What are the ideal lessons look like to turn an adult learner into a really good chamber player

Edited: June 1, 2018, 7:42 PM · If an adult student’s ultimate goal is to be a good classical chamber music player rather than a soloist, should the teaching be different from that which is designed for the usual solo repertoire building? If not, why? If so, in what way a program or focus of the teaching specifically geared towards the skills for play chamber music playing be different from the usual one?

Replies (21)

Edited: May 31, 2018, 6:24 PM · Well, to play advanced chamber music you have to be a good player, so I don't know what technical things I would completely omit if an adult learner asked me to prepare them to play chamber music. I doubt many adult students would be interested in intensive scale training so I'd probably not bother with that. Bow control, especially a good, consistent bounce would be a critical focus imo.

I think I probably wouldn't be as strict with etudes as I am with younger students. For ex. - I wouldn't make them play every single Op. 45 Wohlfahrt etude. That would probably be boring for an adult with limited time to practice. I would pick and choose etudes that would address their weaknesses in the best manner and explain in the greatest detail why they should spend time with them. Even 5-6 minutes a day spent approaching a good etude in a properly focused manner can make a huge difference.

Since ensemble is the most important thing for chamber music I would certainly favor playing duets instead of slogging away at the standard "student repertoire" like concertos, showpieces, unaccompanied Bach etc.

There are so many great violin duets out there, from raw beginner to very advanced. A adult learner who is interested in chamber music doesn't need to strive towards mastering a DeBeriot violin concerto, they should shift their focus towards his fantastic duos instead.

Besides - it's more fun for me as a teacher lol. I love learning the second part and practicing those pieces with students.

Edited: May 31, 2018, 7:07 PM · I expect that it would be the same learning path until the student reaches the intermediate level, since the basic technical foundation still needs to be laid.

For that reason, I expect that Kreutzer is still necessary. Many of the usual short works still make sense. But instead of doing the concertos of deBeriot, Viotti, etc. (and the concerto sequence that follows), there'd be an emphasis on learning (in synchrony with other players) progressively more difficult trio and quartet repertoire.

Tone quality, accurate intonation, and accurate rhythm would be stressed throughout the technical foundation.

May 31, 2018, 9:44 PM · I'd say the curriculum is similar between the two disciplines. I would take the approach Ryan mentions. With any student, I would encourage plenty of repertoire exploration, plus necessary technique practice (scales, exercises, and appropriate etudes). I will only require students to do etudes that
1. build on their weak skills
2. particularly good skill builders or
3. utilize techniques that are within reach but not commonly explored in the level of repertoire they currently play

The only difference is that I would add lots of duets plus try to put them in an actual chamber group.

June 1, 2018, 9:03 AM · Read through the Bartok Duos with them. If that doesn't help their reading skills, nothing will.

I'd also look at standard repertoire from the chamber music literature, such as Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven.
The broad principles of phrasing, articulation, and bow use can be applied broadly across them.
Give them assignments in fingering and bowing them, and discuss what works and what doesn't. I've found that one has to be creative with Beethoven--the original slurs often need to be broken up or changed or you end up in exactly the wrong place.

June 1, 2018, 9:47 AM · I think with regard to method the differences are not distinct but time and quality of progress vary a lot, etudes like Kreutzer, Dont, Rode are still very necessary to build solid and stable basic techiniques required in every level of violin playing. In fact, good chamber musicians are indeed professionally trained for long time, etudes forementioned are not sufficient at al.
June 1, 2018, 12:44 PM · "good chamber musicians are indeed professionally trained for long time"

This is what I understand and I'm taught to believe that chamber musicians are soloists with chamber music training. Not all good players are good chamber musicians, the later, pros or not, all have learned romantic concerti and can still perform solo works. One thing I've noticed is that some wonderful soloists or advanced students who primarily work on solo reps are not very good sight-readers, unlike chamber players.

This is what I'm wondering, for advanced amateur players, is it an overkill to keep working on solo reps while the ultimate goal is to be a really good chamber player?

Edited: June 1, 2018, 1:10 PM · This is a very good question Yixi!

This is one of skill sets one can not learn on their own. Yes, one has to spend many hours of solfeggio, scales, studies and what-not.... developing building blocks for music making and chamber music.
Then, from my own experience, chamber music has a lot to do with listening and having a very good sense of rhythm. One also has to learn to read body language, how to queue and ensemble, etc....
Playing viola and switching between 1st and 2nd violin helps a lot. Also, reading the score and listening a LOT of chamber music helps one to develop the inner sense.
One thing missed in my education is how does an ensemble practice together?
One coach after the other I repeat the same question: how can you teach us to be self-sufficient and keep working once you are gone or between the lessons?
There is also a lot of group psychology dynamics at play and I am afraid that musicians are left to their own when it comes to collaboration.
In other words, there are "hard skills" and "soft skills" like in any other field, where I sometimes tend to believe that the latter are more important than the former.

June 1, 2018, 1:57 PM · I imagine that learning quartet and other non-violin/piano chamber music may have its place in learning, but it really seems like a logistically difficult way to do it. You have to have other players around, and if they're not that good, then what kind of sacrifices will you have to make to let the pieces be playable.

I think that etudes and scales are foundational no matter what, but it seems that technique gets built on student works and romantic concerti. I don't know if teachers in the US assign Mozart earlier than in Europe, but a lot of the clarity and balance that is necessary in Mozart concerti are skills that you are going to need in difficult Mozart sonatas and quartets and in Haydn. It's easier to work solo repertoire with accompanists that can easily hang than with a number of other string players.

Anyway, I haven't played quartet repertoire, so my perspective is limited, but it seems like having the technique in place is easier to then add the ensemble skills onto. Youth or amateur orchestras are also a good place to get some ensemble skills, but that can be hazardous to a not-so-solid-yet technique.

The better I get, the more I realize how difficult stuff like the Mozart or Handel sonatas, or the Schubert Sonatinas are to make sound really good, and I know that the Handel sonatas are used pretty casually as student pieces often (Not that they shouldn't, but I think they get taken for granted a bit)

June 1, 2018, 2:49 PM · I'm going to assume that Yixi Zhang is the Adult Learner who wants to play chamber music. I agree with Lydia that playing duets is the pathway and there are a lot of great duets out there. Of course, playing with your teacher is one thing, finding a duet partner is another issue, and forming a chamber music group is very difficult. (I highly recommend reading: "The Ill Tempered String Quartet" (I.T.S.Q.) before trying to form one.

The resource for finding those other musician is usually a local community orchestra. However, be prepared for a lot of false starts and make sure that everyone has the same basic goals. All this is covered in "The I.T.S.Q" which is actually a great name for a quartet

The next issue is: Does the chamber group want to just play or perform for audiences? Not everyone wants to be on stage or do the work to put a "performance grade" shine on a set of music.

That being said: I want to plug my favorite method - Doflein because every page turn has at least one duet for student and teacher. For the teachers, you might want to consider it for your adult students who only desire to play with a few others.

June 1, 2018, 3:15 PM · Yixi it's a great question and thread, as usual. I think you should still challenge your technique to the extent possible. But if I am working on basic technique I can do that with my chamber parts at my lesson, at least part of it. Double stops? I don't know about you but I feel they improve my intonation overall. And if you are playing in a quartet then the same intonation concepts do apply.

What Lydia said. In my view, part of the goal of learning solo rep is not only improvement but the outcome of actually performing those pieces. If you don't want to do that then you could instead work more on studies, parts, and excerpts. It would be cool to have a "method" built on chamber excerpts.

June 1, 2018, 3:29 PM · In addition to their regular teachers, my kids are part of a local chamber music program, where they are put into trios quartets and quintets at the beginning of the year and get 16 1.5 hour group coaching sessions throughout the year by local symphony musicians. They aren't taught individual skills in this so much as ensemble skills. I see a number of programs like this around the country. It might be neat to try to find or arrange something like this for interested adults.
Edited: June 1, 2018, 7:48 PM · This is where I come from. I've been primarily working on solo reps for the past 10 years or so since returning and I really enjoy doing it. I also play chamber music on a monthly basis with different groups, and I go to chamber workshops at least twice a year.

I'm asked to play with others every week, but I have to turn down most of them because I don't want to just read through one piece after the other, and I don't have a lot of time to prepare chamber works that I won't be performing in near future. Most of my practice time is spent on preparing for solo recitals and orchestra and chamber works that lead to near future performances. I do treat chamber works as though they were solo works and sometimes bring them to my lessons. I find that all the things I've learned from solo works make it most fun when playing with very strong groups. I hope this doesn't sound too snobbish but honestly, playing in a small ensemble requires good match of skills, commitment, personality, etc.

I figure building solo rep will stop at some point, and maybe it's wise to do so sooner than later. My next goal is to learn both 1st and 2nd violin parts of some middle and late Beethoven quartets, a lots of Haydn, some Shostakovich and a few other romantic as well as early 20 century composers' works in the next a couple of years. My husband (a retired physician and an avid chamber player) would be delighted if we could play more chamber music together than what we are doing now.

If I were to switch my focus from solo reps to chamber music reps soon, what kind of questions/suggestions I should be considering before I bring this idea to my teacher?

Edited: June 1, 2018, 9:14 PM · I think the ACMP* still has a chamber-music coaching service that can help a chamber music group get its "feet on the ground." Of course the techniques of good string playing are quite the same for solo and chamber work (orchestra too, for that matter), but some of the dynamic and intonation issues can be different. A coach can help balance your sound and especially help you develop pianissimo levels for your dynamic range (amateurs often play with a limited dynamic range).

My experience with ACMP coaching involved a string quartet in which all 4 members joined ACMP so we could hire the coach for half price for four sessions. This can be especially helpful if one (or some) of the players have habits that need correcting but no one of the group wants to wreck the ambiance by speaking up. At least that worked for us.

As an experienced player one can learn lessons in one to four coached sessions that will last a lifetime (and a good coach and spot problem areas in one second or less - like a masterclass).

The sight-reading ability you need for chamber music fun you have to develop on your own by doing a lot of sight reading and scale practice - there are no shortcuts for that.

* https://www.acmp.net/

June 2, 2018, 10:33 AM · Chamber music is quite different from either orchestra or solo playing. In addition to basic technical skills on your instrument, sight reading and counting become more important. You also have to pay close attention to the others in your chamber group and to the cues you get from their playing in a way that is different from orchestra. Playing duets helps to develop some of the skills. However, chamber is a somewhat different world from what most amateurs are used to, but lots of fun, and, if you are a violist, it's really where you want to be.
June 4, 2018, 7:33 PM · I'm bumping this thread because I would like to read more ideas from the members.

Truth is that as much as it hurts (truths...), an adult learner is unlikely to get into a professional orchestra. If that's the case, should they follow the same program as the young students aiming to be professionals? That's the first question. The answer depends if current teaching programs aim for that kind of skill (orchestral/soloist playing), or it focuses in the violin playing skills regardless of the goal.

I brought this topic to my teacher. He told me that in Vietnam the chances for an orchestra are almost none (there is only one; he is in it), and to be a soloist is a laughable idea. His students and colleagues focus from the first day in preparing for chamber and ensembles. Here are some of his thoughts.

The most important thing is blending and flexibility. While you must have a good sense of rythm you can't be right and everybody else wrong you must adjust to whatever rythm is coming, even if it's wrong. An ensemble is more democratic, works in consensus and while playing the consensus needs to be inmediate.
Count, count and count. Don't counter-bow your colleagues. The nail that sticks out, gets the hammer. The player that doesn't blend, is never called again.

You need to sight-read very well to not only your part but others'. Your ear should be able to isolate one instrument and locate the phrase they are playing in the sheet.

And finally, some skills that are not particularly violin/music related: Playing in a chamber/small group is like working for a family businesses. Personal interactions are more important than in a big company. You should be able to contribute and to have a closer and more personal relationship with the other members. Emotional intelligence in this environment could be more important than small differences in talent.

How do you teach this? According to my teacher the best way is to encourage group playing from the beginning. Sacrifice some private classes to put all students playing in group and make them play together regularly. That also conditions the works to study and practice in the curriculum.

Those were the ideas around a coffee after class. What do you think?

June 4, 2018, 9:29 PM · I believe it shouldn't be mutually exclusive (chamber vs solo), and that the student should perhaps devote more time to developing sight reading and building his/her chamber rep. while not completely forgoing the solo works. I feel the solo rep. and advanced, solo short works will help keep everything else in perspective, making violin-playing all the much easier, so the student only has to worry about music making.

(Scales work too, of course, but difficult solo works are basically the artistical expression of the more academic use of scale-work, and also helps develop technical ease and player confidence.)

Another way of stating what I am trying to express is that one should avoid lowering the standard of playing just because one doesn't intend to play the Sibelius next week with all the orchestras in your town. There's more to the solo rep. than performing them frequently (if at all) in public. Have a high standard, and maintain it throughout the rest of the so-called "easier" repertoire (as there's plenty of challenge and hurdles to overcome in many chamber and orchestral works anyway.)

No offense intended to be sure, and also acknowledging there's nothing wrong with wanting to establish oneself more as a chamber music player, adult amateur player or otherwise.

June 4, 2018, 9:35 PM · Carlos, terrific post! These are all very valuable ideas and I'll bring them to my teacher when I see her again later this week. She was away last week so I got some time to think about my next stage of violin study.

Here are some more thoughts to share and see it makes sense to other violinists:

Violin as a solidary or a social pursuit
I have to admit that I am a bit of a hermit. I like people and everyone I know thinks me as an extravert, but I'm the happiest when being left alone to practice, listen to music, knit, read, garden, etc. Carol wrote, "Truth is that as much as it hurts (truths...), an adult learner is unlikely to get into a professional orchestra." To me it is a welcome truth that becoming a professional orchestra player is out of my reach. To me, mastering an instrument or anything in Chinese (especially Taoist) tradition is always an inside job -- a personal journey. I have been taking regular private lessons for a long time in accordance with such value of going inward for meanings. If I have fun playing in an orchestra or chamber group along the way, that's icing on the cake.

Violin is Gong Fu (Kung Fu)
Gong Fu (or Kung Fu) has been misunderstood by the Western world to mean oriental martial arts. In Chinese, Gong Fu means mastery of anything based on years of dedication and practice. So you can have Gong Fu for your people skills, or a mastery in tea drinking, painting/calligraphy, crafts or even butchering, etc. To achieve any Gong Fu, one has to choose it as a way of life, often like a monk, without aiming for worldly achievement.

I'm curious to see what people think about working with a chamber/small group in a way of practicing Gong Fun, if this question makes any sense.

Edited: June 4, 2018, 9:47 PM · Adalberto, I think my teacher would agree every single point you've made. I need to hear these from others to clear my own thoughts. Thank you!
Edited: June 4, 2018, 10:04 PM · Great thoughts above. I think there are many ways to organize chamber music programs with varying goals.
1. What Stan describes is a great idea. Several local community music schools have such programs, and I've been in them before. They're great. I think there are several places to organize such programs. It could be done through a collaborative group of teachers, a school, orchestra program, or maybe a local community service.
2. If you happen to know anyone who might be interested in playing chamber music with you, talk to them and see if you can organize anything. Chamber groups can form out of friendships, neighbourhood relationships, church/religious center/club relationships, family relationships, and classmate relationships.
3. Not necessarily chamber music related, but especially with adult students, teachers should try their best to cater to a student's goals. At any rate, adults should strive to reach their full potential, even though they're never going to make it as a professional musician.
Of course, organizing chamber groups is tricky, but with the right environment, it can be done.
June 5, 2018, 12:53 AM · Adalberto: Obviously it would be a poor musician who would not try constantly to improve the skills in a neverending climb. It's not a point of neglecting some things, but to distribute time and energy in favour of those which can be more useful. Time is a limited resource. If I want to have exposure earlier and play with others, I'd rather practice the whole L'Estro Armonico than the Paganini Caprice's.
Or even (which is one of my plans for the future too), commission and play a Viola D'Amore. Those are realistic goals for an adult student.

Another way to get exposure and practice is starting early to improvise and join any music with the instrument. I am trying that in my baby steps with a latin american group that plays live. Others could do the same with jazz or folk.

Yixi: I am an introvertive too, and I don't hide it. I recharge my batteries being alone or doing things in solitary. I understand your explanation of Gong Fu and I follow it in many of my hobbies. Ultrarunning comes to mind, because few (not me) do it for any kind of recognition and in practice and the event itself you push yourself just for yourself. But a musician alone is only half musician. I think that the student (in particular those who are not aiming for a virtuoso career) should be encouraged to play in groups as soon as possible, and to do it maybe the teachers could schedule regular group practice instead of only the Master-Pupil one to one that it's the regular way.

My teacher and I are going to try it, thanks to this thread to make me think about it. It opens a windows in what otherwise would be a long onanistic career of practicing at home (which is the standard for the adult student if some ideas of this thread are not taken into account)...

June 8, 2018, 10:17 PM · Here is the update:

I had a wonderful lesson and discussion with my teacher today regarding becoming a really good chamber music player. My teacher wants me to maintain the same standard as she does for her young pro-oriented students. Keep learning and performing solo works is the integral part of the learning of becoming a good musician, solo, chamber or otherwise. The structure of my future lessons might look like this: 50% solo repertoires and 50% chamber music repertoires. Chamber music learning will include something like this: Learning my part so well as carefully as I am with solo works. Learning full score of each piece. I don’t have a regular group right now so I’ll have to work on that and to have regular chamber coaching which is also necessary.

We’ll see how it goes.

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