Chamber Music Survival Skills

December 28, 2015, 7:52 AM · I remember my introduction to orchestra playing as so cordial and natural that I felt no pain. One day in the fourth grade in Dallas I was given a school violin, a little too big for me. The same day Billie Cook, who I found out later had a perfectly beautiful vibrato, stood in front of us with a baton and we played open strings. I think we even read music. I wouldn’t call it simply a seamless introduction; it was a simultaneous, artistic big-bang explosion, and collision, of exquisite matter. I was oblivious to the scratchy, out-of-tune sounds. My musical mind was awakened to a system, and I was lucky that Mrs. Cook smiled and loved what she was doing.

Take away the baton, the security of ten people playing the same thing, and a cadre of percussionists, and you have entered the world of chamber music. For those adults who play in string quartets at least once a week, nothing can come close to the joy they feel and the sense of accomplishment. The addiction creates a lifetime of exploring great music and experiencing rapport -- and rancor -- with their colleagues.

Mrs. Cook introduced music as a raw ingredient. While orchestras present a near-perfect, hermetically sealed musical environment, chamber music teaches us to understand what we’ve always taken for granted.


Metronomes Can Only Go So Far; Rhythm Is a Learned Behavior.

Music can appear easy but fall apart quickly and inexplicably. Why? Rhythm. Rhythm, including subdividing and feeling the ebb and flow of the phrase, is the glue that holds a group together. In a chamber music group, each person is responsible for holding up his end. All should avoid "Musical Drift," that moment when the player becomes unmoored, usually due to the dreaded combination of not listening and not counting. Here are a few thoughts that sum up a lifetime of seeing how the secret, labyrinth-like language of music seems to work.

Who Needs to Give the Cue?

If God had wanted violinists to give cues, life would have been a lot easier. From the first moment a child plays Twinkle, it would be nice to have him lift the violin and breathe. Or just one of those things would be enough. If you’re having difficulty with the technique of leading as the first violinist, be kind to yourself. There’s something about the right arm moving the bow horizontally, and the left fingers going up and down, that locks the body and prevents extra activities like leading. Notable exceptions, in terms of those who have mastered other physical movement while playing, include Stephen Sharp Nelson of Piano Guys and Lindsey Sterling, who are the evolutionary masterpieces of the on-line musical world.

What tends to go wrong, and how you can fix it:

Here are some things that may go wrong, when trying to lead a chamber group:

The first time you try to lead, you likely will feel like it’s a forced, unnatural movement. Do it anyway. Then you’ll have an idea how the parts need to be integrated. The more you know your bow arm, the more independent it will become. If the parts have become locked and mutually exclusive of each other, make them more independent. Practice each arm separately, or more practically, play them together with separate thoughts flowing to their necessary attributes.

Take the Necessary Time to Cue

When it comes to leading, straight up-and-down motions are very effective, with the only drawback being that they don’t resemble any of the motions of the bow. When you use them, keep the bow arm, with all its musical intentions, intact.

The oblique, gentle angle of the other type of pick-up can be blended with the bow arm and look quite beautiful. The most common problem associated with it is that not enough time is given to the cue. It’s shoved into place, rather than taking the time to show the complete cycle of the cue. Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by the speed of the bow or that of the left fingers. The careful cue and the fast music are capable of integrating, and when you watch some people do it, you think maybe God actually did intend us to give cues.


December 29, 2015 at 03:10 AM · I love chamber music but have a hard time with cues when I am needed to play first. This was very helpful! Thank you!! :)

December 29, 2015 at 07:43 PM · In some professional ensembles I've seen, the leader usefully has exaggerated body movements in contrast to the other players, particularly if there is no conductor and the leader is directing while playing. It is thus easier for the other players to see the leader and watch for cues.

December 31, 2015 at 10:19 PM · Trevor, I agree with you about how visible the leader needs to be to make his or her leadership effective. An orchestra's concertmaster has an added responsibility of reinforcing the conductor's beat. It's a very helpful part of the performance, because the conductor may be concentrating on phrasing or dynamics, and the concertmaster is left to show exactly where the beat is.As an added tool to keep the ensemble focused, it's sometimes necessary to say exactly what the concertmaster wants to the section, and words will thus express what cannot be expressed simply with the body.

A corollary to the concertmaster visibly standing out among the other players is that it is far too easy to be influenced by the movements of others. Not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly it can create some confusion. Movement in orchestra, of course, should be encouraged and appreciated. However, when the movement is confusing or overwrought, a lot of energy will be wasted by trying to ignore it.

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