Tips for student chamber music groups

January 28, 2014

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.

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