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Making music in a small group has an endless fascination. The intensity of interaction mirrors that of quite intimate human relationships, and even though it’s the repertoire itself which is the first attraction, there is probably something about the closely connected feeling which is irresistible, despite its potential pitfalls.
Chamber music is an exciting, risky milieu, with no conductor, no director to obey or fight against, only our own pooled skills, experiences and instincts to guide us in forming a shared interpretation. We need strong opinions and clear ideas but a receptiveness to the input of others; an ability to offer suggestions or criticism in a creative and supportive way, and to receive the same open-mindedly and non-defensively. A way of choosing words, a feel for when words are not necessary.
One of my favourite engagements each year is a festival in rural Vermont, where faculty and students live, work and perform chamber music together, away from the exposure of concert platforms. This festival is particularly special because the students are chosen for their strengths as people almost as much as their playing ability (which is phenomenal).
This past July I worked in a fascinating group of eight players, negotiating the complicated but very rewarding Octet by George Enescu. Each individual in this group was remarkably different from the others. There was the brilliant, eager, slightly flashy violinist, who forgot to listen carefully to his colleagues; the thoughtful intellectual one; the sturdy, reliable cellist; the violist coming to grips with her hugely demanding principal role; her quiet, supportive second player – and so on...
We were a disparate bunch, each personality undiluted, and the group could have fallen apart at the seams. But from the first day’s rough read-through it was clear that everyone was excited about the piece and ready to commit to the intensive labour it would need. And, without losing a sense of themselves, each player during rehearsals evolved and connected with the others, and the beautiful score came alive.
The flashy violinist remembered to listen and played quite inspirationally; the sturdy cellist provided a living, breathing bass line; the thoughtful violinist offered beautifully worded insights; the violist rose wonderfully to the challenge of her part by focusing on and responding to her colleagues; and her second player was thereby able to shine. As the faculty player, I was nominally guiding the musical direction, but they inspired me so much that I got to know the piece much better. Playing chamber music well is not necessarily about homogeneity: it’s about an openness and responsiveness and an awareness of the bigger musical picture, a grander canvas in which each individual voice contributes freely to the whole.
The learning of skills required to play with others has obvious social benefits. My musical education took for granted the necessity of learning to play chamber music from an early age. I played in a group with my three siblings (I was the upstart youngest). It was a bumpy journey – warring teenage brothers with fragile egos having to find the words and the means to play together.
It takes discipline and focus to play an instrument but that’s just the starting point – you have to hold on to that discipline but also let go and interact freely with others. I recently witnessed the first results of a groundbreaking scheme bringing music and musical role models to schools in deprived areas of London. The children involved were on fire and making huge progress academically (politicians who want to cut music education funding – take note).
Music is a powerful tool, and when shared with others its power can change lives.