Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Playing chamber music

Playing chamber music is great fun. There's a far more intimate feel to it as compared to playing in an orchestra, and much more opportunity for you to express your individuality.

But there are certain other skills and talents that you need to hone if you are going to be a successful chamber player. They are somewhat different from those necessary to play well in an orchestra.

The first thing is that you play more in chamber music than in an orchestra, so your endurance needs to be better. A 2 hour rehearsal will tire you out far more than an equivalent orchestral session. So make sure you are up to scratch for your endurance.

There are a number of chamber groups which commonly include horns, some aspects of playing are common to all of them, and some are unique to each.

Wind quintet
This is one of the most common groupings. One thing to remember here is that if you play at full volume, you can easily drown a mere four woodwind players. So your playing needs to be gentle and toned down in terms of volume. Also, many woodwind quintet pieces (especially those by French composers) have textures that are gossamer-light, and your playing style needs to reflect this.

Brass quintet
This is the other most common combination. Your problem here is the precise opposite of your position in the woodwind quintet - your bell is the only one which faces away from the audience, so your sound will tend to appear muffled compared to the the other players, especially the trumpets. So you need to go in for sharper attacks and a solid bright tone.

One or two horns and strings
I'm thinking here of pieces like the Mozart Horn Quintet and the Beethoven Sextet. In essence the horns are solo instruments, though in a smaller context than that of an orchestral concerto. You have to think soloistically when playing such pieces.

Mixed wind and string ensembles
Pieces such as the Beethoven Septet and the Schubert Octet are what I think of for this ensemble. They have a bit more of an orchestral style to them - you are frequently providing notes in the middle of the harmony, but you have to keep the style nice and light to compensate for the fact that you have only a single string player to each part instead of the serried ranks of players in an orchestra.

Larger wind ensembles
Anything from a wind octet for pieces such as the Mozart C Minor Serenade, through the Gounod Petite Symphonie (9 players), the Mozart "Gran Partita" Serenade for 13 wind, to even the Richard Strauss "Happy Workshop" Sonatina for 16 wind instruments. The more players you add, the closer you become to working as a small orchestra, especially if (above 10 players or so) you have a conductor. With more players, you can afford to produce a slightly more solid tone than for a wind quintet.

But there are some things which you need to do in all of these ensembles.

First is the one single most important thing about playing chamber music. You cannot bury yourself in your part and plough on with playing the notes. Just as in an orchestra you always need to keep one eye on the conductor, so in chamber music it is vital that you exchange regular eye contact with the other players as you play. You rely on each other to stay together and to coordinate the beat. By means of gestures and eye contact as you play, you can achieve far more flexibility with regard to changes in tempo than can be managed in an orchestra.

In a wind quintet, the upper instruments - flute or oboe, sometimes the clarinet - will have the tune more of the time, and so have more of the responsibility to set the style and tempo. Mark in your part where necessary who you need to look at for leadership as regards the beat. You will as a group need to decide at the start of each movement who is going to give the upbeat.

Because you don't have a conductor, the responsibility for maintaining the beat and the responsibility for deciding on phrasing an interpretation is shared among the players. It has to be done by agreement and consensus, with grace and good humour. Each player is playing his or her own unique instrument, and so everyone brings their own unique contribution to the group. There almost always is some kind of "pecking order" but hopefully is isn't too restrictive, and ideas can come from anywhere.

If you make a suggestion in rehearsal, the aim should always be to improve the performance as a whole. Try to phrase it as such. Saying "could we try at bar x again, I don't think we were quite together" is much better than turning to a specific player and saying "you were late at bar x". If you want the group (and your participation in it) to last, you have to be diplomatic.

If there is a weak player in the group, your performance is only going to be as good as that player can be cajoled into producing. So you need to provide encouragement and confidence to the weakest members of the group in order to get them to play better than they realised was possible for them.

Horns in small wind groups, particularly for classical pieces, often find themselves playing repeated quavers, while the tune goes on above. Here is a wonderful opportunity to be of service to the group as a whole. Don't play all the quavers the same strength, even if they are all marked with a common dynamic. Stress the first one of each bar, and possibly the one halfway through the bar as well. The aim is to offer an emphasis to the beat and enhance the rhythm. If you do things like this, the other players will find themselves surprised at how easy and enjoyable it is to play with you.

In brass quintets, the leader is almost inevitably the first trumpet. The same principles apply in terms of looking at each other to coordinate phrasing and speed. The first trumpet will most often be the person gesturing the upbeats at the start of a piece, and will also usually be the person coordinating rubatos in the piece itself.

When you play something like the Mozart Horn Quintet, the primary responsibility for how it goes is shared between you and the first violin (yes, I know that the Mozart has only one violin and two violas. You know what I mean.)

For wind and string pieces such as the Beethoven Septet, the first violin is the de facto leader, and for small groups with piano, such as the Brahms Horn Trio, you are three entirely equal participants.

Even though groups of different types have a natural leader, that doesn't mean that you only look at the leader. For any particular passage, you look at whoever has the need at that specific moment.

In orchestras, you can get away with not knowing all that much about what is going on around you. So long as you are with the conductor things can't go too badly. But in chamber music, you have to have a far greater awareness of what your fellow players are doing. In fact, having this awareness is a thoroughly good idea for orchestral playing as well, and so you will find that playing in a chamber group will greatly improve your orchestral playing and your enjoyment of it, as you learn to listen better.

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