Sunday, 23 May 2010

Playing in groups - chamber music

When you play chamber music, you have to take much more responsibility than when you are in an orchestra or band. There are fewer players and no conductor.

So, you have to work out together how you are going to play the piece, you have to decide collectively how you will interpret it. You don't have a conductor deciding on the style of playing and the structure that he wants to convey to the audience.

It is easier to do this as a group if you spend some time getting used to playing as a group. It may be that a leader naturally emerges, but it is rare for the leader to become as dominant as the conductor is by definition. So everybody has a right and even a duty to make their contribution.

The first and most obvious point is that since you don't have a conductor giving you a beat to look at, you have to look at each other to coordinate the beat. In orchestra, you should always have the conductor visible in the corner of your eye, but in a chamber group, you have to have all the other players within your field of view, so you can look at whoever is leading at any moment.

Even if an overall leader of the group emerges, individual players have the task of leading at different moments. This can be because they have the tune, or because they are in a position to control a rallentando, or to lead off after a pause. In small groups, everybody is a leader for some of the time.

If you are not the leader at a particular moment, you have to know who is and make sure you are looking at them and following. If you are the leader, you must make it entirely clear what you are doing, by gesture, by eye contact, and if necessary be describing your intention in rehearsal before running the passage.

Go to any concert involving a small group of professional musicians. It doesn't matter whether it is classical, jazz, folk, or anything else. Watch carefully and see how much they depend on eye contact with each other. See the interactions, see who is leading and when. See how quickly they move from one leader to the next. And see how much time they spend looking at each other rather than at the music.

That deals with coordination, but without a conductor, you also need to work out interpretation. What style are you going to adopt, what phrasing will you use? In preparing for a piece, you have to decide and agree on articulation and phrasing. You have to agree on balance, on style. You have to decide which line is prominent and who is accompanying. And you have to push your ego down and dedicate yourself to the music, to making sure that your collective performance is as good as you can achieve.

Even in chamber music, as a horn player you spend most of your time doing what you do in an orchestra. You fill in the middle of the harmonies and you blend. You have prominent solos more often than in an orchestra, but even so, you are solo far less often than the upper woodwinds. You'll get asked back to a group based on how well you blend with them, not on how prominent you can be.

Playing chamber music is hard work. It is physically hard. In orchestra you can expect to be resting for 2/3 of the time, but in chamber music you will be playing for at least 2/3 of the time. That means that in a chamber concert your lip will have to last for twice as many notes as in an orchestra concert.

Playing chamber music is mentally hard. If you have twice as many notes to play, that is twice as many notes to learn. And you have a far higher proportion of solos and exposed entries. So the proportion of the music that needs dedicated practice is far higher, because you should spend most of your practice time on the exposed bits, and especially the exposed difficult bits.

And finally playing chamber music is emotionally hard. If a chamber group is going to last, then you have to have a good deal of musical and personal respect for your fellow players. You have to allow them to take the lead at times. You have to accept them when they have an off day or an attack of the grumps. And you have to be appropriately grateful when they accept your off days as well. You have to come to common ideas on tuning, phrasing, balance and style. And most of all, you have to be able to communicate on an emotional level with your fellow players if you are going to bring out the full depth of the music you make together. All of this requires a degree of emotional maturity needed in few other professions.

Vikram Seth once wrote An Equal Music, a substantial novel about the musical and romantic travails of the second violin of a professional string quartet in London. Seth is very good at communicating the love of music that occasionally tips into obsession. But his string quartet are such prickly individual characters that they would never last a year together in real life, even though two of the four are brother and sister.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Playing chamber music is a necessary part of any serious musician's training - and life. The demands are much more exacting than large ensemble work - the bar is raised for all aspects of performing. There is no place to hide, and the stakes are much higher for the performance. It's a great benefit to every player to be involved in chamber music in some way; if you are unable to get a brass or woodwind quintet going, there is always horn duos, trios, quartets.

    There's one other terrific chamber music experience that is unfortunately little-known among the traditionally trained: improvised chamber music, where your responsibility is further challenged by having to create the music as well. It's easy, it's fun, and it's largely unknown. I improvised on guitar for many years and never did so on my horn until about ten years ago. The problem was largely one of definition: improv = jazz = bebop = 16th notes at MM = 240, and that was never going to happen. What opened the door was this re-defining of the term: improv = you choosing the note instead of someone else. As soon as you jettison jazz style, worlds open up. Improv doesn't have to be a blizzard of notes. You could also make up other stuff. Why not a dirge, a sarabande, a fanfare, some calypso? You don't have to struggle with the changes to Giant Steps. Play over a drone, an ostinato. Play in one key or scale type (pentatonic scales are great). Suddenly your whole relationship to music and the instrument changes. You start thinking in music. Music theory is a friendly tool. Your ear sharpens - you have to understand what you're playing and what you're hearing and be able to use what's happening in the moment to inform whatever comes next. Just like conversation. Or skiing. Or basketball. You take what you already know and can do and make a decision in the moment what to do. You hear what happens and adjust. It's fun. It's exhilarating. And, as classical musicians we never do it - no one showed us how or gave us permission. It's a great chamber music experience waiting to happen, if we just try it. If you get a chance, listen to Pip Eastop's Back to Back or better, Back to Back to Back, which is the most stupendous (3-horn) spontaneous chamber music I've ever heard. Spontaneous chamber music makes a nice balance to the recitation that we do for our daily bread.

    Why not?