The Fry Street Quartet: Chamber Music as a Pedagogical Force

April 1, 2015, 3:11 PM · Making music requires collaboration, and chamber music builds that skill especially well.

Members of the Fry Street Quartet made a convincing argument for the heavy use of chamber music in teaching college students during a lecture they gave called "Chamber Music as a Pedagogical Force" at the 2015 American String Teachers Association conference. The quartet teaches in residence at Utah State University's string program, which has a unique model that requires strings students to participate in chamber music for the entire duration of their studies.

"That sustained and consistent emphasis on chamber music is a powerful tool in helping them build their instrumental skills," said Fry Street violist Bradley Otteson.

Fry Street Quartet
The Fry Street Quartet: L-R Robert Waters, Rebecca McFaul, Anne Francis Bayless and Bradley Otteson.

Chamber music builds collaborative spirit between musicians, holds each person uniquely responsible for his or her part, and cultivates diplomatic problem-solving skills. All those skills manifest visibly, as well as audibly, in a high-functioning chamber group. For example, when playing for outreach and kids' concerts, the Fry Street Quartet kept encountering one particular question from the kids: Why do you move so much when you play?

One way to answer that question is explore what happens when they don't move: "It becomes so obvious that there are so many things missing, from character to cueing," said second violinist Rebecca McFaul. The group played a passage from a Haydn string quartet to demonstrate, remaining stock-still. Certainly, much of the energy and direction went missing.

Also, when one of the musicians gives a cue, it must not only give the tempo, but "it must inspire my colleagues to play in the character of the piece," said first violinist Robert Waters. They demonstrated what it was like to follow a cue that was stiff and lacking in movement. "It's almost impossible for them to come in, in the same stormy character," Waters said.

Not only that, but a cue is only as good as the people following it. "Everyone must look," Waters said, "and everyone must be physically involved. If I'm the only one who does it, then the music suffers."

"No cue is a solo effort," Otteson said, "we're all moving and breathing together. We stop and make eye contact -- that way we know we're stepping into this together. With my back turned, it's hard for me to know if we are sharing the pulse in the same way."

And in fact, one of the great rewards of playing chamber music is "when I get the sense I'm really locking in with the others in the group," Otteson said. "It's that visceral connection to another human being."

In fact, chamber music is a conversation, and it's not that different from a conversation that one might have with words," Rebecca said.

What happens when you carry on a spoken conversation, without anyone looking at each other? Quartet members demonstrated this, but they couldn't carry on for long because it felt so awkward and wrong -- they started laughing. A spoken conversation requires those elements of gesture and mutual attention, just as a musical conversation does.

In a quartet or other chamber group, just one person has full responsibility for each part; there is no hiding in a big orchestra section. If a player has trouble playing off the string, plays with a weak tone or bad intonation, or has any other deficiencies, "there's a whole other motivation in the string quartet setting, where, if they can't do it, they're the odd man out," Waters said. In these cases, the motivation to impress peers -- or at least to avoid embarrassment in front of them -- can work wonders. "Information means a lot when it comes from another students rather than from a teacher."

A string quartet also provides opportunities to lead, and to follow. If everyone tries to lead -- well, the Fry Quartet members demonstrated this, with every member trying to out-play the other, the violist even standing up in order to out-do and overshadow his peers. It was very funny, but what chaos!

"It throws the chemistry off-balance," Otteson said afterwards. "It's not only about playing strongly, but also listening to those around us," Waters said.

Conversely, a lack of leadership also has consequences. "If I lack courage and conviction, my quartet is left out at sea," he said. "Without engagement from the whole group, the music just doesn't come to life." They demonstrated the tuned-out quartet: everyone playing with low energy, avoiding connection, cellist Anne Francis Bayless stretching and yawning during her measures of rest, the violist checking his phone and taking a selfie. It was also a funny demonstration, but the music (of course) fell apart.

A chamber group thrives when it sets and shares goals and expectations together. Most conflicts arise from conflicting goals.

"Problem-solving becomes much easier when the goals are clear," Bayless said. "Everyone is motivated and committed to solving problems along the way."

Those little things like having a pencil, knowing the score, using the metronome and practicing before rehearsal, "they all lead to something bigger: professionalism."

For the Fry St. Quartet, "it's all about the sharing of a unified voice that communicates effectively with an audience."

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String Quartet in F minor, Op. 80 - III. Adagio - Felix Mendelssohn (2012):

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April 1, 2015 at 10:44 PM · So, I agree totally w/ this. How 'bout getting violinists and pianists to think of working together, situated so they can see each other and collaborate, not calculate guesses as to entrances, etc.

April 2, 2015 at 04:42 PM · As an accompanist, I agree it's a problem, but it's not a huge problem. You get used to taking the small cues with your peripheral vision. The violinist could stand in the crook of the piano and be more visible to the pianist there, but then would be subjected to the full force of its sound. Somehow that reminds me of Victor Borge.

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