Why don't more people play chamber music?

Edited: October 27, 2017, 12:25 AM · Chamber music has been my greatest enthusiasm since my teacher (bless him) sat me down in a square formation with three nearly-compatible fellow pupils a couple of years before the summer of love. Most of my lasting friendships have since been made across music stands. Given the right combination of personalities, I believe string quartet playing is the best fun four people can have with their day clothes on.

The domestic playing of chamber music is a great western tradition dating back to the 17th century (or earlier), which thrived in the 18th, reached its azimuth in the 19th, survived in the 20th and now sadly appears to be on its last legs. A large majority of the players I've encountered in orchestras, amateur and professional, have virtually no experience of it. Isn't it something every player should experience and every teacher encourage?

Replies (106)

October 27, 2017, 12:44 AM · Absolutely. So much more rewarding in my opinion than orchestra playing. The difficulty - for amateurs like me - lies in finding the right people to play with. Not only should they be on a similar level technically and musically, they also need to have the same ambitions and goal with the group. If part of a quartet wants to do a good quality performance every month and the other half wants to meet and sight read some quartets occasionally it is difficult to get it to work. And it should be people you have a good time with also when not playing.
I am envious of these people I know here, who have played string quartet together for 20+ years and have a weekly quartet-night....
On meeting with professional orchestra musicians I have several times been surprised how little chamber music they play. Like the violinist who was hired as concert master for a summer camp with an amateur orchestra I used to play with as a student. In the evenings we would sit down and play quartets, quintets, sextets etc. and we off course brought her in too. I was so surprised that she - a 50+ years old pro violinist - had never played Brahms sextets or Mozarts Quintets. I was about 20 and had played them many times. But maybe that is one of the drawbacks of making music your profession - it is not the same relaxing hobby as it is to us amateurs.
October 27, 2017, 2:25 AM · I agree totally. Chamber music is beautiful repertoire and if one is lucky enough to play regularly with people who have similar goals and become friends and even fit together musically one has probably reached a sort of musical heaven. As a professional player this is more difficult than it might seem. As soon as you have to earn a living (and possibly support a family) with your instrument priorities change. Only very few people can earn enough to live off with playing chamber music. Alone the fact that the pay gets devided by four or more people makes it extremly hard. As soon as one has other commitments finding time to rehearse regularly becomes almost impossible. Who can rehearse a string quartett after six hours of orchestra rehearsal regularly? And when the choice is to accept a well paying gig or to play chamber music for peanuts it is often the bank balance that decides. I find it one of the biggest challenges as a professional to balance what fills the fridge with what fulfills me musically.
Edited: October 27, 2017, 4:25 AM · Bo nailed it: "The difficulty - for amateurs like me - lies in finding the right people to play with." If you look around, there aren't all that many other amateur players who are willing to make the commitment to learning parts and coming to rehearsal. The other thing is that a lot of the chamber literature is pretty darned hard. I've posted a link for a graded list below. Haydn quartets are listed as having technical difficult of 2/6. Good luck with that!

http://icking-music-archive.org/lists/string-quartets/heimeran.pdf

October 27, 2017, 7:20 AM · Lots of amateurs do play chamber music (my experience is the opposite of yours, where nearly everyone I know has played chamber music), but not everyone moves through a lot of repertoire. Groups that do a lot of sight-reading are more likely to move through a lot of repertoire. A lot of the more satisfying works are difficult enough that they aren't trivial to sight-read, even with a very good group.
October 27, 2017, 7:33 AM · Chamber music is really a intimate relationship amongst the people, and most people don't realize this. At the institutional level, programs assign people to groups, often based on superficial factors such as age, which have the same potential of working out as an arranged marriage. In my experience, the coaches aren't really interested in giving pointers on how to find the right people for yourself.

On top of this, even a lot of top music schools seem to place way more emphasis on orchestral playing, as if job prospects there were really much better. All of this probably explains some suppression at the professional level as well, though there are still a lot of great groups out there, and groups that are getting less and less traditional.

Edited: October 27, 2017, 7:43 AM · "On meeting with professional orchestra musicians I have several times been surprised how little chamber music they play."

Some of my colleagues run successful chamber music series on the side where they present several concerts a season of great works performed at the highest level. Others, like me, play a lot of quartet gigs (weddings, mainly). But please keep in mind that as professional orchestra musicians we already have an impressive stack of music that we need to learn in order to show up prepared to rehearsal. On top of that, many of us have families that we would like to see on occasion, and/or students we are committed to teaching on a weekly basis.

The idea of a weekly chamber music evening for fun is far more realistic for amateurs than for many professionals. For myself, when I have the (extremely rare) evening off permitted by my usual weekly schedule of seven days of teaching on top of two or three symphony concerts, I am going to spend it with my family.

October 27, 2017, 7:57 AM · There is a certain level of playing skill necessary to play chamber music at a level that is fun. Anything lower than that - it just is not fun and it will not attract people who can do it. That may be a reason that fewer people do it. Also, I know people who do it and love to do it but who stopped for work, family, or educational activity reasons and then got back into it. I'm one who never really stopped.

I grew up in a household where my father's string quartet came to practice every 4 weeks (rotating weekly to the homes of the other players). I got involved once as a cellist when I was 14 - 2 weeks before my first cello lesson.

As an adult I have always looked upon community orchestra playing as a way to get involved in chamber music playing. I have always inquired about community orchestra opportunities before moving to a new location (either for work or in retirement). I have pretty consistently had a piano trio going for almost 50 years - but through several evolutions as people moved or died or went deaf or blind. (Right now I'm in hiatus for the past 2 months for the last reason.)

I've not done much string quartet playing in the past 20 years, but some (maybe 3 years worth in total). But I was pretty consistent on a weekly basis in the 1960s and 70s with some continuing through the rest of the 20th century.

Right now I'm in a conductor- less chamber orchestra (30 pieces) out of which several quartets have evolved as well as a String Serenade ensemble that meets 2 Friday mornings a month. When attendance is good we can play complex stuff that may have up to 13 parts, and when things get thin we may reduce to octets, septets, sextets, quintets - or even quartets. If it is going to get thinner than that - we just stay home.

October 27, 2017, 7:58 AM · It is a lovely but tricky thing. My husband and I were just discussing this last night. Back in our twenties, when we first started dating, we had a not-too-serious weekly string quartet with another couple (who played Violin 1/Viola). We played for our own enjoyment, worked on a few pieces over time but not to the level of performing, and grew to be close friends. They were the first people we contacted when we got engaged and a couple of months later they called us with the same news. But then we moved across the country and even after they moved out here, parenting and work stressors took over and we rarely, if ever, play together. I think they might own one bow with hair on it between them now.

It's been hard to replicate. I think of this as a 2x2 matrix, where one axis is how seriously people take their chamber music (e.g. do they want to sightread or are they hoping to get coached, go to camp together, even perform?) and the other axis is, of course, ability.

Recently we've played several times with people who are significantly better and practice more than we do--but because they signed up for wine and sightreading, it was fine. (Thing is, they all have regular quartet-type situations for the more serious endeavors, so unless we're organizing sextets or something, they're less likely to engage.)

I've also been playing with a group of older, less capable musicians (faculty from the university where I work) and this has been tricky. For one thing, I'm not a natural leader and most first violin parts are going to be tough for me to do more than hack through--but because I'm the best violinist of the bunch, they expect me to play first. Which would be fine if we were just drinking wine and sightreading...but they also like to hire coaches and "work on" something (which in my experience means barely making it through the movement). For me, this is the wrong quadrant: too serious/less skilled. You know what's not fun? having an annoyed coach berating you for not nailing a first violin part you never should have been playing to begin with. (sorry, just venting!)

Anyway, in my experience, this is the challenge: life situations change. People have varying abilities and varying degrees of seriousness. But if you can find the right combo and stick with each other for awhile, magic!

October 27, 2017, 8:02 AM · Ah, just realized that Bo made exactly the same point I did.
October 27, 2017, 8:29 AM · The other thing is, chamber music used to be a huge staple in the lives of the commoners who lived during the time a lot of the "masterpieces" were written. Many composers wrote a lot of pieces for playing at home for fun by amateurs, and for a while, most middle class households in Europe owned a piano. Do you think maybe recording led to the immense shrinking of this culture?
Edited: October 27, 2017, 8:34 AM · I really don't think chamber music is "on its last legs" (quoting OP). Here in the US, it seems like chamber music is growing in interest among students and 20-somethings. Lots of young string quartets and programs/camps now exist. It depends a lot on where you live. But even with all this, I agree that it's hard to find the right people to play with, for both amateurs and professionals. People have busy lives.

Lieschen brings up a good point: "In my experience, the coaches aren't really interested in giving pointers on how to find the right people for yourself." Some chamber music coaches definitely spend a lot of time thinking about this when teaching. However, it's a sensitive topic.

October 27, 2017, 8:47 AM · All the groups I've ever been in have had similar dynamics: a dominant personality, a submissive personality, and a couple in the middle. Over time, the submissive/passive personality builds up resentment at being told what to do (even as they are unable to contribute musically or technically), and a crisis ensues.

Frankly, I'm surprised that quartets stay together as long as they do.

Edited: October 27, 2017, 9:26 AM · Popular repertoire gets very deep in ensemble and individual skills very quickly. There are some good guides avaiable : Cobbet, Silvertrust, The Music Makers to name a few. But even readily available Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven have few pieces that inexperienced and intermediate skilled players can sight read successfully. That said, I play quartets and quintets at least monthly, but am fortunate enough to play with very skilled interpreters and readers. Much of the repertoire I play is of more obscure composers.
This requires research and preparation time in acquiring the parts or the wherewithal to build or access a modest library.
October 27, 2017, 9:31 AM · Scott, I can testify to having many personality clashes, and it's often over little stuff that just rubs certain people the wrong way. I have been accused both of being too aloof and too overbearing, too fidgety, not having enough eye contact, not writing down enough, not wearing the right outfit, etc.
And similarly, I have found myself irritated with things of a similar magnitude that those in my groups have done. I know I have caught myself being irritated with fellow group members for seeming fake, seeming like a teacher's pet, only wanting to play Beethoven, canceling rehearsals for what I thought were bad reasons, etc.

And after reading some famous string quartet biographies and hearing what my teachers have to say, I think long-term harmonious relations are the exception rather than the rule in chamber music playing.

Edited: October 27, 2017, 11:16 AM · It's good to read (and look forward to re-reading) so many comments echoing my own enthusiasm and the problems that we've all probably had to face at some time or other (geographical and diary constraints, incompatibility issues etc). I don't get to play chamber music nearly as often as I'd like (2 quartet groups, each maybe once every 2 months) but consider myself very fortunate in that the atmosphere is always friendly and relaxed. No finger-pointing is allowed!

Although it can be rewarding to take rehearsals quite seriously and even give small concerts for friends, as time goes on I feel more and more strongly that I don't need the stress that this inevitably causes, individually or group-wise. The essence of domestic chamber music playing I think consists in the "wine and sightreading" approach, in Katie's delightful phrase. In the 18th and 19th centuries most quartets were written for domestic entertainment amongst amateurs and there exists a huge repertoire that today is completely neglected. I appreciate the particular difficulty that some professionals and serious violin students may have in switching to informal mode (I recall the Russian leader of a quartet we were coached by on several occasions remarking that she didn't enjoy "playing for fun"!) but amongst amateurs who cares if things should get a bit chaotic?

One question I'd like to put to teachers - how common is it to arrange your pupils into groups to acquaint them with the easier end of the repertoire and give them the chance to acquire the skills of holding their own part in ensemble? As one who never enjoyed practising for the sake of technique I'm convinced that this is what underlies the major part of my musical development.

October 27, 2017, 11:41 AM · It's funny, I don't think I've ever been in a group where there haven't been 4 dominant opinions, whether they came from 'dominant' or 'submissive' personalities. My coach from school was wise. He said there must always be at least 4 opinions on everything. Each idea must be tried with utmost dedication from each player, but in the end only one or a few would work for the quartet. So we would dual it out, but in the end we usually came to a consensus on what made the group sound better. We might, and often did, change our collective minds at a later date, especially after a first masterclass or performance. In the end what's most detrimental to a group is a dismissive personality.

Steve, I like my quartets with fixed 1st and 2nd chairs. I think specializing in a specific role and sound gives most groups a better blend. But in learning how to play chamber music, I wouldn't put a less advanced player on 2nd and more advanced on 1st. All violinists will learn better how to play together and blend and tune together by learning both functions. (Google some videos of Zukerman and Perlman to see the difference.)

Edited: October 27, 2017, 2:13 PM · It is difficult. You can work on your own to build techniques and solo reps. You can join any community orchestra to your liking if you can play at or above their standard. With chamber music, the difficulties in forming a chamber group that works are numerous: we always look for the similar level of proficiency, the compatibility of schedules, music taste and the personality, etc. Then there is the skill of sight-reading. Many proficient sight-readers may not sound good, and good-sounding players might not be great sight-readers. So you'll have folks just want to read through everything and those who prefer a group that is well-prepared before getting together and really try to work on a piece up to a performance level.

That said, chamber music is way beyond string quartet; you are playing chamber music when you are playing with someone else. Playing with a pianist or playing duets with another player certainly counts as playing chamber music.

Finally, I've been taught to view chamber musicians as soloists and I treat each chamber rep as a solo piece. This is often not commonly shared by other amateur chamber players. I wonder who else would share this view with mine.

October 27, 2017, 1:49 PM · You touched a nerve with this question. Like you, I've tried to join/form chamber groups with marginal success. Like the title of a book I read "The Ill Tempered String Quartet" it is very difficult to find three or four people with similar goals and moderate egos along with the time to commit to some kind of regular schedule. Community orchestras are a bit easier to find and sit with but that isn't the same as a piano trio or string quartet where your musical voice is essential.

There was an attempt once to form a directory of musicians who want to play chamber as amateurs. I joined only to find that it was made up of predominately professionals selling workshops, classes, weekend and week long retreats for significant amounts of cash.

In over 40 years of playing I've never joined of founded a chamber group that lasted more than a few get-togethers that did not rapidly display all of the traits of an "Ill Tempered" group where nobody could agree on what to play.

Edited: October 27, 2017, 2:18 PM · Jeewon, some chamber music workshops I have attended have the mix of 1st and 2nd violin thingy (working on two pieces and switch 1st and 2nd on each). This is particularly helpful to those of us tend to be asked to play the 1st violin "by default". Some chamber workshops (e.g., Icicle Creek Adult Chamber Music Retreat) requires 1st violinists also learn the 2nd violin part and play it in different groups.

Mary Ellen, I completely agree with you regarding professional musicians and chamber music. As a board member of a professional chamber music society, I know how hard these musicians have to work. In addition to practice, rehearsal, performing and touring, they also have to do a lot of administrative work such as applying for grants, fundraising, negotiating with composers/event organizers, finding venues, doing PR works, etc. It can be a full time job of its own. Chamber musicians do this has to be labour of passion because even the top notch groups won't last unless they also have other steady income from, say, orchestra position, or university residency. All the international quartet competition winners I've met expressed this unanimously.

Edited: October 28, 2017, 2:42 PM · One of the most important reasons for me wanting to learn music as an adult has been the thought of playing quartets at some stage. Sadly, that has not yet occurred due to a range of reasons (my intermittent learning, moving around, lack of opportunity), but I have not given up on the hope of some day doing so.

EDITED TO ADD: One of things I most admired about my first teacher in Santa Cruz, Ca. was that she was the one to suggest I play some chamber music. She said she often put her students together to play quartets that suited their ability. Sadly, I moved to Canada before that came to fruition.

Neil

October 27, 2017, 2:50 PM · I was once in a graduate quartet, and one of the musicians kept using the phrase "I want...." to preface her musical ideas.

It's been over 20 years. I wonder if she still says things like that in rehearsal.

Reminds me of a quartet joke:
Q: Why do string quartets fight so bitterly?
A. Because the stakes are so low.

October 27, 2017, 3:02 PM · I prefer to trade off 1st and 2nd, unless there are sharp skill differences between the 1st and 2nd violinist. (In general, I prefer to play quartets with other violinists who are capable of playing 1st violin, even if they don't necessarily prefer doing so.) I haven't played nearly enough 2nd violin, in any context, in my life, and for me, sometimes playing 2nd is an important part of my own personal musical development.

I've found the ACMP to be a pretty good resource for getting people together. Locally (if you are near metropolitan DC), there are a number of good Meetup groups for adult chamber musicians, which are also good resources.

October 27, 2017, 3:43 PM · I have historically, always, played second violin–-mostly because I stalled out in my development around the advanced intermediate phase (though I did play first violin throughout college in orchestra and a lot of those parts weren't easy). More recently I've needed to play first in the following situations: sight-reading with better violinists who didn't know the piece and didn't want to be in the hot seat, the aforementioned aging amateur chamber group, and (not first, just only) piano trios with my husband.

I think it's been good for me, although it's also made me painfully aware of my deficiencies as a player. So I agree that in theory anyway it's good for people to casually switch off. In established groups it really seems to depend on the personalities and sounds of the musicians. I know the St. Lawrence Quartet has had a more fluid approach (or at least they did when Scott St. John was second violinist). But I remember hearing Mark Steinberg from Brentano state definitively that he felt it affected the sound of an ensemble when violinists switched chairs.

Edited: October 27, 2017, 4:24 PM · In professional string quartets, switching between 1st and 2nd would be rare. SLSQ is of no exception, Geoff Nuttall almost always played 1st. The Emerson String Quartet is the only one as I recall does the switch regularly. As an amateur, I certainly encourage taking turns in a group if both violinists can play first. I would like to play 2nd more, as Lydia said, it's good for my musical growth. It's also good for practicing sight-reading, which is my weak point.
Edited: October 27, 2017, 4:48 PM · Everyone has made good points and have pointed out potential reasons why chamber music has become less common these days (I can't exactly say if chamber music is really less common these days). I have never believed in my whole life that chamber music is underrated or uncommon, as there's quite a bit of chamber music presence in the area I live. A music teacher, for instance, notes that she plays in a chamber ensemble with other high-level/pro musicians, but they rehearse once a week and perform a couple of times a year. I think the chamber music presence varies from region to region (as stated before). In chamber music programs that I know of, groups are chosen according to playing level, instrumentation/repertoire availability and time availability.
October 27, 2017, 5:52 PM · I just saw this Career Tips From The Dover Quartet. Although this is written for competitive professional quartets, it could bring insight to serious amateur groups too. For one thing, having a regular/long-term group means a lot more than just getting together and play through a bunch of quartets. Finding the right reps and rehearse them, as well as division of labour and mutual understanding/support are all part of the game.
October 28, 2017, 1:08 AM · There are many points I'd love to take up here but nobody has commented on the teaching aspect. I'm starting to think my teacher was pretty special in introducing his pupils to chamber music at a very early stage. Undoubtedly a major factor was that this was a boarding school. We had time on our hands and he was ready to help us with no question of extra funding!

But good(ish) amateur players do tend to give themselves airs, don't they? Somehow my groups have all self-selected on the basis that we were all reasonably modest and socially ept (opposite of inept) people that we could imagine getting along with. In one quartet a small amount of head-butting used to go on between the two violins, but we eventually came to a tacit understanding about who was better for whatever piece. In the other group we have 3 potential first violinists and 2 violists - not good if it's the best standard of performance you're after, but great for democracy.

October 28, 2017, 1:17 AM · Getting together and playing music -- of any style -- with a small group of like-minded folk is great.
October 28, 2017, 1:45 AM · If we think orchestral careers are limited in number, the market for chamber musicians is even less. Young, modern, ensembles in particular have had to make a serious shift in the level of audience engagement, connection with community outreach, consideration of programming, and the addressing of major issues they champion in order to eke out an existence compared to their forebears.

As someone with a full time teaching career split between music and computer science, I made a decision over a decade ago to pretty much stop taking orchestra gigs so that I could spend the little free time that I have playing quartets. I got tired of teaching only orchestras at the high school level, and around the same time moved to a position at a school without an established program, and developed a high school chamber music program with full academic courses that meet every day, along with an honors version with a research/writing component. For me, chamber music is the answer...the collaboration, the compromise, and the criticism are what help me prepare students to deal with life. It's the avenue of music that I feel helps me communicate the ideals I hold as important (things like personal integrity and commitment) to young musicians. It's much harder for a student to justify bailing on a quartet than it is as one of twenty violins in an orchestra section.

October 28, 2017, 3:21 AM · Gene, that's a great ambition we should all hold dear. Add to the list tolerance, respect, humility - all those things the less fortunate among us don't encounter often enough!
October 28, 2017, 7:06 AM · "But good(ish) amateur players do tend to give themselves airs, don't they? "

That is precisely why I did not enjoy playing chamber music even back in my high school years.

Edited: October 28, 2017, 7:19 AM · "In professional string quartets, switching between 1st and 2nd would be rare. SLSQ is of no exception, Geoff Nuttall almost always played 1st. The Emerson String Quartet is the only one as I recall does the switch regularly."

I believe this is happening more often these days, due to the excellent level of the current crop of musicians opting for SQ.
The Spanish (or should I say Catalan?) Cuarteto Casals (recording for Harmonia Mundi) switches seats. The Danish Quartet (playing on great instruments, loaned by a Danish corporation, recording for DaCapo) switch between first and second. I seem to recall the Quatuor Ebene (recording with Virgin) switched between 1st and 2nd.

Like I said, this is because string quartets since the nineties have an extremily high level; there is no second violinist who gets stuck in that place because he's not as good as the first violinist.

So, I'm not sure whether SQ playing by amateurs is down (compared to when?), but professional quartet playing has never been better. The French Quatuor Ebene is one of the absolute top SQs. Sadly the Berlin-based Petersen SQ is history now, but its spirit seems to live on in the Artemis SQ. The New York based Dover SQ is poised to become a great ensemble. There are just dozens of first rate quartets touring and recording, while in the 1950 - 1985 period there were far fewer top ensembles.

Edited: October 28, 2017, 8:18 AM · My pessimism about the future for domestic chamber music in the UK (the same applies to choral societies) partly stems from the fact that over the years I've noticed a progressive decrease in the number of groups attending coaching courses in wonderful venues like Madingley Hall, while their mean age stays the same - my age. Apart from the oldsters there's typically also a group from one of the music colleges (I think they're called the Schidthodt Quartet) who are sickeningly good and receive special treatment from the coaches in spite of the fact that someone else has paid their fees.
October 28, 2017, 9:55 AM · I think part of the reason why first and second violins don't switch seats very much is due to convention and personal preference.
October 28, 2017, 10:01 AM · My focus is on the amateur players that would be potential fans of the groups Hermann is talking about. The people who do something else for a living, but play for the enjoyment of it, not as a performance aim, but as recreation. Alternatively, professonals who play socially.
In both cases, the social aspects of chamber music - play-ins, parties, and other more open get togethers- is arguably happening leas than in the previous century or two. I support a major metropolitan play-in network with over 400 listed users, yet less then 10% participate in any given year. I also belong to the ACMP, but unfortunately too few people in my region see it as anything more than a travelers guide, imho through no fault of the ACMP leadership that does
an admiable job of promoting the practice of open play-ins. I am fortunate to know several people who do promote the social aspects of playing chamber music with groups larger than a single quintet.
October 28, 2017, 12:15 PM · Economics and Practicality are part of the reasons. Of all the genres I have done, chamber music pays the least and requires the most rehearsal time. If your quartet is composed of four independent free-lance professionals, coordinating rehearsal times becomes almost impossible. Then there is the change in our culture. Ever since the invention of the player piano, there has been a gradual trend away from live, active participation, to passive, now electronic substitutes for real life. I don't see that trend reversing any time soon.
October 28, 2017, 12:38 PM · Joel, on the other hand, it's really exciting to see so many amazing young soloists are getting together and forming quartets, concertizing and competing. One example is the Banff International String Quartet Competition, where you can find not only world's finest young string quartets competing during the day and jamming with amateur quartet players in the evenings. Check out their performances
their performances see what you think.

I've been going to BISQC to watch since 2013.and here is my blog in 2013.

October 28, 2017, 12:52 PM · Yes, I agree with Paul, there is nothing easy about chamber literature. It's harder than most amateur players think. I find it most rewarding to treat it as carefully as my solo reps and I even use my lesson time for some of the pieces.

Most amateur players I've heard don't take Haydn seriously enough. This is so unfortunate because to me, a good chamber musician is one can really play Haydn, early Beethoven and Mozart (especially his 10 celebrated SQs) beautifully. Dig in and find the treasures in these literature and you'll be hooked by SQs for good:

October 28, 2017, 1:56 PM · I'll note that many amateur players use a list (whether ACMP, Meetup groups, etc.) in order to find other players, but a lot of people will not go to general play-in events, etc., once they've found a group of other people that they like. People network; players invite other players from their network once they've gotten established in a city.

I've generally found that people tend to self-group by ability level. Better players will gravitate to other players around their level rather than struggle with a group that they feel is too far beneath their skill level; I don't think it's so much elitism as frustration / lack of musical satisfaction.

Edited: October 28, 2017, 2:59 PM · Lydia, you’ve hit the nail on the head (I hope you don’t take that as a proverbial coffin reference.) In my experience running informal play-ins, that is exactly the main issue, both in getting people to show up and in getting them to play nicely together (in every sense of the phrase.)
October 28, 2017, 3:36 PM · Well, as many have said, in order to play in a string quartet you need to stand out. I mean, we're not talking about hang up with your musical friends, I guess we're talking about doing it in a serious manner, I mean, aiming to concerts.

So, that's the first reason: difficulty. I don't know where did you got that information that just a few people play chamber music. Anyways, the alternative is, I guess, an orchestra. Well, it's 4 musicians vs 100-120 musicians, you don't have to be an engineer to notice you would need dozens of chamber groups to match it.

I agree with you that it's very fun to play chamber music, I totally feel the same way, indeed I don't prefer orchestra over chamber, or viceversa, it's just they are two different things.

Edited: October 28, 2017, 4:41 PM · How do you know people aren't playing chamber music when it takes place informally in private homes, which you can't really observe unless you're there?

I wonder if self-grouping is a reason why you don't see a lot of chamber musicians in an orchestra or younger people in a coaching course. The most active chamber players I know don't participate in orchestras.

I also know a lot of younger people who play chamber music. They tend to stay within their own networks.

Edited: October 28, 2017, 5:07 PM · I agree with Frieda. I know a few avid chamber music players who do not regularly play in any orchestra, but they would show up regularly in chamber workshops and retreats. Some of them are semiprofessional players. Amateur chamber players are not as visible as orchestra players, but by word of mouth, you can find them either within one's own community or, as I've done, from all over the world. It can be expensive to travel to workshops/retreats, but the quality of playing is higher and the experience can be life-changing; again, speaking from my own experience.

Also, as Lydia pointed out and I completely agree with, that chamber players self-group by ability level not because snobbishness but skill compatibility is a key factor to keep players get together again and again, even it means they have to juggle schedule and travel to accommodate each other. When I first started playing chamber music, I was a bit miffed for not being included in certain SQ. Looking back, that was simply silly. These days I wouldn't take it personally. As I'm getting better, more and more people want to have me in their group. That's how it works.

October 28, 2017, 4:59 PM · Sadly I haven't had great success with acmp in Sacramento. There are very few players signed up in this area.
October 28, 2017, 6:48 PM · Not everyone wants to play in public coaching sessions, I'll note. It takes a certain level of confidence and polish to participate, usually. And not everyone wants to perform -- in fact, I would guess that the majority of people who play chamber music do so for their own fun, not to perform. (And that's the way a lot of chamber music was intended to be heard, anyway -- by the players.)

That doesn't mean that chamber music is dying, by any means. In fact, I'd bet that for young people, it might be more common than ever, especially with people staying single longer and delaying having children, leaving them more time to spend with friends. And on the older end, baby-boomer retirees are picking up their instruments again. Younger people are much less likely to be able to take time off from work/family to attend a camp, though.

I played quite a bit of chamber music when I was younger, including some performing, without any coaching. I think we figured that it wasn't worthwhile to pay for a coach until we had exhausted our own understanding of how to play better together.

October 28, 2017, 7:26 PM · Having good coaching is tricky and I certainly had times thought the coaching sessions were a bit of waste of time and money. However, when you get the great ones, like the ones we got last fall in Italy, you had such better understanding, not just about the part or the piece you are working on, but overall as a musician -- those eureka moments that we may get from private lessons or masterclasses. Performance is just a means to force people to be better prepared and consequently we get more from our efforts. Workshop/retreat performances are usually not open to the public, but there are exceptions.

The workshop I always want to go is SLSQ's Chamber Music Seminar. I've got friends who have been going every year and absolutely love it. The level there is pretty high (mixture of young professional and quite advanced amateur chamber groups).

October 28, 2017, 7:31 PM · My group has been getting coaching over the last couple of months (including a public coaching session yesterday: glad to have met v.com folks who were there). It's been valuable, but it also came at times when we were looking to take things to the next level to be really performance-ready.
October 28, 2017, 7:39 PM · Hard to quantify something that may or may not be happening in private with more or less people in different communities across the wide variety of cultures around the world. Your experience may vary. I do find a great deal of ignorance about the breadth and diversity of music available for chamber groups in my major U.S. metropolitan area among a perceptibly large percentage of amateur and some professional musicians.
October 28, 2017, 8:53 PM · I have never been a huge fan of any of my coaches. I feel like most of them have no interest in what the group wants to say musically and simply impose themselves, though I have learned some good practical things from them, and always found it nice to have the accountability attached.
Edited: October 28, 2017, 10:51 PM · Wow, Lydia, that sounds like a lot fun! Wonder if I knew these v.com folks you met.

Lieschen, I know what you are saying. I don't mind if a coach doesn't want to hear what I've got to say musically because I figured that we don't pay a coach to listen to our ideas but to tell us his/her ideas so that we can look at our work through a different (usually better) lens. The least satisfying coaches we've got were those who were full of praises but gave us very little to work on.

Edited: October 29, 2017, 12:55 AM · Over the years I think I've attended about 12 coaching weeks or weekends given by the Delme, Alberni and Maggini quartets, all of which were rewarding in different ways. Some of the coaches offered friendly advice and gossip, some inspiration, some borderline intimidation, but that was OK since you got to experience the views of all four members of the coaching quartet and weren't overexposed to any one of them.

Almost every course culminated in a public performance to the coaches and the other groups - the most critical audience on earth! They didn't catcall or throw stuff, but you knew what they were thinking. The experience can be pretty intense and I still cringe at the memory of one performance (I wasn't even playing!)in which the second violin, the only amateur amongst them, was completely unable to start the finale of Mozart's K387 on account of the dreaded purlies (bow shake).

Anyway, it sounds as if the domestic chamber music tradition may be more vital in the US than the UK. Perhaps they all kept very quiet about it, but amongst the hundreds of violinists I must have encountered in amateur and semi-pro orchestras I doubt that as many as 10% were regular chamber music players.

Edited: October 29, 2017, 4:45 PM · Steve, if I had to put a number on it, that would probably only apply to string players in my area of the U.S. ( upper Midwest.) Winds and keyboardists, less. -excludes professional orchestras.
An additional point, imho many of the less hired, lower-paid professionals are under such pressure to make a living playing and teaching, that they are not interested in, much less inclined towards playing chamber music unless it’s for a paid performance.
Edited: October 29, 2017, 5:41 PM · I think chamber music is alive and well. And actually I worry that it's for the wrong reason -- because there is a surge in the number of highly qualified players, while orchestras are folding. I have to wonder how many pro chamber groups are fueled by hidden resources (e.g., family funds).

"Why don't more people (amateurs) do X, Y, and Z?" Haven't you noticed? Everyone is crazy busy. If that hasn't hit you yet, well, it's like having your ID checked at the supermarket when you're buying beer: Enjoy it while it lasts.

October 29, 2017, 6:09 PM · That’s the excuse I get most.
October 29, 2017, 6:18 PM · Steve, thanks for starting this interesting discussion!
Chamber music is about making relationship with other human beings on many levels, some unlike anything else on this planet.
Having said that, what are the chances of genuine and risky soul-to-soul meeting in our individualistic and egocentric Western society where search for instant gratification is omnipresent?
Just like in any other relationship, it is about give and take, collaboration, making compromise, inspiring the best in other, and, above all, working hard in order to play well.
I have had my share of experiences and frustrations in non-professional (aka amateur) world of Chamber music, from mediocre, to average all the way to exceptional.
Most of non-professionals do not want to commit to individual daily practice and therefore are simply not capable of playing anything more than baroque trio sonatas. Even very early quartets require certain technical and musical level, or at least willingness to practice individually and as a group.
The most frustrating situation for me is when someone loves certain quartet, say the "American", and brings the parts without even taking a few hours to get to know it. It is often a case of discrepancy between skills set and the love of music, plus lack of commitment.
Lastly, to paraphrase Isaac Stern: unless you have an awareness that playing music is a privilege and that you can not live without it, that it is of a great importance to you.... do not play.
October 29, 2017, 6:21 PM · Rocky, well said!
October 29, 2017, 7:52 PM · I believe that a fair number of pro quartets are a quartet-in-residence at some particular university, which is how they really earn a living. It's a pretty good way to get a string faculty at a school that doesn't otherwise have a distinguished music program.

And some conservatories have graduate quartets-in-residence, and those folks might already be performing, even touring.

Edited: October 29, 2017, 9:54 PM · It not uncommon to see some professional orchestra players in Canada forming some long-term chamber groups. They don't get so much revenue from tickets sale, so they are chiefly relying on government grants, fundraising, and if lucky, major donors. It's very demanding on their schedule, especially if they have children and they are touring. It's labor of love.
Edited: October 29, 2017, 8:15 PM · Next question, how varied are most programs, either private or public? How aware are groups of the staggering amount of literature out ther compared to the very limited programming that is the mainstay of public performance and, I dare say, many private events?
Edited: October 29, 2017, 8:44 PM · We get a lot of chamber music, especially string quartets, here in Blacksburg. The programs are quite varied. Just a couple of weeks ago we saw a nice recital featuring clarinet quintets by Brahms and Grgin featuring Serbian clarinetist Nikola Djurica (he is incredible). We've also heard Smetana, Janácek, etc. But yes, other concerts do sometimes feature the standards (Mendelssohn, Schubert, Beethoven, Haydn, Debussy, Brahms, etc.). I like that stuff too. :)
October 29, 2017, 10:13 PM · Edward, if you are asking about the professional chamber performance, since they usually post their programs, you can Google search city by city and find out how many there are out there and what programs they usually do. In my city (Victoria, BC, Canada), we've got at least half dozen SQs performing the bread and butter classical and romantic period music, a couple (including the Emily Carr String Quartet for which I'm a board member) also play quite a bit of contemporary, premiere works by living Canadian composers. There is an an excellent chamber ensemble that plays new music exclusively, and a few baroque ensembles.
Edited: October 30, 2017, 1:41 AM · Edward, as regards repertoire I think you're right to separate public from private. I did a count (mainly using Cobbett's Encyclopedia) of composers who published music for string chamber groups in the 100 years after Beethoven - roughly speaking the "romantic" era - and there are more than 700 of them. Most pieces, I believe, were originally intended for private consumption and are simply not sufficiently interesting technically or musically to attract professionals. Also of course, in order to satisfy public demand and ensure reasonably full houses in a tough Darwinian environment professional groups can't afford to stray too far from the popular repertoire.

When my friends get together after a couple of months (as we did yesterday) we mostly go for pieces we know will give us a big musical buzz, but I (being the repertoire man) feel it my duty also to bring out something unfamiliar that I at least have started to get my head and fingers round. Yesterday it was the first quartet by Vitezslav Novak. I wouldn't say we made perfect sense of it but we all enjoyed the experience.

Edited: October 30, 2017, 1:30 AM · >Most amateur players I've heard don't take Haydn seriously enough.

^^^ this!

I can't tell you how many times I sit down with students to read a quartet, and they want something harder because it's "just" Haydn or Mozart. And then we go for it, and they realize that their lack of rhythmic integrity makes it so they can't even get to the first repeat sign without my dragging them to the barline. Then come the excuses, "I don't like this composer" or "I'm better at Romantic repertoire" or whatever the nonsense of the day happens to be.

I think there's a number of quartet compositions out there that are simply much more fun and engaging to play than they are to listen to...but there's a wealth of great music, more than enough for a lifetime, and some worth visiting repeatedly. I'll gladly play any part (except cello, that I can't play) of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Borodin, Bartok, and Shostakovich, the Brahms 18/36 sextets, the Mendelssohn Octet, etc. for the rest of the time I have. I am enormously grateful to my chamber music mentors who put up with me long enough to study and perform a huge amount of repertoire year-after-year...I learned the most by sitting next to stellar musicians and learning how to communicate with them.

October 30, 2017, 2:03 AM · Even amongst committed adults serious disagreements can arise over certain composers. One of my past colleagues (OK, it was the viola player) appeared to experience genuine pain in Brahms!
Edited: October 30, 2017, 12:25 PM · "I don't like this composer..." Whenever I heard such nonsense, I tempted to correct "You mean this composer doesn't like you?"

Regarding the difficulty in Haydn, I recall during last September's quartet festival in Banff, one of the BISQC jurors lamented how poorly Haydn is played by many quartets. He was referring to professional quartets. So my question is, instead of asking why don't more people play chamber music, I wonder why don't people study chamber repertoires like the way they should when they study solo reps?

October 30, 2017, 12:46 PM · I think the de facto answer (not a valid excuse) is that in string quartets of the classical and romantic periods (and particularly in Haydn) there often isn't much of technical interest for any of the players apart from the first violin, and the inner parts often don't make a great deal of musical sense on their own. I've never known a viola player (apart from myself a little bit) do any preparatory practice of anything!
October 30, 2017, 12:57 PM · Exactly what Steve said. It's not until you get into environments where you have big mixed groups of string players of similar skill, explicitly formed into groups and formally coached, that you see formal study of chamber music.
October 30, 2017, 1:17 PM · I really hate it when a student brings in some wildly ambitious piece that they want to play with their high school quartet--Ravel, say, or Shostakovich 8--when that student and his/her quartet would benefit so much more from the serious rehearsal of Haydn or Mozart.
Edited: October 30, 2017, 2:53 PM · My pet peeve is listening to Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven played poorly by amateurs. I feel they've ruined such gorgeous music precisely due to their erroneous belief that these pieces are technically less challenging. The first time I played Haydn Quinten (1st violin), my teacher (a wonderful chamber musician) made me play on the entire first page on open strings until I got the sound I wanted before learning the notes. That was when I started to see what it takes to be a decently amateur chamber musician.
October 30, 2017, 7:32 PM · The first thing you learn when you try to play a Haydn quartet, especially with players that are better, is just how bad your intonation really is. And your rhythm, articulation, phrasing, and all the rest of it. It's very telling music.

But, even though I cannot play it like SLSQ, I will play it and enjoy it. Hopefully my collaborators and listeners will not be too offended.

October 30, 2017, 7:59 PM · Here's the problem: There's not all that much beautiful, well-known literature that's easier than Mozart, Haydn, or early Beethoven. And there's an abundance of Mozart and Haydn where you need a skilled 1st violinist, but the other players can be significantly less technically capable and still manage to get the notes.

Players who are tackling this music because they think it's easier are doing so because the rest of the standard quartet literature may be out of reach.

October 30, 2017, 9:18 PM · why don't people study chamber repertoires like the way they should when they study solo reps?
Well, Yixi ... that is a very good question and it has been bothering me for a few months now.
Where does one acquire those skills? Moreover, how does a group use those skills, such as analyzing the score. etc. ? Who leads the rehearsals? .... and how do other members react to the leader?
The skill-set we are talking about is multi-layered and, in my opinion, non-professionals simply do not have those skills. A chamber music group is supposed to be self-managed, but where do members acquire the knowledge to practice as such group?
Edited: October 31, 2017, 12:20 AM · Rocky, Lydia, Yixi - you seem to be assuming the object of playing chamber music is always (or primarily) to get better at it. Whose actually is "the problem", because I don't perceive it as such. I think most of us amateurs play and practice the way we do because that's how we like it and music can be enjoyed even when it isn't played very well. As soon as you start taking it more seriously the tension begins to rise and the ambience suffers. I can't help thinking that a lot of players don't play chamber music because the ones they've previously played with took it too seriously.
October 31, 2017, 3:49 AM · Steve,

"getting better at it" is not and end in itself by a means to dive deeper into music and enjoy more. Yes, sight reading can be fun, but real enjoyment starts once one goes beyond the ink and paper.
This is not to belittle the enjoyment of amateur music, but if one is cursed to chase the song of mermaids, one has to enter the ocean.

R

October 31, 2017, 5:34 AM · Of course musical enjoyment can be obtained in many ways, none more or less "real" than another.
October 31, 2017, 7:40 AM · My personality is such that it's hard for me to do anything without wanting to improve at it. :-)

However, the reasons I play chamber music vary. Usually, it's to experience great music in the company of people that I (hopefully) like. There needs to be a certain minimum level of competence before that experience is enjoyable rather than frustrating. Sometimes you really don't experience how great a work is until the group has had time to settle into it. Sometimes working something up to performance level unlocks capabilities for the group as a whole that can't be readily accessed if people are struggling with the notes.

Edited: October 31, 2017, 8:09 AM · Getting better is part of the joy in life. I've yet played with anyone in a chamber group who prefers not to get better. How fast one can improve is another question. How quick one's playing can deteriorate without keeping up the work is a certainty. I don't see how enjoyable that could be.I was in a Bruch Octet with a 90 yr old (once a professional) violinist in a chamber workshop last May. His tone was off and he didn't hear too well, but he was just as serious as the coach was about how to make music. We seriously enjoyed our serious effort.
October 31, 2017, 8:19 AM · I've long been fascinated with quartet music. Has anyone tried playing along recordings? I'm tempted to get the sheet music for Haydn op. 76.

I remember the feeling of playing in chamber... When things click, everyone just knows.

Do any of you bring quartets to your lessons as well? Or is it more efficient to work on technique through the solo repertoire?

Edited: October 31, 2017, 8:40 AM · I like to put on a recording of a string quartet and play along. Then I am playing with top pros and nobody sneers at me if I make a mistake. The cat goes upstairs though. If I am on the treadmill sometimes I listen to chamber music whilst following the scores. Thank goodness for Dover editions!!!

The first violin part of Haydn Op. 20 No. 5 (one of my favorites) is surprisingly violinistic despite the scary key (F minor). It's a worthwhile piece to study for technique.

Carl, SLSQ has "play-ins" after some of their concerts. Audience mostly leaves, local amateurs come on stage and the sections are led by the members of the quartet. They did that here in Blacksburg and one of the pieces was the first movement of the Emperor. A teenager I know got to sit next to Owen Dalby! I played 2nd. The whole thing was a total blast.

I have brought quartets to lesson but only when I am preparing something for a summer camp. My teacher does tend to prioritize repertoire for which there might be some kind of performance in view, even if that horizon is relatively distant.

Edited: October 31, 2017, 9:40 AM · Paul, my cat jumps on my right shoulder when I play the wrong notes. Seriously, at BISQC, you get to jam with members of SLSQ and other contestents every evening.

Roger asked: "The skill-set we are talking about is multi-layered and, in my opinion, non-professionals simply do not have those skills. A chamber music group is supposed to be self-managed, but where do members acquire the knowledge to practice as such group?"

The biggest obstacle of acquiring any knowledge and skill is our own attitude -- the "good enough", "we just want to have fun so don't be so serious" sort of nonsense we say to ourselves and to each other. Acquiring knowledge and skills are getting so much easier now with internet. Yet, astonishingly, there are many amateur or even professional players who don't even bother to listen or watch other performances of the piece they are working on. It is a bit mindboggling.

Edited: October 31, 2017, 8:57 AM · Carl, I do sometimes bring chamber works (quarts and sonatas) to my lessons even though it's probably not the best way of using lesson time. I definitely believe that keep working on solo repertoires has prepared me well technically and musically. It shows whether I'm play in chamber ensembles or in orchestra. I've noticed this each year I attend workshops or summer camps as well.

If you treat chamber works as solo reps, which I think you should if you are working on any chamber music, then you'll learn a lot more just like you are just going through the notes. But then the same can be said about learning anything: It's not what you play but how you play it that matters , isn't it?

October 31, 2017, 9:07 AM · I play chamber music because it's fun.
Edited: October 31, 2017, 10:16 AM · Yixi - "It's not what you play but how you play it that matters" doesn't strike a chord with me. Matters to whom? Nobody but ourselves and I'd much rather play a great piece "bravely" than a mediocre piece brilliantly. I'm with Ella - anything goes as long as you (and the others) are having fun.
October 31, 2017, 10:26 AM · I wish I had the opportunity to try playing chamber music. It sounds like fun. I'm really trying my best to acquiesce to some classical music having not come from that background.

Truth be told, I still need some more work before I would feel comfortable in that setting.

I've been attending some classes that might be similar. Every three months or so I go to an Irish music workshop that's about four hours in length. We do nothing the whole time but sight read new music. The teacher picks some fairly difficult things to play.Keys not generally consistent with staple keys commonly used in the form. I think he specifically looks for the hard music lol. Making it through some of that is a real challenge, even at half tempo. Three weeks in though and I know most of them.

I attend another class that teaches you to play with others using no written music. You must pick out the root notes in some difficult keys. Many times the chords are also inversions. The leader is a jazz aficionado nuff said.

The trick is to get so good at this you can play along with anyone playing anything in any key using no music. Want a challenge? Give that one a shot when the leader is playing all jazz chords. It's amazing how quickly the root can become confusing. Maybe not for you. For me it was.

Edited: October 31, 2017, 10:41 AM · @Steve, well, having fun is very important, but "anything goes as long as you (and the others) are having fun" is a bit of a stretch. You don't think people having fun doing a lot of things that harm them and others in ways probably no one can fix? Even with playing violin, I had a lot of fun playing carelessly when I was young and it took years to undo the bad habits, which not only delayed my progress but also it led to physical injury which could have much worse consequent untreated.

So what is fun?

October 31, 2017, 10:42 AM · Yixi I agree. It is no fun really if nothing is accomplished.There's a time for everything. Social gatherings are fine in context. Musical gatherings need a purpose IMO.

It is refreshing to read of so many who found both in playing chamber music. Good things can come from kindred spirits.

October 31, 2017, 10:53 AM · @Paul, I'll try that then. Maybe start with a slowed down tempo with Audacity for the Hayden quartets, then airplay along the Beethoven and Schubert ones. Maybe if I could get the first note of every other bar right...

There's just so much repertoire to tackle in one hour! Scales, Mazas, Bach, solo repertoire, orchestra, etc.

I agree with doing things well enough. I think there might be a minimum threshold for doing something good enough for it to be fun. Baking a cake would not be fun if it tasted like cardboard. Same with playing, it can't be sloshed through. I guess the minimum acceptable level would differ from person to person. What is sloppy to a professional or high level amateur can be acceptable to an intermediate player.

October 31, 2017, 11:20 AM · Timothy - your somewhat stern advice reminds me of the theatre critic who felt it his duty to tell his readership what was and was not funny, regardless of whether or not the audience was in fits of laughter. I think I know what is and isn't fun for me! And Yixi - I've long since stopped worrying (actually have never worried) whether playing for fun is damaging to my body or my playing. One of my quartet friends is living proof of how over-practising (under the supervision of her RAM professor) can result in long-term problems. It was several years before she discovered how to enjoy music again.
Edited: October 31, 2017, 12:15 PM · I think I'll interject a mild protest: if people are playing for themselves, they get to decide what constitutes fun. Period. Yixi, I think you've shared in other posts that you are unusually lucky in the amount of time that you, an adult amateur, have been able to dedicate to your study of the violin in recent years. It makes sense that you would use that time to attend seminars, workshop chamber music, and focus in all dimensions on improving your craft.

But I dare say, denizens of this message board excepted, that that's not an option for most adult amateurs, many of whom are lucky to touch their instruments once a week, or even once a month, and haven't taken a lesson in decades.

Some of these folks are in well past their three score and ten; I imagine that whatever damage their imperfect technique might have caused is probably of lesser concern than palsy, macular degeneration, hearing loss, etc. Surely they can own the decision about whether or not it's fun to hack through the Schubert Cello Quintet.

Cats may run away when they play but if it brings them (and their similarly oriented friends) enjoyment in the privacy of their own homes, I don't really see the harm. Call it HIP if you like–as so many others have pointed out, chamber music in the days of Haydn and Mozart was not written with the conservatory-bound in mind.

Edited: October 31, 2017, 1:28 PM · Look, we have different sense regarding fun and that's why I put it into a question rather than giving my own definition. I know people can be offended if they feel their idea of fun has been chllenged, which may or may not be the case. To say having fun can do no harm whatsoever is the claim I have problem with and it should obvious to anyone I would think.

Yes, I am very lucky to be retired early and have the time and energy to do more than I used to when I was working fulltime in often demanding environment. I did much less when I was working full time but I didn't believe in lowing my standard of playing. I just did less. I believe if I do anything, it is worth my best efforts to do it well. Obviously one wouldn't think this is an universalizable concept.

Edited: October 31, 2017, 2:17 PM · "Where does one acquire those skills? Moreover, how does a group use those skills, such as analyzing the score. etc. ? Who leads the rehearsals? .... and how do other members react to the leader?

If you look around, there aren't all that many other amateur players who are willing to make the commitment to learning parts and coming to rehearsal. "
......
Sang in a Balkan choir for a few years - we experienced the same issues as here - lack of at home practice by participants, conflicts for regular group practice dates, varying singing ability. Our group leader was my boss at work. She was an amateur singer. Funny thing was she was an absolute tyrant at choir practice but a lamb of a boss at work.

Also, I want to do a shout out to the amateur chamber music groups.
I grew up in a very, very poor neighborhood with a similar poor school - no music program , no family money for private lessons. My exposure to classical music was bugs bunny and two albums I got to select for my birthday at the age of 9 (I purposely chose classical albums). I chose Beethoven's 5th cause I recognized it from Bugs and the Vienna Symphony playing Mozart Piano concerto's in F major, and D minor because I liked the album art.I played both of those albums on our mono stereo system until the grooves were worn out.

That was my exposure to the canon until one day an amateur chamber group performed for our 4rd grade class. I was entranced as I'm sure were other students. And it was that quartet that started my journey toward playing the violin and as an aside my adoration of opera.

Now that I am an adult with a healthy income I contribute as a listener to live performance, buy recorded classical music as well as pay a good sum for private music lessons -all essentially starting from that amateur quartet.

Edited: October 31, 2017, 3:42 PM · I'm reading these and thinking about odd similarities between this group and the cycling community here in the Bay Area. There's a wide range of fitness and ability, from people who race to those who ride cruisers on bike paths on the weekends and everything in between.

There's a lot of perceived/real snobbery on the part of the more elite/experienced cyclists toward those who are less skilled. But there is also an underlying reason: elite cyclists see risk in riding too close to those who aren't accustomed to the norms, or who don't "hold their line", stop unpredictably, etc.

So the less skilled cyclists set up their own groups. They might ride long distances, but they'll do it a much more leisurely pace, with different norms (a lot more calling out of obstacles and signaling, less reading body language, etc.)

Retired racers are funny about how they ride. Many would give up cycling entirely if they weren't able to maintain a near-race level of fitness. They take up other sports (e.g. running, rowing, crossfit) instead (and sometimes get competitive about those sports too! but not always).

Meanwhile, some of the more casual "weekend warriors" are markedly out of shape, at least by elite athlete standards. and yet they ride centuries and consider cycling an important hobby. So you have this weird scenario where a cyclist perfectly capable of riding 100 miles will refuse to do so because s/he's no longer able to do it at a 16 mph average and another cyclist who will never reach that level of fitness will happily potter along at 12 mph all day long.

Why is this analogous? As we've established, people with diverse goals and abilities don't often mix well in these intense avocational settings. Indeed, they can mar each other's enjoyment and comfort. Should a rider with low fitness/skills have the temerity to show up on an elite group ride, they'll quickly be told in no uncertain terms that they are out of their depth. And I imagine that if a group of mediocre, unpracticed amateurs applied to join the SLSQ seminar, they'd be gently redirected (although there's more diversity than you'd think at those seminars).

Also, it's hard for people who were really really good at something to experience joy in doing the same thing, a lot less well. You know how it's supposed to sound when a group truly gels and listens to each other. You know how you used to feel when you went really fast up a big hill. And there's a little bit of pride in that knowledge--you're not one of those rank amateurs.

I seem to straddle the divide in both arenas. It's a valuable, albeit often frustrating, place to be--but the view is unparalleled.

I'm glad none of you will ever be in a position to hear the cacophony produced during my most recent chamber music experience (the one in which I had to play first violin, we played everything at .6 speed, and the first violist could barely hold his bow). It wasn't pretty. But if you'd watched a silent movie of the gathering, you'd have thought everyone was having the time of their lives. That's the part I want to remember.

October 31, 2017, 5:43 PM · Katie, Nice connection. My wife and I used to ride with a day-touring ‘wheelmen’ club and I raced on the velodrome against the likes of a teenage Christian VandeVelde (NBC broadcaster and former Armstrong team mate,) so that rings VERY true.
Noting the very sorts of differences in playing preferences in this posting as at open play-ins.
Also, as to playing with recordings- to my mind a fantastic way to get an intimate experience with different interpretations. Slow-down mp3 programs can help.
As to to working on solo skills- few things out there (imho) as rewarding as some of the first violin parts in the slowest and fastest movements in Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
As to accessible and good lit comparable to those three, try Krommer. As prolific as Haydn and a good match in quality. He was a favorite noted in Ole Bull’s bio as well as Schumann et al. Also, Glazunov’s novellettes along with Villa Lobos #1 are varied, fun, and accessible.
October 31, 2017, 6:25 PM · Katie's post is marvelous. The "won't do it if I can't reach a certain expected level" is also one of the reasons why former pros tend not to turn into amateurs when they switch professions -- they stop playing entirely. (I think of my friends who went to conservatory to earn a performance degree, but who didn't stay on the music track, practically none of them have touched their instrument again since leaving music as a profession.)

It's also one of the things that makes it hard to continue playing, or resume playing after a hiatus, if you've been highly adept previously. I still find it enormously frustrating to not be able to do some things the way that I could when younger, even if I've improved in other respects.

October 31, 2017, 7:19 PM · I know a number of musicians who got a performance degree (or switched careers from music) and still kept playing, and I know one forum member in this situation.
October 31, 2017, 7:44 PM · I quit for over ten years when I left the music profession. I think it had more to do with anger about the business on burning out after working for ten years in the production side. I know other people who quit the business and left their instruments packed away. It wasn’t until after I married an avid amateur orchestral musician that I got back into playing and could appreciate playing as an amateur.
October 31, 2017, 8:48 PM · I think the current culture in violin pedagogy preaches a kind of "all in" mentality with the brightest prospects. "All in" means either you win big-time ... or you're busted.
November 1, 2017, 1:29 AM · One more sermon before this thread reaches three figures (wouldn't it be awful if we agreed about everything?) and then I'll check out, virtually speaking.

For me string quartet playing is about much more than the music; it's been the chief nexus of my social life for the last 40 years. The tale runs like a soap opera with about 14 principals and a similar number of walk-ons (no walk-outs). There have been marriages, births and premature deaths. One of the walk-ons probably wouldn't exist at all without the quartet. You can take it as seriously or as as frivolously you like, and everyone needs to discover their own winning formula. My bottom line is that people's feelings are more important than the performance.

November 1, 2017, 4:54 AM · I'm with you, Steve. Some folks accomplish the same thing bowling or playing bridge.
Edited: November 1, 2017, 5:17 AM · Unless a kid is home-schooled, it is a challenge for the young student violinist to find the time and energy to be active in a string quartet in addition to usual private/group lessons and school- and youth orchestras. This is on top of all the difficulties associated with quartets that others have already pointed out.
November 1, 2017, 3:09 PM · Do we do a greatest hits retrospective at 100?
Edited: November 1, 2017, 6:02 PM · Steve said:
For me string quartet playing is about much more than the music; it's been the chief nexus of my social life for the last 40 years. ... My bottom line is that people's feelings are more important than the performance.

A chicken and egg question here: is it compatible playing as a group that leads to better social life or the other way around? It depends, I'm sure. In my own case, it's always the former: I think String playing is about music to start with but it may end with more than music. We want to spend more time together playing because we are compatible as a group of musicians, and the more we spend time together, the better friends we become.

Regarding feelings, most people I've been playing with in chamber groups are seasoned amateur players who are mature and professional. We usually know when it works and when doesn't. It is our passion, honesty, mutual respect and not taking ourselves too seriously that keep us together year after year.

Edited: November 1, 2017, 7:18 PM · Many wise comments indeed.... to clarify: my frustration has never been with dedicated players on a lower technical level than mine. It is and has been with those who just want to play through and do not want to commit to music making.


November 1, 2017, 11:16 PM · Roger, that's my frustration too.Thank you for making this crystal clear.
November 2, 2017, 6:10 AM · Steve- I didn't intend my post to sound as if I'm insistent everyone should adopt my approach. If you took it that way I apologize. I would never insist on everyone else adopting my view.

I was stating this coming from how I feel about it and how it would affect ME personally.If people want to get together and play for fun with no intention to improve or sound good that's up to them. I think if I were in a group and we sounded bad, that's ok so long as we have a focused goal to improve over time.I would need to actually see us getting better too.

Two things probably shape my views on this. I have led groups where no one seemed to care. People just come and go as they please. Last minute notices they won't be there, that kind of thing. I felt I was really wasting my time in that setting.

The other thing is I'm not really a social being. I am a really good pretend extrovert. I am cordial but I seldom get into the kind of relationships you mention. It takes me a very long time to establish a strong social bond with anyone. I don't dislike people. I just feel I'm at a disadvantage there. I'm not a hermit. I have a few people I get with as friends, but my circle is very small.I like it like that.

I guess more socially adept people might fall in better, especially if they have things in common. I attend other social gatherings and I have plenty of those people in my outer circle.

I remember one time I was in a band setting and we were in rehearsal. The lead singer was a friend of mine but he was a total clown. Being a clown is fun sometimes. Not when you're trying to make music.He kept singing over and over into the mic in different voices saying ignorant stuff.It was late and I was tired from my day job. I just said screw this, packed up my stuff and left.

Edited: November 2, 2017, 9:09 AM · Just one more post and I really am checking out!

Timothy - thanks for your candour which is genuinely appreciated. To you and all posters, if we were having this discussion over the dinner table we'd be modulating the force of our statements with laughter and body language.

For me playing for fun is usually great, but I too get irked when one player isn't giving it total commitment. And deliberately mucking about is a complete no-no! Issues have certainly arisen due to the relative inexperience/incompetence of certain individuals: the viola player who lost the pulse in syncopated Brahms, the other viola player who slowed down in semiquaver passages, the cellist who loved to tackle the great monuments of the repertoire but was simply past it due to age. I remember the very attractive young cellist who played professionally in the D'Oyly Carte Opera band but couldn't sight-read a movement of Haydn without breaking down. Extracting myself from that group cost me the cello part of the middle Beethoven quartets.

There have also been occasions when tensions rose during a coached course and words were said (by me as well as of me!) which weren't easily forgotten. I think that's actually part of the reason we tacitly decided to keep it informal in future, valuing continued friendship over improved performance. Immodestly I will say that I and my regular partners (25 years for one group, 15 years the other) are all good sight-readers and counters who over the years have developed the subtle ability to maintain ensemble when one player is having a bit of trouble and the pulse starts to rock. And it isn't all literally sight-reading, since we find we remember a great deal even of pieces we haven't tackled for a decade.

So that's what works for me, and I'm hugely grateful for it.


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