoid taking French 101 because “I don’t speak any French”—you’re missing the point of an introductory course. But it also isn’t likely that by the end of the semester you’ll be ready to wow everyone at the smartest dinner parties in Paris.

Photo, alphadesigner
Photo, alphadesigner

The good-news/bad-news is that most of what happens in a beginning improvisation class doesn’t feel creative or spontaneous at all. In my course, we do a lot of drilling of scales, arpeggios, patterns, and “licks,” and then trying to execute them successfully in a pre-planned way over a set of chord changes. The same happens in your first-semester French class: you memorize some basic phrases by rote, and try to use them in the right order in very structured “conversations.” At some point you get some very restricted freedom: you have to say what color le chat is, but you get to pick if he is noir or blanc. Similarly, in my class you might get to decide which of your two memorized “two-five-one” licks to use over the first four bars of the bridge, or whether to start that digital pattern on the root of the chord or the fifth, but that’s about it. Limited options don’t mean you aren’t really improvising (or speaking French), it just means you don’t have a lot of vocabulary to work with yet.

I know that this rubs some improvisers the wrong way: I shouldn’t be regurgitating pre-packaged licks! I should be developing my own “thing!” For those people, I suggest you read a biography of any great improvising musician and find out what they did in the early stages of developing their thing. Or just try speaking some French: no need for grammar study or vocabulary lists! Do your thing!

For those who consider themselves creativity-deficient: you can learn to improvise in a systematic way—it’s not something you’re born with (or without). I’ll teach you some existing vocabulary and some techniques for making your own, and then you can start putting them together in ways that make sense to you. You’re being creative!

For those hoping to learn some “tricks:” the only useful trick I can teach you is to take the techniques from the class and hit the practice rooms. There aren’t any shortcuts to improvising well. It will require hard work over the course of many years. But the process can be a lot of fun!

Required recordings, spring 2014

Here are the recordings I’m requiring my university students to add to their collections this semester (depending on which instrument they play). All are available on CD or for download from Amazon or iTunes.

Allan Vogel: Oboe Obsession

Amazon (CD) | Amazon (download)

Repertoire: Saint-Saëns Sonata, Poulenc SonataBritten 6 Metamorphoses after Ovid, Schumann Three Romances, W. F. Bach Duet, Shinohara Obsession. Continue reading “Required recordings, spring 2014”