The value of chamber ensembles in music degrees

My students learn to follow a conductor in their large ensembles, and how to work with a pianist on their individual repertoire. (The latter is a situation in which—unfortunately—the piano part is sometimes treated as secondary to the “solo” part.)

But in chamber ensembles they learn how to make music in a group of equals, which is a very different ballgame. In a chamber group, every member is responsible for listening critically, making adjustments, matching, blending, and finding their own best ways to contribute to a cohesive, unified performance. And non-music-specific skills are developed here too: respectful exchange of ideas, balancing of personalities, cooperation, compromise. There’s no leader per se who makes judgment calls, arbitrates disputes, or takes charge of the artistic vision.

Sometimes it seems like student chamber groups get treated as less important than solo repertoire or large/conducted ensembles, like they are auxiliaries of the band or orchestra, or pick-up groups good only for recruiting run-outs or potpourri concerts, or a way to trick  students into putting a little more mileage on their instruments. This is a mistake. Chamber music experience is critical to a complete musical education.

Groups should be appropriately challenged with the quantity and difficulty of repertoire performed, just like they are in their solo repertoire and their large ensembles. I think the ideal is for each mature chamber group to put on its own full-length, well-balanced recital at least once each semester. (We aren’t currently requiring that at my small, regional university.)

Groups should get regular coaching from faculty, but time rehearsing on their own is crucial to the experience. And by “rehearsing” I don’t mean just run-throughs: students should be spending rehearsal time discussing musical decisions together. (Depending on the group’s maturity, some of these decisions may need to be ratified in subsequent coaching sessions.)

And, as with any educational pursuit, I think the risk of failure is part of the process. There are powerful lessons to be learned when student groups make inappropriate repertoire choices, fail to make good use of rehearsal time, or otherwise fall short of expectations.

It’s exciting to see the maturity, confidence, and musicianship that my students develop in chamber ensembles. Take chamber music seriously as a part of a well-rounded musical education.

Simple and effective cues

Inspired by Jenny Maclay’s post about the importance of giving good cues in chamber music, I’d like to share some advice on cueing technique. Beginners to this often work much too hard at it, trying to execute movements that are large, elaborate, and confusing.

Instead, try one of these:

  1. Just breathe. For intimate ensembles, a purposeful breath on a preparatory beat is often enough. (For example, for a piece in 4/4 time that starts on beat one, breathe on beat four.) The breath is simple and natural, and is subtle but just detectable visually and aurally. To an audience, it looks almost like telepathy. A breath cue is also expressive—it can communicate not just tempo and downbeat, but also character.
  2. Or, if a more visually-oriented cue is really necessary, keep it extremely simple. For a preparatory beat, lift your instrument and/or head up (an inch is more than enough), then cue by bringing it back down. Skip the curlicues.



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.

The Doublers Collective: progressive jazz saxophone quintet

The Doublers Collective is a new quintet of accomplished jazz saxophonists with strong doubling abilities, based in Phoenix, Arizona. The group is the brainchild of Monica Shriver, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the NASA conference last year.

Check them out in this video:

For more about the Doublers Collective:

Dibs on first review of their forthcoming CD!

Required recordings, spring 2011

Once again it’s time for required recordings.

This semester, I’m having my each of my students add a good chamber music recording to their library. The students required to buy these recordings are technically enrolled in applied lessons, which means they study solo repertoire, although I do also coach some of them in chamber music. But even those whose degree requirements don’t specify chamber group participation ought to have at least the most passing of acquaintances with chamber music for their instrument.

For the saxophonists, choosing a format was simple enough—the saxophone quartet is the only significant chamber music setting with saxophones (although I did consider using this recording).

For the other reed players, I considered some options (double reed quartets, clarinet quartets or choirs, bassoon quartets…) but ultimately settled on a wind quintet recording for the clarinetists and double reeders. This may be the only chamber recording I require any of them to buy during the course of their 4-year (well, hopefully 4-year) education—I could possibly choose one more in another couple of years—and I wanted to make it count. The wind quintet tradition is rich and, in woodwind terms, long.

As usual, I was looking for good collections of fairly standard repertoire by exemplary musicians, reasonably priced and readily available. I had to steer clear of some tempting wind quintet choices by outstanding European groups, since I wanted to make sure my students are absorbing American-school ideas about tone. I also gave strong consideration to a great 2-disc set by the Utah Saxophone Quartet (which includes a couple of my former teachers; incidentally, all four members are really excellent doublers and they play some nice clarinet quartets on this recording, too), which I ultimately passed on because it’s not (yet?) available on iTunes and I’m trying to be 21st-century enough not to demand that my students buy physical discs.

So here’s what I finally settled on:

Borealis Wind Quintet, A La Carte: Short Works for Winds

Find it on: Amazon | iTunes

Repertoire: Rota Petite Offrande Musicale, Farkas Hungarian Dances, Beach Pastorale, Schuller Suite, Grainger: Walking Tune, Turrin: Three Summer Dances, Persichetti: Pastoral, Milhaud: La Cheminee du Roi Rene, Briccialdi: Potpourri Fantastico

This album was nominated for a Grammy award in 2006.

New Century Saxophone Quartet: Standards

Find it on: Amazon | iTunes

Repertoire: Singelee Quartet No. 1, Desenclos Quartet, del Borgo Quartet, Mintzer Quartet No. 1, Torke July

Paul Hindemith and the Trio Op. 47: Steps toward a mature style

Paul Hindemith was born in Hanau, Germany, in 1895. Unlike most of his composer contemporaries, who came from the privileged classes, his origins were humble ones.

Hindemith’s father, Robert, was a manual laborer and amateur zither player, who, despite a necessarily tight budget, saw that Paul and his siblings received musical training. Robert Hindemith raised his children with strict discipline, especially in terms of their music education. He took them to the local opera house, often on foot, and quizzed them on the way home, rewarding unsatisfactory answers with spankings. Later, Herr Hindemith organized his children into the Frankfurt Children’s Trio. Guy Rickards suggests that it was “despite” this “exploitative” upbringing that Paul and his brother Rudolf both went on to successful musical careers.

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Anton von Webern’s Quartet for violin, clarinet, tenor saxophone, and piano, op. 22

The composer

Anton von Webern was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1883. (The predicate von identified those of aristocratic heritage until a 1918 revolution outlawed its use; the composer’s works were published under the name Anton Webern.) His father’s career in mining engineering caused the von Webern family to move several times during Anton’s youth; in Klagenfurt at the turn of the century he studied piano and music theory under Edwin Komauer. He also learned to play the cello and participated in community orchestras. His earliest compositions, for piano and cello, date from this period. In 1902 he was deeply impressed by performances of several Wagner operas, and entered the University of Vienna to study musicology and composition. Before receiving a doctoral degree in 1906, he began studying privately with Arnold Schoenberg.

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