chamber music

March 10, 2020, 12:46 PM · What particular skills or abilities does one need in order to be a stellar chamber music player (vs. a soloist or orchestral player), and how can one hone them outside of the context of playing chamber music?

Replies (16)

Edited: March 10, 2020, 1:29 PM · The meat and potatoes of chamber music -- from Haydn and Mendelssohn to Shostakovitch and beyond -- is, quite honestly, very hard music. At least that is my impression as an amateur. The people you see in the best quartets are *stellar* instrumentalists. Chamber music is maybe not quite as demanding for insane stuff like fingered tenths and other "Paganini parlor tricks" kind of stuff. But there is an additional layer of difficulty for intonation because the intervals with the other players must be exact.

What you should do is buy a book of scores -- for example you can get the whole of the Beethoven String Quartets as a very inexpensive Dover edition -- and really listen closely to a good group like Jerusalem Quartet while you are watching the score so that you can see what these players are up against and hear how they make it not just tolerable but really beautiful.

Recently I went to a classical jam (play-in) and I got the first violin part of the Mendelssohn E-Flat Octet Op. 20, doubling with a violinist who has played it many times before. I had less than two weeks to learn the part but in my home preparation I was able to play most of the passages okay. However in the play-in it was very hard for me, even though the tempos were taken much slower than I anticipated, because there is so much going on around me. I should have expected that I guess. But I couldn't practice it with YouTube because those pro recordings are too fast. I did better when we played the Dvorak American Quartet even though I was sight-reading -- on viola!

March 10, 2020, 1:42 PM · I suppose there are a variety of skills that are useful or necessary for chamber musicians.


Decent technique. That you can acquire alone.

Ensemble playing: I am afraid the give and take with the other players, listening to the ensemble and fitting in your own part adequately, can only be learned by doing.* Violin playing alone is already a multitasking exercise. Ensemble playing adds on even more tasks.

Extramusical: A good performance requires a shared vision of the piece that is being performed. The problem is: That shared vision will never arrive; everybody has their personal opinion. Without the ability to debate differences of opinion without hostility, to compromise, to fit in you won't get far. These skills of course can be acquired and practiced in almost every social context (although the need for them in chamber music is probably more intense than in most other situations).

* A good coach helps a lot.

March 10, 2020, 2:09 PM · Ensemble skills and musical leadership skills (both useful in orchestra) are best developed by playing chamber music. Arguably this is one of the places where only experience can teach you want you need to know, though doing so under the instruction of a good coach is useful.

Chamber music requires the ability to both be a strong individual performer as well as an excellent collaborator. You need to have solid technical skills that allow you to reserve most of your attention for something other than your own playing. And you also need to have the technical flexibility to rapidly and instinctively adapt to what's going on around you.

Another player may, for instance, decide to take a novel bowing in rehearsal, and whatever it was that you planned, you will probably try to follow and imitate (and maybe later you'll discuss it and decide it was or wasn't a good experiment). Your cellist might be slightly out of tune, and because they generally form the firmament for a quartet's tuning, you have to adapt your own intonation accordingly. You shape your sound to fit into or come out of the ensemble, adapting whatever you are doing on-the-fly.

The chemistry of the group, on both a personal and a musical level, is an elusive thing. Good groups have structured, productive rehearsals that result in significant improvement and a coherent musical vision. Also, in most cases, they have fun -- but rehearsal is rehearsal and chat during breaks is its own thing. Get too chatty in rehearsal and it won't be productive.

If you want to work on chamber music on your own, listen to as much of the common repertoire as you can, preferably with a score, so you always know what is supposed to be happening and how the parts fit together. Learn the first and second violin parts, and if you play viola, consider learning the viola part as well.

But otherwise, make a habit of a weekly chamber music gathering, whether you are sight-reading or doing more serious performance preparation.

Edited: March 10, 2020, 2:48 PM · As usual lydia has made astute observations, and I only reiterate or add to them.

1. You must learn to listen so that when you are playing, you are also listening and adjusting to your colleagues. This includes intonation, ensemble, tempo, interpretation.
2. You need to know exactly what is in the complete score, not just your own part. Robert Mann of the Juilliard quartet often performed (and rehearsed) with the complete score in front of him.
3. You need to be trained in rehearsal techniques by a professional. There are tons of techniques which work, and many more tons that do not work.
4. You need lots of experience in perfecting a performance.
5. You need to know when to lead and when not to lead. Every member must have these skills.
6. You must be able to criticize in a civilized manner and also take criticism with humility. Also, you need to know how to manipulate your colleages without their knowing it, so you can get to the best possible interpretation.

Having played professionally in string quartets, I would venture that my remarks are only about 5% of what you need to know.

If you want an example of my playing with the Ciompi String Quartet as first violin see the last 2 movements of Beethoven op. 74:

You will notice this was recorded live to 2 track. Ensemble and playing is quite good. You will notice that it has received a minimal number of "views" in the last 4 years, which leads to the conclusion that classical chamber music is not a career in which you can make much money. I was lucky to have quartet residencies which are few and far between these days.

There was a comment about having a "decent technique" in order to be a stellar chamber player. That is not the case, one must have an "incredible" technical ability in order to be successful these days.

March 10, 2020, 3:11 PM · Bruce, when I wrote "decent technique" I was not thinking about "stellar" players. I neglected that part of the original question on purpose. Frankly, you should want to play chamber music as well as you can and if you end up "stellar", good for you! I don't think it is healthy in any profession (or any endeavor) to aim at "stellar" before you are even adequate.

As a listener I have heard very excellent performances by ad hoc no name ensembles. So the question what "stellar" means is is kind of difficult to answer anyway.

However (back to technique), it is also true that virtuoso show off technique is almost completely absent in good chamber music compositions. Most of the technical difficulties in chamber music will not be noticed by the audience.

BTW your point 6 amuses me: a quartet is thus a set of four people, each of whom manipulates the others and not one of them is aware of that!

March 10, 2020, 3:43 PM · My son's pre-college program is known for producing great chamber musicians and they have a whole guidebook which I really wish they would publish on how to become a great chamber musician. In any case, I will share some of the things I have picked up from both that guide and watching them learn.

1. Technique and ability is NOT most important in becoming a great chamber musician. Of course, you have to have a basic level of technique that matches the rep you are playing and the others in the group. But a lot of the skills required either can be learned or you can develop through preparation. For example, my son attends regular school with a violinist from another program who is similar in level but has not had extensive chamber music training. Even though they play solo rep at the same level, it was like night and day when they tried to play chamber music together at school. Training matters. These skills can be taught.

2. Learn your part and everybody else's part. If you are a lucky one with a great ear, you can learn the whole score by listening. If you aren't, literally play every part until you learn it. Understand how the piece works theory-wise, and how the parts fit together (melody, harmony, countermelody, etc.).

3. Play in all the positions (first violin, second violin, and viola). You will learn a ton by rotating through all three. You learn a lot about the core of the sound and how intonation works.

4. Start with a piece that is technically below your level. Haydn or Mozart are good choices since the notes usually aren't too hard. First, learn to match each other's articulations exactly. Not only does this help teach style, but it forces you to listen and respond incredibly carefully. After that, work on group rhythm with metronome. And then group intonation. To be honest, if you can play Haydn or Mozart together well, you can play almost anything!

5. You need to rehearse enough that you can start to read each other's minds and anticipate each other's moves. This usually means at least 3-4 hours a week together.

6. COMMUNICATE. Play your piece without music and look at each other the whole time. Learn to communicate with both your body and your sound.

7. LISTEN. It just can't be emphasized enough.

March 10, 2020, 3:55 PM · Anita,

The responses above mine are filled with wisdom about playing "chamber music."

That being said: I have to wonder what you are thinking of when you say "Chamber Music?" It is a pretty broad part of the literature with varieties of instruments as well as numbers of players. Not to forget that chamber groups span everything from informal "reading groups" that do not perform, all the way to paid professionals who tour the world.

First of all, there is the literature we all know from listening to live and recorded performances of professionals. That stuff is really-really hard. However, chamber used to be the realm of amateurs who generally played for themselves.

Fairly early in my playing I tried forming a quartet and slammed into the dearth of Viola players. Then I discovered personalities of my fellow musicians. Some were willing to play with amateurs, others would not.

My experience was that I found a young cellist who was also interested, then we found a student pianist and formed a reading Piano Trio. We discovered (thanks to a really patient person at Patelesons - which has sadly succumbed to the computer age) that there is a lot of literature for student piano trios.

Doing this made me a much better musician, I had to listen, pay attention, hold my part and practice-practice-practice... I also learned a lot about making music rather than just playing notes. No, we never performed, not even for friends and family - just for the joy of making music together. I also developed a deep love for all forms of chamber music that lasts to this day.

Finally, if you ever get serious about forming a group read: "The Ill Tempered String Quartet" (it is out-of-print but Amazon has some available). It is valuable and quite funny as well.

March 10, 2020, 7:48 PM · I love and was amused by Bruce's point about the silent manipulation. I think it can be put another, more collaborative way, that in your playing, you essentially offer gambits, which other people can pick up or not, and you try to make those gambits as attractive as possible that other people will instinctively react.

To Susan's point about mind-reading: I think this doesn't always take a lot of rehearsal. This is one of those things where chemistry can play a part, as well as silent communication skills. Some people you will instinctively anticipate because your own musical instincts are similar. Other people are just very effective communicators. A coach (who plays in a touring professional quartet) once made a very good point in a masterclass I heard -- every chamber musician should be conveying information in the way that they play, and everyone else needs to be constantly alert for receiving that information and reacting accordingly.

March 10, 2020, 8:53 PM · I could hardly add to what Lydia and Bruce have written, though I might suggest reading some of the (auto)biographies of chamber musicians like Arnold Steinhardt, the Amadeus, David Blum, as well as Cobbett’s. There is wealth of inside perspective on the roles of the players in quartets, trios, and quintets.
March 11, 2020, 12:10 AM · Playing quartets is a whole different animal from solos or orchestra. Many of the students I see on a weekly basis who can put out a decent solo work at their ability level and function fairly effectively in their youth orchestras are absolutely flummoxed when they have to sit in with professional players in a quartet setting. The amount of listening, adjusting, and communicating they have to do in the ensembles comes at them at a rate that seems ridiculous initially. I've had college students who can bang out a halfway decent Tchaikovsky or Sibelius rage-quit rehearsals because they keep getting their butts handed to them by the slow movements of Haydn or Mozart.

That being said, it's not an impossible problem to solve--I always tell students that the first few steps are personal: play mathematically correct rhythms, and know what it means to play in tune in the ensemble. If those two things are in place, then we're ready to rumble! :)

March 11, 2020, 5:07 AM · Beautifully played Bruce!
Edited: March 11, 2020, 9:27 PM · @Lydia, thanks for mentioning chemistry (*grin*). I play with a youth orchestra because otherwise they would have only one violist. It's really interesting to see, among the stronger players on the first stands, which ones are more intrinsically collaborative and which ones struggle with that. I correlate it roughly with their overall maturity, which, as we all know, is not the same thing as age.

@Susan, "Technique and ability is NOT most important..." is the sort of thing that is "easy to say" to a school of youngsters who have already accepted the importance of technique to their future careers. You could just as well tell the first-year class of engineering students at MIT that math isn't all that important. Well they can focus on the more creative aspects of engineering because they're already in a select pool of individuals for whom math has always come more easily.

@Bruce, don't feel bad about your lovely Beethoven recording not receiving many views. The Emersons and the Guarneris didn't fare much better. I looked a little bit at the different entries for Op. 74 and I reached some conclusions about why your entry didn't get many views:

1. The ones with video have more views, in the tens of thousands rather than the thousands. Of course professional videography is very expensive. That was even more true when you made your recording some 30 years ago.

2. I could not find your entry without resorting to the link that you provided, because I searched for "Beethoven Op. 74." Including more search terms in the title helps. Had I searched for "Harp" I might have had better luck.

3. Other entries had all of the movements.

4. Maybe it's just me, but I really like the ones that have the score that shows on the screen while it's playing. Sure, I'd rather see the players, but if it's just going to be audio, having the score with it is really nice.

March 11, 2020, 8:53 AM · "Knowing the score is power" to quote the late David Angel (Maggini Quartet). When we have trouble getting a tricky ensemble passage together it alway helps to have every one of us look at the score for a couple of minutes.
And as others have mentioned: listening is important. Don't play where your colleagues should have been but where they are. That goes for intonation as well as timing.
And another piece of advice from David: When you play a phrase with one of your colleagues in the quartet play it with great conviction. Both of you should be absolutely convinced that what the other person is doing is the right way!
Edited: March 11, 2020, 9:57 AM · Regarding this part of Anita’s question:
> how can one hone them outside of the context of playing chamber music?

I’ll assume you mean, what can you do outside of rehearsals with one’s group?

In addition to the tips above, you can practice certain technical skills that are crucial in chamber music yet are less exposed by solo or orchestral playing:

1. Bow control. Example: can you play ppp by yourself with complete control and no bow shakes— a real ppp and not a soloist’s version of a ppp? Now, practice that in a very slow passage and practice leading a group into the next note.

2. Work on all iterations of vibrato. Some people get away with playing concertos with a near uniform vibrato all the time, but that won’t work in chamber music.

3. Practice physical motions when leading the tempo, phrase, and mood. Use a mirror or record yourself with a camera. You can practice this with your group too, but it’s helpful to practice these “dance moves” on your own.

These soft skills are important and can be developed outside of rehearsals:

4. Network to find the right personnel. I think half the battle is finding the right people to play with, even if you are already an excellent chamber player. A chamber group may only be as strong as its weakest link.

5. Learn to work collegially with others on a team. (It does not need to be in music). I’ve seen groups with good players implode because of poor interpersonal skills. And there is no correlation with age.

6. Make lots of friends. You need to perform often to improve. For that, you need audience members, and you cannot take it for granted that an audience will always materialize. The most effective professional chamber groups I know invest a ton of time in audience development, and they are also quite social.

March 11, 2020, 3:26 PM · Also, don't forget that most of the time, when violinists are playing solo recital music, like sonatas, you are playing collaborative chamber music with a pianist. You are not being "accompanied". The pianist is your equal, and in many cases, actually has the primary and more difficult part.

March 11, 2020, 9:37 PM · I think Lydia and Frieda have provided very insightful comments here. I like Frieda's comment about "dance moves" because soloists have them too -- but they're very different. And I agree with Lydia about piano "accompaniments." Even orchestral reductions -- students should be taught to respect and embrace the piano part.

A lot of ensemble playing is learning how to "bounce off of" someone else's part. If the cellists have the on-beats and your section has the off-beats, then you can safely ignore the baton because you have no choice but to alternate with the cellists. In the youth orchestra where I play the viola, this kind of listening is probably the main thing the conductor is teaching, and he does it very well.

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