Why don't more people play chamber music?
Chamber music has been my greatest enthusiasm since my teacher (bless him) sat me down in a square formation with three nearly-compatible fellow pupils a couple of years before the summer of love. Most of my lasting friendships have since been made across music stands. Given the right combination of personalities, I believe string quartet playing is the best fun four people can have with their day clothes on.
The domestic playing of chamber music is a great western tradition dating back to the 17th century (or earlier), which thrived in the 18th, reached its azimuth in the 19th, survived in the 20th and now sadly appears to be on its last legs. A large majority of the players I've encountered in orchestras, amateur and professional, have virtually no experience of it. Isn't it something every player should experience and every teacher encourage?
Absolutely. So much more rewarding in my opinion than orchestra playing. The difficulty - for amateurs like me - lies in finding the right people to play with. Not only should they be on a similar level technically and musically, they also need to have the same ambitions and goal with the group. If part of a quartet wants to do a good quality performance every month and the other half wants to meet and sight read some quartets occasionally it is difficult to get it to work. And it should be people you have a good time with also when not playing.
I agree totally. Chamber music is beautiful repertoire and if one is lucky enough to play regularly with people who have similar goals and become friends and even fit together musically one has probably reached a sort of musical heaven. As a professional player this is more difficult than it might seem. As soon as you have to earn a living (and possibly support a family) with your instrument priorities change. Only very few people can earn enough to live off with playing chamber music. Alone the fact that the pay gets devided by four or more people makes it extremly hard. As soon as one has other commitments finding time to rehearse regularly becomes almost impossible. Who can rehearse a string quartett after six hours of orchestra rehearsal regularly? And when the choice is to accept a well paying gig or to play chamber music for peanuts it is often the bank balance that decides. I find it one of the biggest challenges as a professional to balance what fills the fridge with what fulfills me musically.
Bo nailed it: "The difficulty - for amateurs like me - lies in finding the right people to play with." If you look around, there aren't all that many other amateur players who are willing to make the commitment to learning parts and coming to rehearsal. The other thing is that a lot of the chamber literature is pretty darned hard. I've posted a link for a graded list below. Haydn quartets are listed as having technical difficult of 2/6. Good luck with that!
Lots of amateurs do play chamber music (my experience is the opposite of yours, where nearly everyone I know has played chamber music), but not everyone moves through a lot of repertoire. Groups that do a lot of sight-reading are more likely to move through a lot of repertoire. A lot of the more satisfying works are difficult enough that they aren't trivial to sight-read, even with a very good group.
Chamber music is really a intimate relationship amongst the people, and most people don't realize this. At the institutional level, programs assign people to groups, often based on superficial factors such as age, which have the same potential of working out as an arranged marriage. In my experience, the coaches aren't really interested in giving pointers on how to find the right people for yourself.
"On meeting with professional orchestra musicians I have several times been surprised how little chamber music they play."
There is a certain level of playing skill necessary to play chamber music at a level that is fun. Anything lower than that - it just is not fun and it will not attract people who can do it. That may be a reason that fewer people do it. Also, I know people who do it and love to do it but who stopped for work, family, or educational activity reasons and then got back into it. I'm one who never really stopped.
It is a lovely but tricky thing. My husband and I were just discussing this last night. Back in our twenties, when we first started dating, we had a not-too-serious weekly string quartet with another couple (who played Violin 1/Viola). We played for our own enjoyment, worked on a few pieces over time but not to the level of performing, and grew to be close friends. They were the first people we contacted when we got engaged and a couple of months later they called us with the same news. But then we moved across the country and even after they moved out here, parenting and work stressors took over and we rarely, if ever, play together. I think they might own one bow with hair on it between them now.
Ah, just realized that Bo made exactly the same point I did.
The other thing is, chamber music used to be a huge staple in the lives of the commoners who lived during the time a lot of the "masterpieces" were written. Many composers wrote a lot of pieces for playing at home for fun by amateurs, and for a while, most middle class households in Europe owned a piano. Do you think maybe recording led to the immense shrinking of this culture?
All the groups I've ever been in have had similar dynamics: a dominant personality, a submissive personality, and a couple in the middle. Over time, the submissive/passive personality builds up resentment at being told what to do (even as they are unable to contribute musically or technically), and a crisis ensues.
Popular repertoire gets very deep in ensemble and individual skills very quickly. There are some good guides avaiable : Cobbet, Silvertrust, The Music Makers to name a few. But even readily available Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven have few pieces that inexperienced and intermediate skilled players can sight read successfully. That said, I play quartets and quintets at least monthly, but am fortunate enough to play with very skilled interpreters and readers. Much of the repertoire I play is of more obscure composers.
Scott, I can testify to having many personality clashes, and it's often over little stuff that just rubs certain people the wrong way. I have been accused both of being too aloof and too overbearing, too fidgety, not having enough eye contact, not writing down enough, not wearing the right outfit, etc.
It's good to read (and look forward to re-reading) so many comments echoing my own enthusiasm and the problems that we've all probably had to face at some time or other (geographical and diary constraints, incompatibility issues etc). I don't get to play chamber music nearly as often as I'd like (2 quartet groups, each maybe once every 2 months) but consider myself very fortunate in that the atmosphere is always friendly and relaxed. No finger-pointing is allowed!
It's funny, I don't think I've ever been in a group where there haven't been 4 dominant opinions, whether they came from 'dominant' or 'submissive' personalities. My coach from school was wise. He said there must always be at least 4 opinions on everything. Each idea must be tried with utmost dedication from each player, but in the end only one or a few would work for the quartet. So we would dual it out, but in the end we usually came to a consensus on what made the group sound better. We might, and often did, change our collective minds at a later date, especially after a first masterclass or performance. In the end what's most detrimental to a group is a dismissive personality.
It is difficult. You can work on your own to build techniques and solo reps. You can join any community orchestra to your liking if you can play at or above their standard. With chamber music, the difficulties in forming a chamber group that works are numerous: we always look for the similar level of proficiency, the compatibility of schedules, music taste and the personality, etc. Then there is the skill of sight-reading. Many proficient sight-readers may not sound good, and good-sounding players might not be great sight-readers. So you'll have folks just want to read through everything and those who prefer a group that is well-prepared before getting together and really try to work on a piece up to a performance level.
You touched a nerve with this question. Like you, I've tried to join/form chamber groups with marginal success. Like the title of a book I read "The Ill Tempered String Quartet" it is very difficult to find three or four people with similar goals and moderate egos along with the time to commit to some kind of regular schedule. Community orchestras are a bit easier to find and sit with but that isn't the same as a piano trio or string quartet where your musical voice is essential.
Jeewon, some chamber music workshops I have attended have the mix of 1st and 2nd violin thingy (working on two pieces and switch 1st and 2nd on each). This is particularly helpful to those of us tend to be asked to play the 1st violin "by default". Some chamber workshops (e.g., Icicle Creek Adult Chamber Music Retreat) requires 1st violinists also learn the 2nd violin part and play it in different groups.
One of the most important reasons for me wanting to learn music as an adult has been the thought of playing quartets at some stage. Sadly, that has not yet occurred due to a range of reasons (my intermittent learning, moving around, lack of opportunity), but I have not given up on the hope of some day doing so.
I was once in a graduate quartet, and one of the musicians kept using the phrase "I want...." to preface her musical ideas.
I prefer to trade off 1st and 2nd, unless there are sharp skill differences between the 1st and 2nd violinist. (In general, I prefer to play quartets with other violinists who are capable of playing 1st violin, even if they don't necessarily prefer doing so.) I haven't played nearly enough 2nd violin, in any context, in my life, and for me, sometimes playing 2nd is an important part of my own personal musical development.
I have historically, always, played second violin–-mostly because I stalled out in my development around the advanced intermediate phase (though I did play first violin throughout college in orchestra and a lot of those parts weren't easy). More recently I've needed to play first in the following situations: sight-reading with better violinists who didn't know the piece and didn't want to be in the hot seat, the aforementioned aging amateur chamber group, and (not first, just only) piano trios with my husband.
In professional string quartets, switching between 1st and 2nd would be rare. SLSQ is of no exception, Geoff Nuttall almost always played 1st. The Emerson String Quartet is the only one as I recall does the switch regularly. As an amateur, I certainly encourage taking turns in a group if both violinists can play first. I would like to play 2nd more, as Lydia said, it's good for my musical growth. It's also good for practicing sight-reading, which is my weak point.
Everyone has made good points and have pointed out potential reasons why chamber music has become less common these days (I can't exactly say if chamber music is really less common these days). I have never believed in my whole life that chamber music is underrated or uncommon, as there's quite a bit of chamber music presence in the area I live. A music teacher, for instance, notes that she plays in a chamber ensemble with other high-level/pro musicians, but they rehearse once a week and perform a couple of times a year. I think the chamber music presence varies from region to region (as stated before). In chamber music programs that I know of, groups are chosen according to playing level, instrumentation/repertoire availability and time availability.
I just saw this
There are many points I'd love to take up here but nobody has commented on the teaching aspect. I'm starting to think my teacher was pretty special in introducing his pupils to chamber music at a very early stage. Undoubtedly a major factor was that this was a boarding school. We had time on our hands and he was ready to help us with no question of extra funding!
Getting together and playing music -- of any style -- with a small group of like-minded folk is great.
If we think orchestral careers are limited in number, the market for chamber musicians is even less. Young, modern, ensembles in particular have had to make a serious shift in the level of audience engagement, connection with community outreach, consideration of programming, and the addressing of major issues they champion in order to eke out an existence compared to their forebears.
Gene, that's a great ambition we should all hold dear. Add to the list tolerance, respect, humility - all those things the less fortunate among us don't encounter often enough!
"But good(ish) amateur players do tend to give themselves airs, don't they? "
"In professional string quartets, switching between 1st and 2nd would be rare. SLSQ is of no exception, Geoff Nuttall almost always played 1st. The Emerson String Quartet is the only one as I recall does the switch regularly."
My pessimism about the future for domestic chamber music in the UK (the same applies to choral societies) partly stems from the fact that over the years I've noticed a progressive decrease in the number of groups attending coaching courses in wonderful venues like Madingley Hall, while their mean age stays the same - my age. Apart from the oldsters there's typically also a group from one of the music colleges (I think they're called the Schidthodt Quartet) who are sickeningly good and receive special treatment from the coaches in spite of the fact that someone else has paid their fees.
I think part of the reason why first and second violins don't switch seats very much is due to convention and personal preference.
My focus is on the amateur players that would be potential fans of the groups Hermann is talking about. The people who do something else for a living, but play for the enjoyment of it, not as a performance aim, but as recreation. Alternatively, professonals who play socially.
Economics and Practicality are part of the reasons. Of all the genres I have done, chamber music pays the least and requires the most rehearsal time. If your quartet is composed of four independent free-lance professionals, coordinating rehearsal times becomes almost impossible. Then there is the change in our culture. Ever since the invention of the player piano, there has been a gradual trend away from live, active participation, to passive, now electronic substitutes for real life. I don't see that trend reversing any time soon.
Joel, on the other hand, it's really exciting to see so many amazing young soloists are getting together and forming quartets, concertizing and competing. One example is the
Yes, I agree with Paul, there is nothing easy about chamber literature. It's harder than most amateur players think. I find it most rewarding to treat it as carefully as my solo reps and I even use my lesson time for some of the pieces.
I'll note that many amateur players use a list (whether ACMP, Meetup groups, etc.) in order to find other players, but a lot of people will not go to general play-in events, etc., once they've found a group of other people that they like. People network; players invite other players from their network once they've gotten established in a city.
Lydia, you’ve hit the nail on the head (I hope you don’t take that as a proverbial coffin reference.) In my experience running informal play-ins, that is exactly the main issue, both in getting people to show up and in getting them to play nicely together (in every sense of the phrase.)
Well, as many have said, in order to play in a string quartet you need to stand out. I mean, we're not talking about hang up with your musical friends, I guess we're talking about doing it in a serious manner, I mean, aiming to concerts.
How do you know people aren't playing chamber music when it takes place informally in private homes, which you can't really observe unless you're there?
I agree with Frieda. I know a few avid chamber music players who do not
Sadly I haven't had great success with acmp in Sacramento. There are very few players signed up in this area.
Not everyone wants to play in public coaching sessions, I'll note. It takes a certain level of confidence and polish to participate, usually. And not everyone wants to perform -- in fact, I would guess that the majority of people who play chamber music do so for their own fun, not to perform. (And that's the way a lot of chamber music was intended to be heard, anyway -- by the players.)
Having good coaching is tricky and I certainly had times thought the coaching sessions were a bit of waste of time and money. However, when you get the great ones, like the ones we got last fall in Italy, you had such better understanding, not just about the part or the piece you are working on, but overall as a musician -- those eureka moments that we may get from private lessons or masterclasses. Performance is just a means to force people to be better prepared and consequently we get more from our efforts. Workshop/retreat performances are usually not open to the public, but there are exceptions.
My group has been getting coaching over the last couple of months (including a public coaching session yesterday: glad to have met v.com folks who were there). It's been valuable, but it also came at times when we were looking to take things to the next level to be really performance-ready.
Hard to quantify something that may or may not be happening in private with more or less people in different communities across the wide variety of cultures around the world. Your experience may vary. I do find a great deal of ignorance about the breadth and diversity of music available for chamber groups in my major U.S. metropolitan area among a perceptibly large percentage of amateur and some professional musicians.
I have never been a huge fan of any of my coaches. I feel like most of them have no interest in what the group wants to say musically and simply impose themselves, though I have learned some good practical things from them, and always found it nice to have the accountability attached.
Wow, Lydia, that sounds like a lot fun! Wonder if I knew these v.com folks you met.
Over the years I think I've attended about 12 coaching weeks or weekends given by the Delme, Alberni and Maggini quartets, all of which were rewarding in different ways. Some of the coaches offered friendly advice and gossip, some inspiration, some borderline intimidation, but that was OK since you got to experience the views of all four members of the coaching quartet and weren't overexposed to any one of them.
Steve, if I had to put a number on it, that would probably only apply to string players in my area of the U.S. ( upper Midwest.) Winds and keyboardists, less. -excludes professional orchestras.
I think chamber music is alive and well. And actually I worry that it's for the wrong reason -- because there is a surge in the number of highly qualified players, while orchestras are folding. I have to wonder how many pro chamber groups are fueled by hidden resources (e.g., family funds).
That’s the excuse I get most.
Steve, thanks for starting this interesting discussion!
Rocky, well said!
I believe that a fair number of pro quartets are a quartet-in-residence at some particular university, which is how they really earn a living. It's a pretty good way to get a string faculty at a school that doesn't otherwise have a distinguished music program.
It not uncommon to see some professional orchestra players in Canada forming some long-term chamber groups. They don't get so much revenue from tickets sale, so they are chiefly relying on government grants, fundraising, and if lucky, major donors. It's very demanding on their schedule, especially if they have children and they are touring. It's labor of love.
Next question, how varied are most programs, either private or public? How aware are groups of the staggering amount of literature out ther compared to the very limited programming that is the mainstay of public performance and, I dare say, many private events?
We get a lot of chamber music, especially string quartets, here in Blacksburg. The programs are quite varied. Just a couple of weeks ago we saw a nice recital featuring clarinet quintets by Brahms and Grgin featuring Serbian clarinetist Nikola Djurica (he is incredible). We've also heard Smetana, Janácek, etc. But yes, other concerts do sometimes feature the standards (Mendelssohn, Schubert, Beethoven, Haydn, Debussy, Brahms, etc.). I like that stuff too. :)
Edward, if you are asking about the professional chamber performance, since they usually post their programs, you can Google search city by city and find out how many there are out there and what programs they usually do. In my city (Victoria, BC, Canada), we've got at least half dozen SQs performing the bread and butter classical and romantic period music, a couple (including
Edward, as regards repertoire I think you're right to separate public from private. I did a count (mainly using Cobbett's Encyclopedia) of composers who published music for string chamber groups in the 100 years after Beethoven - roughly speaking the "romantic" era - and there are more than 700 of them. Most pieces, I believe, were originally intended for private consumption and are simply not sufficiently interesting technically or musically to attract professionals. Also of course, in order to satisfy public demand and ensure reasonably full houses in a tough Darwinian environment professional groups can't afford to stray too far from the popular repertoire.
>Most amateur players I've heard don't take Haydn seriously enough.
Even amongst committed adults serious disagreements can arise over certain composers. One of my past colleagues (OK, it was the viola player) appeared to experience genuine pain in Brahms!
"I don't like this composer..." Whenever I heard such nonsense, I tempted to correct "You mean this composer doesn't like you?"
I think the de facto answer (not a valid excuse) is that in string quartets of the classical and romantic periods (and particularly in Haydn) there often isn't much of technical interest for any of the players apart from the first violin, and the inner parts often don't make a great deal of musical sense on their own. I've never known a viola player (apart from myself a little bit) do any preparatory practice of anything!
Exactly what Steve said. It's not until you get into environments where you have big mixed groups of string players of similar skill, explicitly formed into groups and formally coached, that you see formal study of chamber music.
I really hate it when a student brings in some wildly ambitious piece that they want to play with their high school quartet--Ravel, say, or Shostakovich 8--when that student and his/her quartet would benefit so much more from the serious rehearsal of Haydn or Mozart.
My pet peeve is listening to Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven played poorly by amateurs. I feel they've ruined such gorgeous music precisely due to their erroneous belief that these pieces are technically less challenging. The first time I played Haydn Quinten (1st violin), my teacher (a wonderful chamber musician) made me play on the entire first page on open strings until I got the sound I wanted before learning the notes. That was when I started to see what it takes to be a decently amateur chamber musician.
The first thing you learn when you try to play a Haydn quartet, especially with players that are better, is just how bad your intonation really is. And your rhythm, articulation, phrasing, and all the rest of it. It's very telling music.
Here's the problem: There's not all that much beautiful, well-known literature that's easier than Mozart, Haydn, or early Beethoven. And there's an abundance of Mozart and Haydn where you need a skilled 1st violinist, but the other players can be significantly less technically capable and still manage to get the notes.
Rocky, Lydia, Yixi - you seem to be assuming the object of playing chamber music is always (or primarily) to get better at it. Whose actually is "the problem", because I don't perceive it as such. I think most of us amateurs play and practice the way we do because that's how we like it and music can be enjoyed even when it isn't played very well. As soon as you start taking it more seriously the tension begins to rise and the ambience suffers. I can't help thinking that a lot of players don't play chamber music because the ones they've previously played with took it too seriously.
Of course musical enjoyment can be obtained in many ways, none more or less "real" than another.
My personality is such that it's hard for me to do anything without wanting to improve at it. :-)
Getting better is part of the joy in life. I've yet played with anyone in a chamber group who prefers not to get better. How fast one can improve is another question. How quick one's playing can deteriorate without keeping up the work is a certainty. I don't see how enjoyable that could be.I was in a Bruch Octet with a 90 yr old (once a professional) violinist in a chamber workshop last May. His tone was off and he didn't hear too well, but he was just as serious as the coach was about how to make music. We seriously enjoyed our serious effort.
I've long been fascinated with quartet music. Has anyone tried playing along recordings? I'm tempted to get the sheet music for Haydn op. 76.
I like to put on a recording of a string quartet and play along. Then I am playing with top pros and nobody sneers at me if I make a mistake. The cat goes upstairs though. If I am on the treadmill sometimes I listen to chamber music whilst following the scores. Thank goodness for Dover editions!!!
Paul, my cat jumps on my right shoulder when I play the wrong notes. Seriously, at BISQC, you get to jam with members of SLSQ and other contestents every evening.
Carl, I do sometimes bring chamber works (quarts and sonatas) to my lessons even though it's probably not the best way of using lesson time. I definitely believe that keep working on solo repertoires has prepared me well technically and musically. It shows whether I'm play in chamber ensembles or in orchestra. I've noticed this each year I attend workshops or summer camps as well.
I play chamber music because it's fun.
Yixi - "It's not what you play but how you play it that matters" doesn't strike a chord with me. Matters to whom? Nobody but ourselves and I'd much rather play a great piece "bravely" than a mediocre piece brilliantly. I'm with Ella - anything goes as long as you (and the others) are having fun.
@Steve, well, having fun is very important, but "anything goes as long as you (and the others) are having fun" is a bit of a stretch. You don't think people having fun doing a lot of things that harm them and others in ways probably no one can fix? Even with playing violin, I had a lot of fun playing carelessly when I was young and it took years to undo the bad habits, which not only delayed my progress but also it led to physical injury which could have much worse consequent untreated.
@Paul, I'll try that then. Maybe start with a slowed down tempo with Audacity for the Hayden quartets, then
Timothy - your somewhat stern advice reminds me of the theatre critic who felt it his duty to tell his readership what was and was not funny, regardless of whether or not the audience was in fits of laughter. I think I know what is and isn't fun for me! And Yixi - I've long since stopped worrying (actually have never worried) whether playing for fun is damaging to my body or my playing. One of my quartet friends is living proof of how over-practising (under the supervision of her RAM professor) can result in long-term problems. It was several years before she discovered how to enjoy music again.
I think I'll interject a mild protest: if people are playing for themselves, they get to decide what constitutes fun. Period. Yixi, I think you've shared in other posts that you are unusually lucky in the amount of time that you, an adult amateur, have been able to dedicate to your study of the violin in recent years. It makes sense that you would use that time to attend seminars, workshop chamber music, and focus in all dimensions on improving your craft.
Look, we have different sense regarding fun and that's why I put it into a question rather than giving my own definition. I know people can be offended if they feel their idea of fun has been chllenged, which may or may not be the case. To say having fun can do no harm whatsoever is the claim I have problem with and it should obvious to anyone I would think.
"Where does one acquire those skills? Moreover, how does a group use those skills, such as analyzing the score. etc. ? Who leads the rehearsals? .... and how do other members react to the leader?
I'm reading these and thinking about odd similarities between this group and the cycling community here in the Bay Area. There's a wide range of fitness and ability, from people who race to those who ride cruisers on bike paths on the weekends and everything in between.
Katie, Nice connection. My wife and I used to ride with a day-touring ‘wheelmen’ club and I raced on the velodrome against the likes of a teenage Christian VandeVelde (NBC broadcaster and former Armstrong team mate,) so that rings VERY true.
Katie's post is marvelous. The "won't do it if I can't reach a certain expected level" is also one of the reasons why former pros tend not to turn into amateurs when they switch professions -- they stop playing entirely. (I think of my friends who went to conservatory to earn a performance degree, but who didn't stay on the music track, practically none of them have touched their instrument again since leaving music as a profession.)
I know a number of musicians who got a performance degree (or switched careers from music) and still kept playing, and I know one forum member in this situation.
I quit for over ten years when I left the music profession. I think it had more to do with anger about the business on burning out after working for ten years in the production side. I know other people who quit the business and left their instruments packed away. It wasn’t until after I married an avid amateur orchestral musician that I got back into playing and could appreciate playing as an amateur.
I think the current culture in violin pedagogy preaches a kind of "all in" mentality with the brightest prospects. "All in" means either you win big-time ... or you're busted.
One more sermon before this thread reaches three figures (wouldn't it be awful if we agreed about everything?) and then I'll check out, virtually speaking.
I'm with you, Steve. Some folks accomplish the same thing bowling or playing bridge.
Unless a kid is home-schooled, it is a challenge for the young student violinist to find the time and energy to be active in a string quartet in addition to usual private/group lessons and school- and youth orchestras. This is on top of all the difficulties associated with quartets that others have already pointed out.
Do we do a greatest hits retrospective at 100?
Many wise comments indeed.... to clarify: my frustration has never been with dedicated players on a lower technical level than mine. It is and has been with those who just want to play through and do not want to commit to music making.
Roger, that's my frustration too.Thank you for making this crystal clear.
Just one more post and I really am checking out!
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