Thursday, August 15, 2013

The "Joy" of Chamber Music

I love making music in ensembles. There's nothing quite like creating wonderful sounds with other musicians. It allows us to experience the process from a different perspective. Chamber music provides an opportunity for experiential learning with our peers. Collaborative work is a joy because we are enjoying a partnership with other people.

Where there is a group of people, there will be multiple opinions. Regardless of the number of opinions, differing opinions can lead to conflict. Chamber music is no different. Though we come together to make beautiful music, the rehearsal process can be a stressful experience fraught with conflict. Any musician who has participated in a chamber ensemble has experienced conflict (or else they are a saint). Here are some of the things I have found that greatly reduce conflict.

  1. Every idea is worthy of consideration. Because everyone in the ensemble is coming at the music from a different perspective, differing ideas about interpretation are certain to arise. I try to make sure that rehearsals begin far enough in advance of the performance to allow us to explore ideas that come up. This insures that all members of the ensemble feel as though they are a contributing part of the team. As the ensemble continues to work together and gets to know each other as individuals and musicians, the ideas seem to gel between the members and reduces the number of times this "trial and error" approach will be used.
  2. Establish what takes priority. There will be times when we come to an impasse between two opposing interpretations. That's when we have to determine what aspect (or which voice) has the ultimate decision. In a solo recital (with piano collaboration), the soloist will generally be the final authority. In a string quartet, the decision may ultimately be made by the first violinist. What I often find is that the impasse is associated with a issue related to phrasing (maybe a better way to say it is "melody") versus a technical difficulty or tempo. If a situation arises that demands a distinction, is the ensemble more interested in the musical effect or a technically clean performance? 
  3. Commit to compromise. We all want to give the best performance possible. Sometimes I will concede to a differing opinion after I clearly express why I am so adamant in my position. By conceding, I am committing to diligently work in my personal practice time to make the approach work. When I display a willingness to bend, I help to create an environment of compromise. I also establish that I am thoroughly committed to the overall success of the performance. If issues related to ensemble, phrasing or technique continue to arise in the same passage, other players are often more willing to try to find another alternative that allows the music to work. (However, if a player consistently doesn't return to rehearsals with problematic passages resolved, compromise is not going to be at the forefront of everyone's mind!)
  4. Remember it's not forever. This was the hardest lesson for me to learn over the years. As a student, it's sometimes easy to forget that I won't always have to work with these same musicians forever. There will be a number of opportunities available to make music in ensembles. For whatever reason, if your current chamber experience is not all that you had hoped, commit to doing your best work in order to maintain a good reputation. Once this performance is over, you are free to begin looking for other opportunities.
  5. Attitude is everything. Other musicians are watching your interactions in chamber ensembles. Your peers know who plays the role of the diva and who is doing their best to maintain a positive attitude. Don't let what you perceive to be a negative situation drag you down. Keep your attitude positive and focus your attention on the beauty of the music itself.