Chamber music and world peace

A circle game
The image on this card is of dancing chamber musicians. You may remember circle games from your own childhood such as Ring Around the Rosie. I find humor in the thought that a group of classically trained chamber musicians would play such a game together.

In case you don’t remember circle games, children sing and follow the “rules” of the game while stepping to a steady beat. The unexpected activities in the game make it fun and engaging. Children playing the game will have a variety of ability, some better than others. All have to work together in order for the game to work. In Suzuki Early Childhood Education (SECE) circle games are used to develop a sense of rhythm, coordination, ear training, and empathy.

This post is really about collaboration. Recently in the news, there have been many stories about conflicts in our culture, in our government, and internationally. I have always felt that if everyone had to begin their day by playing chamber music, there would be a much greater chance for world peace.

Can you hear more than the line you are playing?
The word “line” refers to the part in the score you are playing. When I have a student who is playing with a pianist or another musician, very often they have trouble focusing on their own part. Suddenly well-known parts get jumbled. The student may say that playing with the other musician is too distracting.

When a student isn’t able to overcome the feeling of distraction even after a second or third time playing through the piece, I suggest temporarily blocking out the other part so that they can find their musical “sea legs.” We continue to work on the ensemble until the student can focus on their own part while synchronizing with the other part.

Being able to hear the other part in music is an essential skill for ensemble playing. The musician has to maintain the demands of their own part while holding in their head the intricacies of all the other parts of the score. Knowing what else is going on in the score is also an aspect of collaboration.

Can you find yourself in someone else’s fingerings and bowings?
When playing in, for instance, a string quartet or in an orchestra, a violinist will frequently find themselves having to use someone else’s bowings and even fingerings. Having to change the way you are playing a piece of music will be, at the very least, uncomfortable. Sometimes these imposed-upon, physical ways of playing the music will run counter to what the violinist feels is stylistically correct.

When teaching my students, I recommend that they try playing scales and etudes with different fingerings and bowings. For example, I encourage students to study both the Galamian and Flesch scale systems which employ different fingerings. When studying Wohlfahrt and Kreutzer etudes, I encourage students to practice the variation bowings that are provided.

Becoming more familiar and comfortable with a variety of fingerings and bowings won’t solve the conflicts concerning interpretation but hopefully alleviate some anxiety surrounding technically carrying out the request. The question then becomes, can you “find” yourself in this situation? Can you still find your own musicianship, expression and inspiration within the confines of someone else’s decisions about how the music should be played?

Can you reflect someone else’s sound through your sound?
Perhaps first experienced while playing in a chamber music group, a young violinist who has newly mastered vibrato, may feel that it isn’t right to have to change it. The young violinist may feel that their teacher taught them this way and it is the only right way to do vibrato. However, vibrato is like a fingerprint. Each violinist’s vibrato is unique.

The question here is, can you allow someone else’s vibrato to be reflected through your own vibrato? Can you do this without abandoning your own vibrato completely? Can your vibrato remain present and beautiful as you experience another violinist’s vibrato resonating through your sound? Can you be flexible about this?

The great string quartets seem to make this work. Of course, members will struggle to find compatible musicians to work with. Playing in a string quartet has been described as being like a marriage. They love the music and they love playing together but it is inevitable that there will be conflicts. If you love the music, you will love the experience of allowing someone else’s sound flow through you. You will knowingly and willingly accept this experience for better or worse.

Collaboration for life
Playing music in an ensemble is one of the greatest human cognitive abilities. A significant loss during the pandemic was student participation in orchestra. Although orchestra resumed, when working with my public school students this past school year, I noticed a lack of ability to independently problem solve and at the same time negotiate their needs with other students in the orchestra. My colleagues reported similar issues with their students as well.

In order to collaborate in a music ensemble, one needs to be aware of what the other musicians around them are playing. They need to be sensitive to the needs and requirements placed on the other ensemble members as well as the function of their part in the overall score. When playing in an ensemble, a musician must be open to playing someone else’s way. Moreover, a musician must be able to stay present while allowing another musician’s sound to resonate through the music.

One must be willing to collaborate with other people when playing chamber music. You are playing challenging music that you know should be beautiful. You have heard it played beautifully before and you demand this of yourself. However, you are dependent on the musicianship of the other members of the ensemble. You have to place your trust in someone else in service of creating beauty.

The Inspiration for Violinists card deck
This “Collaboration” card is part of a 50 card deck. Every card has a unique image and text inspiring musicianship, mindfulness and spirituality. 

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