Inner secrets of learning to play chamber music

Communication is at the heart of chamber music. It takes many forms, most importantly the essential attempt to tune in to the composer, to interpret his innermost thoughts and feelings as passed down to us through the strange language of dots on a page, and then to translate them into sounds that can change our emotional state so profoundly.

There is the communication involved in the complex art of rehearsing, which includes perfecting intonation, ensemble, balance and style, all in the service of the greater goal of forging an interpretation and learning to project it powerfully to an audience. This process is guaranteed to cause strife. The possibilities for taking offence are endless: different personality types, different musical preferences, sensitivities of all kinds, persecution complexes, bullying, unhelpful perfectionism, and the real possibility that a player may not be able to do what is being suggested by a colleague.

Professionals, students and amateurs, none escape these difficulties. Every quartet finds different solutions. Some shout at each other. Others barely speak at all. A first violinist may ask the cellist to tell the viola player to do more vibrato. A well-mannered rehearsal is not necessarily the best route to a great performance. Artistic temperaments and clashing musical personalities can lead to rich, multi-dimensional performances, providing they are harnessed to the common goal of serving the composer when it comes to the concert. However, for many groups, including student quartets, the opportunity is there to develop sensitivity and skill in communication, self-restraint when it is needed and assertiveness at other times, and at all times, enormous focus and creativity.

There is the communication through body language, which enables a quartet to play well together. We often talk about breathing together, as well as moving together. I sometimes ask students if they have watched the strange sport of synchronized swimming, as it has always fascinated me how these swimmers can move so perfectly together even underwater, and it is a good model for the sort of coordination through subtle cueing which we seek in chamber music playing. It requires physical ease, the ability to recognize and let go of physical (and mental) tensions which are obstacles to natural flow in movement, and to match energy levels. I use the analogy of choreography when working with quartets. Frequently the shape and quality of a movement with the bow arm plays a big part not only in good ensemble but in creating the character of sound, which in turn plays a big part in conveying the meaning, the emotion, in the music.

Written for Fanfare magazine in 2016 by Robin Ireland.

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