On the importance of chamber music

On 19 and 20 January, I had the pleasure of teaching at the Zhang Violin Summer School for young violinists (AMEB grade 3 to A.Mus equivalent). This was a 4-day intensive course, where students received training in preparing solo repertoire and chamber music, as well as Dalcroze eurhythmics. I was invited to take chamber music lessons, a task that I gladly accepted. There was quite a wide range of ages: the youngest students were in years 1 and 2, while the eldest ones were senior school students. As a result, there was a similar range of experience in chamber music. Teaching at the summer school has reinforced my belief of the high importance of chamber music in music education, and in this blogpost I would like to share some of my thoughts on the subject.

First of all, I remark that it is a happy coincidence that the summer school was held at Barker College, where I was a former student. It was at Barker that I first experienced playing chamber music — specifically, the string quartet. As it turned out, I played string quartets throughout my entire education at Barker College, and it was one of the most important factors in my development as a musician — not only as a performer, but also as a composer! The main point that I will emphasise is this: playing chamber music makes great demands on the musicians involved, in technical aspects (i.e. the physical part of instrumental playing) as well as conceptual (i.e. intellectual understanding of the music). These demands are quite different from those encountered in solo playing, and furthermore, I will try to argue that chamber music should play a significant role in a student’s musical development.

A piece of (well-written) chamber music will make good use of the possible interactions between different members of the ensemble. This kind of composition is clearly different — let’s say for concreteness — from a piece written for a solo violin, and thus the manners of playing implied by a violin part in a work of chamber music will be different from the solo violin composition. I like to use the analogy of a play, or a similar dramatic work like a film script, in which there are typically several main roles. A solo violin piece is more like a dramatic reading of a poem, for instance, performed by a single actor. On the other hand, reading a single part of a string quartet is like reading the script of a play but seeing only the lines spoken by a single role. I think it is obvious how absurd it would be if an actor playing, let’s say, Macbeth only studied Macbeth’s lines without reading the whole of Shakespeare’s play. Regardless of the actor’s talent, it would make little sense to deliver a Macbeth soliloquy without knowledge of the context in which that portion of the play sits. It is similarly absurd to practise a chamber music part (and orchestral parts too!) without consulting the full score, which corresponds to the entire playscript in my analogy. Of course, my analogy is highly flawed, when you consider that in chamber or orchestral music, the various parts are mostly playing simultaneously. Nevertheless, in both music and drama (and indeed in any artform), as soon as we begin to contemplate the relation between the part and the whole, we have already started an investigation of formi.e. how the work is organised and built. Very often, one of the first problems when studying a new piece of chamber music is simply to understand how your part fits into the whole. Of course, when one is studying a violin concerto, it is still very important to have a good knowledge of the accompanying orchestral parts, but in this case it is clear that the violin occupies the leading role, whereas in chamber music, the parts can interact in a multitude of ways, and it can be a challenge (especially in modern works) to determine which part plays the leading role in a particular section of music. In general, one of the most essential and often one of the most challenging tasks in the study of chamber music is to find the right balance between the parts throughout the course of the work. Let us now explore some of these issues in more detail.

Anonymous painting of Joseph Haydn and friends playing string quartets (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_string_quartets_by_Joseph_Haydn)

Understanding musical form

As I already mentioned above, one of the essential aspects of chamber music is the understanding of how each part fits into the whole. For this reason, playing chamber music is an excellent way to develop basic skills of musical analysis and comprehension. For young students who are new to chamber music, it can be quite a challenge. They would be accustomed to working on solo pieces, or pieces with piano accompaniment in which they play the main role. I am not demanding that every music student should have a firm grasp of the complexities of sonata form from a young age. However, I think even beginner students should be trained to be able to describe basic features of a piece of music. These include:

  • Keys and modulations: Teachers should always ask “what key is this piece in?”, or “what key is this section in?” and the students should know! Moreover students should be able to identify modulations, i.e. key changes. This is the first step in developing an understanding of harmony. It is also a good way to motivate the practice of scales and arpeggios.
  • Repetition: e.g. noticing when a theme or musical motif is repeated; noticing when a particular theme returns after a contrasting episode; identify sequences (when a motif is repeated several times in succession, but either ascending or descending in pitch).
  • Contrast: in classical music, a single theme is often stated in many different ways throughout the piece. Students should be able to identify different keys, different dynamics and articulation, different instrumentation and textures, and so on.

In all of the chamber music sessions I took, a common question I asked my students was: “who has the melody?” or “who has the main role in this section?” It is a very simple question, but the students are often unsure how to answer. Thus each student must place their own part in the context of the group, and when that happens, it is gratifying to the students and the teacher to hear the piece “taking shape”.

An essential exercise in chamber music (for players of all skill levels) is to rehearse sections of the piece while leaving out one or more members of the ensemble. For example, in a string quartet, there may be a passage where the two violins are playing in thirds or sixths. Then this exercise is a good way for the violinists to polish their intonation and consolidate their sound to be more harmonious; or if there is some tricky counterpoint between the viola and cello, then these members should rehearse together to improve (for instance) clarity and rhythmic precision. Meanwhile, the non-playing members should be actively listening, giving constructive criticism to their colleagues, as well as following their respective parts. Taking things apart is not only a great way to solve problems, but through this process everyone also gains a better understanding of how the piece is constructed, and hence a better understanding of their role in the piece.

Chamber music technique

An obvious technical challenge arises when the writing is overtly virtuosic. There are many such passages in the first violin parts of classical string quartets (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven), and certainly in modern works there are examples of virtuosity in all parts. However, this is not what I have in mind when I refer to “chamber music technique”. Most of the time, the manner of playing required for chamber music is entirely different from that which is needed to perform a solo concerto. Where this is most apparent is when a part does not carry the main role — second violin and viola parts come to mind!

It is true that in classical chamber music for strings, the first violin has the leading role for most of the piece. Pieces such as Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik are instantly recognisable, and whether you like it or not, such pieces have become the “face” of classical music to the general public. Perhaps this is one reason for the misconception that only the first violin has anything important to play, and the rest of the “band” are merely the equivalent of “backing vocals”. Worse still, there is the impression that it takes less skill to play accompaniment roles in classical music — I’m sure collaborative pianists will have a lot to say here! The fact is that this couldn’t be further from the truth. In the lessons I gave at the Zhang Violin School, I looked for opportunities to show the importance of a good accompanying or supporting role in a string ensemble, and some of the techniques involved. I believe the main qualities at play are: precision, dexterity, and sensitivity or subtlety. Let me illustrate these qualities with Beethoven’s Quartet in C minor Op. 18 No. 4. We will look at some excerpts from the first movement.

The reference recording here is from the Dover Quartet — not only is this a great performance, but the sound engineering is superb, allowing us to appreciate all four voices in the quartet. At the very opening, the cello plays a pedal point with repeated quavers on a single note, C. The writing couldn’t be simpler, yet the performance should be anything but simple-minded. Indeed, the excitement of this opening is entirely dependent on the momentum generated by these repeated quaver notes. Furthermore, running quaver accompaniments are found throughout the entire movement but in highly contrasting situations. Compare the opening with these two other moments:

  • 0:59 (second main theme of the movement, announced by the second violin with playful accompaniment from the viola and counterpoint in the first violin)
  • 2:39 (a passionate exchange between cello and first violin, with suitably energetic quavers from the viola and counterpoint in the second violin)

Precision of articulation and rhythm is essential. Moreover, it requires some finesse in bow technique to be able to adapt the staccato stroke to the many different characters and contrasts in dynamics and tone colour throughout the piece.

Dexterity is usually associated with fast, agile playing — passages with fast bowstrokes, or rapid left hand movements, or a combination of both. However, at around 4:01 in the recording (this is the recapitulation section), a different kind of dexterity can be observed in the second violin part. This is one of my favourite places in this quartet! The second violin has to alternate between accompaniment and melody — one moment, it is playing a syncopated rhythm accompanying the first violin, only to jump out with a little countermelody in the very next bar. This requires clear differentiation in the tone colour, and the changes happen more or less instantaneously. Notice that all four parts are playing continuously, so the countermelody in the second violin almost sounds like an additional fifth voice, increasing the complexity of the overall texture. This kind of seamless juggling between roles is difficult for inexperienced players, but is nonetheless a vital part of chamber music.

Finally, I make a comment about the qualities of sensitivity and subtlety. Here I do not mean to encourage a discreet, timid kind of playing in chamber music. On the contrary, if the music calls for it, one must be prepared to offer the full range of dramatic expression — in this sense, Beethoven’s string quartets must surely be considered among the finest “dramas” ever created. In chamber music as well as in solo playing, one should seize the opportunity to develop the widest possible dynamic range, from the barely audible ppp to the most ferocious fff. Sensitivity and subtlety are good qualities to have in solo playing as well — the more shades of tone colour, the better, so why make a song and dance about it now? I simply think that these qualities are especially important in chamber music. Furthermore — and here is the key difference — in chamber music, it is not only about the individual tone colour, but it is also about understanding how one’s sound fits in with the group. Despite the saying “too many cooks spoil the broth”, in some ways, chamber music is like several people cooking the one dish simultaneously. Everyone contributes their part of the recipe, and hence there is a responsibility to understand what kind of “flavours” each part brings to the overall dish. I don’t want to extend this analogy too much, so let’s get back to music. As well as achieving all the contrasts required within their own part, the individual player must also understand how their tone colour fits into the overall sound of the ensemble. It is possible for the players in an ensemble to execute their individual parts excellently, and the result could still be unconvincing if each player is not also aware of the sound of the others. This is the extra bit of sensitivity and subtlety that I think distinguishes chamber music playing from solo playing. This extra bit also allows room for spontaneity in performance: in a great ensemble, if someone decides to something a little different, the others can adjust accordingly to support this creative decision.

By now, I have mentioned some rather advanced technical concepts that would not usually be mentioned in a workshop attended by students who are chamber music beginners. Nevertheless, we can encourage our students along the road to technical mastery and show them the first steps. This brings us to the next section.

Aural skills

As musicians, we develop our technique so that we have more refined tools to express ourselves musically. However, our ears must be sensitive to sound, just as a master painter is sensitive to colour, so that we know what to listen for in the rehearsal room. Hence all this talk of technique is useless without good aural skills, because if we do not have some idea of what good technique is supposed to sound like, our efforts are likely to be in vain. Of course, there are many ways to develop aural skills. However, in my experience I find that playing chamber music is some of the best aural training a musician could ask for. Playing chamber music places many demands on the ear. One obvious challenge is intonation — indeed, for those who do not play a fixed pitch instrument, refining intonation is one of the most basic tasks, yet it is a lifelong challenge! In chamber music, intonation is particularly difficult. The players must be able to execute their own part in tune, of course, but this is not sufficient, because the entire ensemble must also sound in tune! This requires a keen awareness of harmony and voice leading — not necessarily from a theoretical/analytical point of view (although this is helpful) but at least with regards to aural perception. Consistently good ensemble intonation is the result of much effort and experience — some would even say painful effort!

When one works with students who are inexperienced in chamber music, I would say that it is almost never a good idea to be very pedantic about intonation. Of course, if something is horribly out of tune, then one could suggest to the students that they should refine their intonation individually; it is probably not the most helpful thing and certainly not the most enlightening thing to spend an hour tuning a single bar of music, especially in the context of a short course like the Zhang Violin School. However, there is something the students can work on immediately, even in the span of an hour’s workshop: simply playing together. It sounds like a no-brainer, but it is more challenging than it seems. Very often, chamber music beginners are quite content to continue playing even when everything has descended into chaos. This is not meant to be a judgemental observation — it is understandable because they have yet to develop the skill of listening to other parts while playing at the same time (which is not a trivial task). One possible reason that a runthrough of a piece has fallen apart is that someone has made a mistake, but instead of continuing in tempo, they instinctively start again from the beginning of the measure where the error occurred. This is quite a natural thing to do when one practises alone, so again, this is a merely a product of the lack of experience in ensemble playing.

One way to remedy this situation, and to encourage good listening habits, is once again to focus on fewer parts at once. For example, there are often passages where two parts are playing the same melody an octave apart. The two players involved could then rehearse this melody together to consolidate intonation and achieve unity in rhythm, while the others listen. The advantage of playing in octaves is that it is quite obvious when it is out of tune! Another common situation is when a subgroup of instruments play the same rhythm — an accompanying figure, for example. If the problem is lack of rhythmic organisation, then isolating such a passage is a good way to develop the required rhythmic discipline. However, perhaps the problem is one of intonation, and the rhythmic aspect is fine. Then another viable exercise is to practise only the harmony in the passage. If, for example, the passage consists of repeated quavers, then it is a good exercise to ignore the repeated notes, and instead play sustained notes in order to hear the underlying harmony better. In both cases, the strategy is to group together parts by similar features. In this way, the ear is trained to understand this grouping as one object, e.g. two parts playing the same melody an octave apart can really be perceived as one part. From the performers’ perspective, this is a great simplification, and it also creates a kind of “landmark” in the piece. For example, the cellist might make a mental note: “ok, when I get to this section, I’m together with the viola,” or perhaps something like “when the first violin has this melody, I’m accompanying with the same rhythm as the second violin.”

The two examples I have given above are common features of classical chamber music works, but undoubtedly, exercises more specialised to the piece under consideration will be needed. The teacher should then use their knowledge and experience to decide what would make an effective exercise, taking into the account the ability of the students as well. In any case, however, the key idea is to use chamber music training as an opportunity to demonstrate good listening strategies, which is directly linked to effective practice techniques. Even in very simple pieces, there is a lot of worthwhile listening to do, and at the very least, the students will become more sensitive to sound quality.

Leadership and teamwork

In the sections above, I have outlined how chamber music training refines instrumental technique, improves aural skills, increases understanding of basic music theory and analysis — in short, how chamber music develops all the skills that are essential to good musical development. However, I have left the most obvious feature of chamber music to last: above all, chamber music is about playing together. When humans do anything in a group, there is usually (necessarily?) a consideration of leadership and teamwork, and music-making is no exception. A natural question arises: in a chamber music ensemble, who is the leader, if there is one at all? In my opinion, this is a bit of a trick question, as the answer is highly dependent on context. In the rehearsal room, there may very well be one person who tends to take charge. In string quartets, this role is traditionally assumed by the first violin, who is traditionally the leading role after all. But of course, in a healthy working relationship, the other members of the quartet should not hesitate to make their concerns heard as well. However, from a purely musical point of view, this question of leadership is slightly absurd. Clearly, the person who plays the leading role in a particular section of the music should be the leader of that section! If the viola, let’s say, has the main melody (yes, this does actually happen!), it is probably a good idea to let the violist lead. Therefore, during the performance of a piece of chamber music, leadership is always changing in accordance to what is required by the work itself. All of this is just a roundabout way of saying that everyone has a chance at exercising leadership when playing chamber music. It can be a good way to instil some confidence in the more timid students. On the other hand, for students who have strong personalities and are used to playing solo, chamber music is a good way for them to develop a more refined technique, as they must reconcile their playing with the ensemble.

Despite the length of this blogpost, I have merely scratched the surface of the subject. In no way do I claim to be an expert chamber music coach — these are merely some key observations and insights I have gathered in my limited experience as a chamber musician. However, I hope that my enthusiasm for chamber music comes across, and that I have made some coherent arguments for the importance of chamber music in general musical development. To conclude, let me make one final remark. Let’s consider music more generally, away from the realm of so-called “Western art music”: pop, rock, metal, jazz, Indian classical music, African drumming, Mongolian throat singing, Irish folk music, etc. It seems that such a large portion of the totality of music comprises of music-making in small ensembles. Chamber music is just one of thousands of ways humans have developed to make music together, and perhaps it is this universality which is the most wonderful thing of all.

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