Intimacy in Music - A Chamber Music Perspective
by Marianne Gedigian and Charles Villarrubia
Imagine a world where we celebrated one another’s successes, where we all honored and respected our differences, challenges, and responsibilities, and where being a good listener and sharer were treasured virtues and empathy and a collaborative spirit were constant. This is the world of chamber music. In my career as a performing artist, I have been fortunate to enjoy a varied palette of experiences. Over the years, it has become evident to me that those musicians who derive the most enjoyment from their careers are those who pursue the many avenues of music making including teaching, the symphony orchestra, solo playing, and chamber music. All have been a joy, but chamber music holds a special place for me. Chamber music may be the most social of musical experiences. It teaches, it is generous, it gives us space and makes space for others, and it enables more aware and sensitive large ensemble playing.
Chamber music is a purely democratic process. It exists without a central, authoritative figure responsible for shaping much of the aesthetic experience. Like a great sonic puzzle, the orchestral player does his or her best to fit a part into a section and to then fit the section into the whole of the ensemble. When accomplished, the unanimity of sound and concept can be absolutely spectacular. At times within the symphony orchestra we may cede much of our artistic personas to that of the maestro’s. Conversely, solo playing can emphasize the personality of the soloist as filtered through the prism of the composer. Chamber music is an amalgamation of the self and the whole. It blends the best of both worlds. If chamber music is to exist in a healthy way, all members must contribute their ideas while simultaneously being open to the ideas of others. Compromise is inevitable and a Utopian ideal is achieved through the heart and soul of each performer.
Students and Chamber Music
I encourage my students to play chamber music. In fact, I believe that those students who take part in chamber music in high school or earlier may develop their musical instincts and confidence faster than those who do not. However, it is never too late to enjoy the benefits of chamber music! One of the hallmarks of a good chamber musician is a heightened level of awareness. Achieving this, of course, does not happen overnight but is achieved through a gradual process. Perhaps the greatest benefit of a student’s chamber music experience lies in the process building to a performance, not necessarily the performance itself. Traditionally, music students involved in a large ensemble are used to responding to directions from the podium. A journey into chamber music offers an opportunity for each player to be responsible for giving and taking instruction and suggestions. Hence, a certain amount of “independence by necessity” can be achieved. Independence and awareness are two traits that any music educator would greatly appreciate in their large ensembles. Chamber music helps develop students who can respond to directions while actively listening and adapting to the sounds that they hear around them. This active role, as opposed to a reactive role, is a significant reason why the student becomes more aware and independent. The integration of the literary act (reading notes from a page) and the aural act (absorbing what one hears) is vital to the performers as it allows them to trust their practice room work and be present in the moment of collaboration. A technique I have found beneficial when working with students is to explore a sense of togetherness without instruments even involved. Before the students ever play a note together it is important that, as an ensemble, they become comfortable in one of the most crucial physical tools they will utilize, the group- breath. Just as a picture frame delineates the world of the viewer from the world of the artist, the breath acts as a bridge that takes one from the present reality to the music making. How we breathe can convey time, style, dynamics, and articulation. These are all set in motion before the first sound is made. Obviously this essential life force is something the everyday person need not think about to survive. Our bodies do it for us. But to realize the infinite potential of conscious breathing, one only has to notice how many disciplines and arenas of life it is used: martial arts, childbirth, sports, and meditation to mention a few. Additionally, taking away the stimulus of musical instruments can enable the student the freedom to focus on this fundamental concept. It takes nothing more than a metronome and a few participants. For example, in common time, with the metronome on at a moderate speed, one student counts to three (in a strong rhythmic fashion), everyone takes an equally rhythmic breath on beat four, and everyone claps or sings one note together on beat one. It takes little or no thought for any student to count to three. It also takes little or no thought for a student to take a breath or pick up their hands and clap. It is, however, a different scenario when five students try to breathe and clap as one unified, organic being. In these exercises, the students can rotate the count-off insuring that all are confident with this type of communicative breath. Prior to the first rehearsal there is much an individual can do to be sure the rehearsal time is well spent. Naturally, having one’s part prepared is critical, but having a knowledge of the score is equally helpful. I have my students to do a lot of listening and strongly recommend score study while doing so. Often times the students are uncertain about what they are hearing. They wonder if they are listening for the ‘right’ things. A typical first instinct is to listen primarily to one’s own part. Listening to the piece as a whole can be elusive to some. I suggest listening in a manner that removes the flute part from their consciousness. This magnifies the importance of the rest of the score. Once they have done this they achieve a much broader recognition of the other parts and a greater understanding of their own role. If all members of the ensemble prepare in this fashion, the rehearsals can morph from being informational (where to play, who plays when etc…) to creative (how to phrase, which line to sing out etc…).
The chamber music experience helps to build the person as well as the musician. The students are encouraged to listen critically (in the best sense of the word) to one another and to have discussions about what they hear and how they plan to improve upon it. This builds problem-solving skills. Students are encouraged to address their comments in a respectful manner as well as learn how to accept comments from others in the same fashion. This builds interpersonal relationship skills. At some point they will need to schedule their own rehearsals and come to those rehearsals prepared to play, further enhancing organizational and personal responsibility skills. These skill sets may sound familiar to responsible individuals in any field, as they are skills necessary to succeed in everyday life. Students may develop these positive traits at an earlier stage than many of their counterparts because of the chamber experience.
I recall early in my undergraduate degree at Boston University performing with the BU Symphony Orchestra feeling overwhelmed by my many responsibilities including intonation, timing, and blend within the huge orchestra assembled for a Prokofiev Symphony. As a young, inexperienced player, I was confounded by the task of fitting my voice into the sonic tapestry that was swirling around me. It was not until I had the opportunity at Boston University for an in-depth exploration of the woodwind quintet repertoire that I began to understand how to creatively explore the process of music making. We rehearsed together for hours daily, studied scores as a group, discussed and tried endless possibilities of phrasing and tempi, and spent untold amounts of time checking intonation with one another. We would tune from the bottom voice up, tuning unisons, octaves, fifths, thirds, and filling in the remainder of the chord to find the intonation that made the quintet sound ring. Sometimes we would become frustrated and confused by the challenges of intonation and lose sense of the pitch center. It was at these times we became our most creative. We worked toward blend instead of pitch and we noticed how conceiving of rhythm together could help the pitch and blend of the group. We took care to begin and release notes with the same sensitivity and expression. We checked our individual vibratos to be sure they sounded cohesive and complimentary to the entire ensemble, and went to great lengths not to assess blame but to involve the whole group in seeking the best artistic solutions. My colleagues in this quintet were older and more seasoned than I, and I remain exceedingly grateful for the valuable time spent with them. I looked up to each of them and learned tremendously from their playing and prior experiences. Gradually I gained more confidence to share my own ideas and little by little became aware of each instrument’s strengths and challenges within the quintet. I learned exactly where an F would be on the oboe and the color that unified our sounds most easily. I learned to employ a subtle vibrato and color to blend with the clarinet, and explored all avenues of discovery to make the quintet sound as one. It was from this nucleus of the woodwind quintet that I began to find a greater joy in orchestral playing. The information I gained from our work in the quintet made orchestral playing less intimidating and without question, enhanced my fulfillment of it. I was not spending my time guessing about what was off the mark, but spent my time insuring a unified quality from the winds. Once that relationship was set within the orchestra, listening out was a more rewarding experience. New opportunities and issues arose but having the strong family within the woodwinds made for much more confident and intelligent playing. Even the conductor noted my improvement, and it became clear to me that through chamber music, I was learning the valuable skills of partnering and collaboration. Ultimately, all great ensemble playing – big or small - is chamber playing.
I am fortunate to play in the Walden Chamber Players, a wonderful ensemble based out of Boston, Massachusetts. Each member of this ensemble is passionate about making chamber music at the highest possible level. We perform on great concert series’, in schools and community centers, and treat each audience member with respect and gratitude. Making music brings the performer great satisfaction, but to me a greater satisfaction comes when a performance transports an audience member for a moment, brings a smile to a child’s face after delighting in a fancy flourish, or provides a time for people to come together and simply celebrate in the sounds of music. Chamber music is so intimate and personal that the performer can feel the energy of the audience and in a sense, collaborate with them too. Every chamber music experience I have had has influenced my solo and orchestral playing. Working with spectacular wind and string coaches over the years has expanded my perspective on what is possible on the instrument and in music making.
Ultimately, chamber music is about people interacting with other people in an intimate setting. Sometimes the interaction comes through sound, gesture, or some indefinable meta-physical occurrence that is not uncommon with musicians who share a love of the art as well as a trust in each other. The experience promotes a generousness of spirit. It allows us to insert and retract our artistic egos with speed, grace, and subtly. On many occasions I have heard the statement, “let’s get together and play chamber music”. This is a way for us as artists to bring something beautiful to the world on our own terms. The joyous act of getting together with friends and colleagues for no other motivating factor than playing great repertoire with others whose abilities and company we value is, in itself, an act of generosity. We live in world increasingly dominated by digital communication where the mouse and touch pad have replaced vocal chords as the most common means of contact between humans. As artists, that makes us more relevant than ever. The beauty and joy of this experience is something that should be shared. It is powerful. It is portable. It cannot be recreated in any virtual or digitized setting. It is the human experience and I encourage all to embrace it – perhaps in chamber music and certainly in life.