V.com weekend vote: Is playing chamber music important to you?

February 6, 2021, 9:47 PM · Chamber music keeps you honest.

I don't remember who said that to me, but it's always rung true. Playing in a small group, often one person on a part, keeps a musician on his or her toes. But it is not always easy to find the opportunity to play chamber music.

cat quartet

This week a discussion asking "Why are chamber music violinists not more famous?" also brought up the idea that students don't always get the chance to play chamber music, as "it takes their practice effort away from skyrocketing their way through the concerto repertoire so that they can get into Curtis someday. The second-class nature of chamber music is ingrained into the teaching culture...."

Is that true? How do students really feel about playing chamber music? How do teachers feel about its important? And professional and amateur violinists -- how do you feel about playing chamber music? Is it important to you? Is it something you get the chance to do? Is it something you love to do?

Certainly exploring the rich treasure that is the string quartet repertoire can be rewarding -- if one can find compatible partners in the endeavor. I greatly value the occasions when I can get together with colleagues and read quartets.

And even having a quartet that plays for weddings can be fun -- or it can be a complete nightmare involving endless Pachelbel and bridezillas.

What are your feelings about playing chamber music? Is it something you have had the chance to do? Is it something you wish to do? And if you have played in chamber groups, how do you feel about making this kind of music? Do you seek it out? Or do you avoid it due to things such as gig fatique or acrimonious personality clashes among members? Please participate in the vote and then share your thoughts.

Thank you to Elise Stanley for the Weekend Vote idea. If you have ideas for the Weekend Vote, they are welcome! Please e-mail me with your ideas.


February 7, 2021 at 04:04 AM · Chamber music is LIFE.

Also. All music is chamber music.

February 7, 2021 at 05:05 AM · I haven’t had the chance to play chamber music, but it’s my goal.

February 7, 2021 at 05:50 AM · I answered I haven't had the chance, but it's really I haven't had MUCH chance. I've enjoyed it when I've done it, but as an adult amateur I don't have the pool of players at about my level to draw on to make up a group. Community orchestra is an outlet (in normal times) but we all have our separate lives and don't has the additional time for chamber work as well.

Still, "it's all chamber music".

February 7, 2021 at 08:00 AM · I came to chamber music somewhat late in life, as an adult after I had quit playing and come back to it. But I think I’ve made up for lost time now with all the different groups I’ve played in and parts I’ve played—both violin parts and viola.

It’s a nice way to get to know your orchestra-mates better, to get together with friends, to play music with family members too. As a violist, I find that chamber music sometimes has the most interesting parts for my instrument, more so than orchestra. Still, I think orchestra music remains #1 for me but chamber music is a close 2nd. Not being able to play music with others has made the pandemic even more difficult.

I suppose I agree with the quote that chamber music keeps you honest and on your toes, but if that's really how most musicians view it, I find that rather sad. At its best, I don't think chamber music is really about performing. It is about a group of family or friends getting together and bonding over a shared love of playing music. In describing her experiences growing up and as a student, Marin Alsop wrote about "marathon chamber music evenings that would last all night, with the ensembles growing in size. These were some of the most fun evenings of my life." I'd say that's a different kind of honesty, an authenticity based on love, not on concerns about being good enough.

February 7, 2021 at 08:37 AM · It is interesting that at the moment, "I haven't had the chance to play chamber music" is the 2nd most popular choice. Playing chamber music is a lot more possible for most players than ever playing as a soloist with an orchestra even once in their lives, speaking statistically.

I greatly enjoy playing chamber music, but despite loving all possible instruments normally used, I don't really enjoy listening to chamber pieces very much, especially string quartets. For me the textures are too samey. Makes me a music boob, i know, but I feel this way not from lack of education or great familiarity with the literature.

February 7, 2021 at 09:39 AM · I prefer to play chamber music, but I rarely had the chance to play chamber music on strings until the last five years or so. I've met most of my chamber music partners through community orchestras, and I worked my way up from beginner/intermediate orchestras to semi-pro orchestras as an adult. Until I started playing in orchestras at a certain level, I had a hard time finding anyone who was interested in playing chamber music at all; and once I got into orchestras whose members routinely played chamber music, I still needed two or three years to develop a reputation as a competent player in order to start getting invited to play chamber music.

(All that said: I don't enjoy strings-only chamber music that much, for the same reason as Michael Browder above. I greatly prefer piano ensembles or mixed ensembles; to me the "ideal" chamber ensemble is not the string quartet but the piano quartet. Maybe that's the former pianist in me speaking.)

The other thing: chamber music is harder to schedule than an orchestra. An orchestra can set a rehearsal time and expect people to take it or leave it, and it can also afford to have a certain number of string players miss any given rehearsal. Chamber music needs to take everyone's schedule into account.

February 7, 2021 at 09:54 AM · I find that apart from delightful dance and "wedding" music, composers often write their most intense music into chamber form.

February 7, 2021 at 11:30 AM · I played chamber music when I was at music camp (Arrowbear) during middle school, and I can still today rememeber exactly what we played. Definitely a highlight of my adolescence! I am very grateful for the experience.

February 7, 2021 at 02:44 PM · Playing chamber music begs the question 'what is chamber music'. I think one can define it (now) as music where there there are two or more parts, while each musician has its own voice. Thus, solo Bach is not chamber music, and nor is a small string orchestra (though some definitions would include it). The interlacing of parts is, I think, essential for chamber music.

The hazy area is violin with piano. I think we would agree that a violinist playing the Beethoven concerto with a piano doing the orchestra reduction would not be regarded as chamber music but as a solo with an accompaniment as strictly speaking there is only one 'voice'. However, the Beethoven Spring sonata is chamber music as each instrument has its own separate interacting part.

Since each musician has to carry their own part and not only be able to manage its technical issues but also play 'with an ear' to the group, chamber music requires a certain level of instrumental technical and musical sophistication. For this reason, I think it is not suitable for beginners as a potential performance piece (practice, its wonderful). Thus, it tends to be added beyond the 'intermediate' level of accomplishment.

February 7, 2021 at 03:03 PM · ...and, Elise, you are surely aware that the Spring Sonata, as are the other 9 Beethoven sonatas, are for "piano and violin", where the latter most often accompanies the former, and not the usual vice-versa.

February 7, 2021 at 03:04 PM · I started playing chamber music in 1949 and have continued through the 4 major moves of my life. Stopped only now because of COVID - but we players continue to meet weekly (just to talk) by ZOOM. Some of them are continuing to play together outdoors (here in California) and some are seeking and experimenting with "virtual" ways to make music together. For me, we are not playing together unless we ARE together.

I will just continue with my solitary practice until our great reunion.

February 7, 2021 at 03:15 PM · When I came back to the violin after a long absence, chamber music was my point of reentry. It is the activity I have missed most during the pandemic. I play in both a string quartet and a flute quartet, both amateur.

February 7, 2021 at 05:00 PM · Dimitri - so I have heard. But he had to put one instrument first and may have put the piano there simply because it was his primary one. Is there any evidence he intended it as a piano sonata accompanied by violin (which is I think what you imply)?

Maybe he wrote it that way to emphasize the equal billing.

February 7, 2021 at 05:57 PM · Elise, yes, that's what I imply but I'm not qualified to answer the specific question, perhaps someone else can?

February 7, 2021 at 06:13 PM · I love playing chamber music, it's something I'd love o do more of especially when covid is over.

February 7, 2021 at 07:25 PM · Dimitri, the "piano and violin" sequence in the title was the standard way of putting it in Beethoven's day. And if you look at early Mozart sonatas the piano was truly the dominating instrument. But if you actually look at the Beethoven scores (rather than believing some textbook) you will find that for the most part the violin has the leading voice about 50% of the time. It required some effort for Beethoven to achieve such balance given that the piano can be described as two instruments in one--the left and the right hand.

February 7, 2021 at 09:11 PM · My dad was a chamber music specialist, so I had an early appreciation for the genre, even if my technical skills didn't match up.

Besides the great repertoire, the intimacy and connection between you and your partner(s) is really what making music is all about. Solo repertoire is necessarily more heirarchical - It's fun to really deeply collaborate with other people, share and compare visions, and make something greater than the sum of each in the spirit of true partnership.

February 7, 2021 at 11:51 PM · I was taking a class in chamber music, loving it, and then Covid came and the whole thing shut down. I'm hoping to get back to it sometime within the next year.

February 8, 2021 at 12:06 AM · There are a lot of fantastic pieces in the chamber music genre, I enjoy it, and wish I had done more, on 2nd violin or viola, but:

In my town the amateur to semi-pro players are too few in number to handle anything harder than early Mozart and Haydn.

It is difficult to coordinate the schedules of 4 independent free-lance pro players.

To do it right you need to have a permanent group with tours, recordings and probably one of those quartet-in-residence teaching appointments at a college.

It doesn't pay.

The ratio of rehearsal to performance time is really high.

I don't enjoy doing those marathon sight-reading sessions.

I would also label the sonatas as chamber music; Piano-Violin duets. Skilled pianists that want to do this are uncommon.

February 8, 2021 at 03:49 AM · I've long loved chamber music, but it is only since COVID 19 hit that I have played really regularly with my quartet. Suddenly because orchestra rehearsals were cancelled and a maximum of 4 were allowed, distanced, in anyone's home, SQ was the ideal musical combination.

I'd been getting a bit cheesed off with the egos, racing during the semiquavers, poor intonation, and wind players not learning their parts that seems to often come with community orchestras, not to mention not being able to hear myself as more "important" players near me seem to have to play loudly no matter what the dynamic.

Here in South Australia, orchestras are back in rehearsal with numbers limits depending on room size. But because of the issues above, the music making I really look forward to is my chamber music.

February 8, 2021 at 09:50 AM · Like Joel I find it very hard to find partners. Perhaps I am not trying hard enough, as I also get a lot of satisfaction from my role in the orchestra.

February 8, 2021 at 03:07 PM · A word for "Marathon sight-reading sessions". When I lived in California our quartet met weekly--sickness, vacations and earth quakes were the only reasons to cancel--and we spent 95% of our time sight reading repertoire. There was no need to make the sessions Marathon: We would meet again in seven days. We played three pieces normally plus sometimes a fourth though that would cut into tea time afterwards. We played everything from Haydn to Brahms or Grieg. We kept this up for seven years--until I was forced by my job to move far away.

Such sessions can be enormously enjoyable. In fact quite a few people enjoy them. It does help to have a permanent group. Improvised one-off sessions are still nice (and who knows, maybe something more permanent may follow) but less satisfying. And scheduling is easier for permanent groups. One agrees on a weekly time once and everybody blocks that evening in their calendars permanently.

Playing in a group is performing. Playing together we all perform for each other--even when sight reading*. Obviously the result does not sound like on a CD or in a concert with the Emerson Quartet. Even so it is probably more satisfying than either of these alternatives (unless one chooses pieces that are too far out of reach technically).

Such sessions are probably also the reason why amateur chamber players often have a wider and deeper knowledge of the repertoire than professional players who see such sessions as wasting time that nobody will pay them for (I don't blame them; I would not have gone to the lab without someone giving me my regular pay check either!).

* Sight reading: If one engages in regular meetings over a long(ish) period "sight reading" is not quite correct any more. One plays many pieces several times and one ends up with some sort of "prepared sight reading"--an oxymoron, I know.

February 8, 2021 at 03:08 PM · Personally I couldn't care less whether I can play any of the big concertos. But it annoys me to no end that early Beethoven is so damned hard. I really wish I could nail something like Mendelssohn Op. 20 too.

And I love the picture with this blog entry -- cats playing chamber music beats the living hell out of dogs playing poker.

February 8, 2021 at 05:20 PM · Really? Aren't dogs the social type who would play camber music? Cats should play solo-Bach!

BTW: I think "playing adequately is good enough for private enjoyment. "Nailing" it is an exaggerated target (plus a rather violent metaphor in a musical context, don't you think?).

February 8, 2021 at 05:26 PM · If you include duet with a piano as chamber music, frankly, there's no contest. I, thankfully, grew up with chamber music.

Three or four years ago, I turned up to an event that involved serenading volunteers at a railway platform beautification event, where the other musician was a skilled pianist with a good touch sensitive keyboard. I was mortified at not being able to lay my hands on my Bach accompanied sonatas to bring along to it, so we had to make do with the concertos, which went down OK, but I'd much rather have given my partner a more rewarding part to play - and that E-major sonata is the tops!

February 9, 2021 at 08:32 PM · I have played chamber music all my life, starting when I was a teenager. I played the violin. At some point I took up the viola. My mother played the piano, a younger brother played the cello, my grandfather played the viola. So we played music together, music that was at a level within our range. piano quartet, string trio, music for violin and piano, cello and piano. Different combinations. Sometimes with a friend who also played violin.

In the years that followed I continued playing chamber music with different people, many instrument combinations, but especially string quartet.

For those of you who want to find partners I wish that you find them. Chamber music is such a great experience.

February 9, 2021 at 09:09 PM · Now that our orchestra is shut down due to COVID-19, chamber music is the only music left, even if it's just my wife on her cello and I on my viola. (Sometimes a friend will come over - we'll space ourselves out and do trios.)

As for "marathon chamber music events that last all night", that will have to wait until the restrictions ease, so I can get together with my bluegrass buddies and start jamming again.

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