The value of chamber ensembles in music degrees

June 13, 2018

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.

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