on chamber music

A few weeks ago, as part of a week long residency at Bangor University (specifically to play a rockin’ concert with Xenia Pestova and Carla Rees), I was asked to lead a workshop on chamber music performance. I don’t teach very often, so it was a great forum for developing my own thoughts in terms of what skills I’ve developed over the last three years, principally as a member of hand werk.

Just over two years isn’t a particularly long time to be working as an ensemble, but it seems to me that it’s at this point that one starts to feel a sense of consistency on stage. Even when we aren’t as individuals feeling our best (exhaustion at the end of our tour has been a contributing factor recently), we are still capable of delivering a high energy and convincing performance. It’s taken us more than two years and approximately 40 concerts to get there. I’ve had that sense for some time in my own solo performance, so it comes as both a thrill and a great relief that this is also possible in terms of chamber music.

This post, then, serves to offer some general advice for those interested in furthering their own chamber music skills, whether as students or as young professionals aiming to form a new group. In the future, I’d like to do a post on very specific musical advice, but today I’ll keep things general and socially-oriented.

While our group works in the field of new music, I’d like to think my thoughts on the matter will be more widely applicable. These are things we’ve worked on, and these are a lot of things I’m still working on, things I’d like myself to be better at. (And for the record, I’m only speaking for myself, not my colleagues.)


Everyone has a role. What can be difficult is for the roles to change. As a completely random example (ahem), if you start out being “the quiet one,” say, because the rehearsal language is somewhat new to you (another random example, ahem), it can be difficult to feel that you’re part of the flow of rehearsal conversation. Okay, it’s not a random example. It’s about me. I’m not exactly an extroverted person to begin with, and can be extremely shy in German. With my colleagues this is increasingly not the case. But it has taken a very long time, and been extremely frustrating – perhaps not only for me! (On the plus side, I speak German now, and my fluency is a direct result of my involvement with the group.)

The point is, let your colleagues change and grow. Give them the benefit of the doubt (and see if you can do that after 8 hours of rehearsal – oof.) Question yourself when you think, “Oh that’s so like her to say that…”. This is difficult, and I can only imagine it can become more difficult with a long time together. (Does it take more or less work than a marriage? Tune in ten years or so from now, I’ll let you know.)

Prioritise. A skill worth developing is learning how much practising of a score needs to be done before rehearsing can begin. As the clarinettist of an ensemble that rehearses very long days, it’s almost impossible for me to practise once our rehearsal phase has started. That means, to a certain extent, it’s necessary for me to be happy with how I play a score before we begin. And to a certain extent, that isn’t possible. Things change once in an ensemble setting. Each colleague has different priorities. Refining what needs to be learned before hand, what can be left to the rehearsal and what must be left for rehearsals is a very special skill.

Test your options. When someone says, “No, but I think we should do it this way,” make sure you’ve tried both, listened and considered your options. This applies not just to musical but also organisational decisions. It’s surprising how often one can end up going along with whatever someone said most recently, or whoever happened to speak the loudest. Musically, it has often led to surprising results. Elements of style and phrasing aren’t always obvious on the page (especially in new music), don’t hesitate to suggest a longer phrase, a shorter phrase, or a different approach to dynamics or articulation. Furthermore, occasionally, what seems like the right decision while playing has been found to be the wrong one after listening back to an in-rehearsal recording.

Talk about articulation. There will always be another conversation about the differences between how string players and wind players articulate a certain passage. Just when you’ve think you couldn’t possible go into any more detail, you end up doing a project where a string quartet has been arranged for two winds and two strings. When one should try to sound as much like a string player as possible, when one should enjoy the differences, how to balance a flute staccato with a violin pizzicato, etc. etc. Best strategy is to learn to enjoy these conversations. The devil’s in the details, or something like that…

Develop flow. Rehearsals can feel extremely slow and are very draining when they move too slowly. Over time, we handwerkers have developed an amazing rhythm to our rehearsals. Things move fast. We move very quickly between members offering various comments on how everyone is playing, what the music requires (intonation practice, articulation, togetherness, balance between instruments), and whether there are questions only the composer can answer. We return to playing as quickly as possible, while still allowing everyone to say what needs to be said. It is, however, important, that one does return to playing: energy can dip if the conversation drags along without a clear goal. Once this energy starts to falter, it can be hard to get it back.

If you are the percussionist for a group without stagies to help, and it’s understood that your non-percussionist colleague will be assisting, develop a talent for delegation. The best case for this was actually with a regular guest of our ensemble. He had a phenomenal talent for very quickly telling you what the next step was with the take down or set up of an instrument, showing you anything tricky about that operation, and then running off to either show the next colleague his task or resume his own. We managed the packing up of one of our largest percussion setups in under an hour. Amazing.

Take risks. Taking risks together is one of the most amazing and educational things you can do as an ensemble. Testing your boundaries within a group is part of the chamber music experience.

Runthroughs are extremely important. I know of ensembles that tend to do their first runthrough the day before the concert. As much as possible, we do as many as we can, and we always make recordings, no matter how painful that process can be. I’m not sure we have a general rule, but often we’ll do a runthrough at the beginning of a rehearsal (though of course not at the beginning of the first rehearsal), work on a number of details over two hours and then run through the work again the end, making a recording that we then listen to. It might sound like a slightly traumatising experience, but once one gets into the habit it just feels really productive and helpful. We always learn something and better our performance through this.

Laugh together. Humour in rehearsals is necessary! It used to really bother me (probably because I didn’t understand most of the jokes two years ago). But now I see how it can keep things light and keep the energy level up. That said, be careful if there is someone else (specifically, the composer of the piece you’re working on) in the room. It’s not a nice situation if that composer might interpret your silly inside joke as being about him or his piece.

Play with others. While I’ve developed a lot of skills by working with the same five people over and over again for the last couple of years, taking those skills and applying them to performers I don’t work with so often, or have never worked with, is a great test. It’s not only a great test: it’s a lot of fun and helps to reinforce a lot of things. I know exactly how our flute player will move in a given situation. So how fast can I learn to adapt to a different flute player? How quickly can I make an analysis of how she or he might move and how will I respond to those movements in the moment?

When you start working with new colleagues, you have no idea how they will perform. You do not know how nerves and adrenaline affect them. It has taken us two years, 40 concerts and over 60 pieces of music to feel consistent as an ensemble on stage. Now, I know what happens when my colleagues get nervous. They know what happens when I get nervous. We also know how to adapt to each other in these situations. There is no error that we can not navigate.

It’s not the same scenario when one plays with new people, but that isn’t to say that that can’t lead to great music making and that it can’t be a lot of fun. Carla and I were talking about this scenario in Bangor two weeks ago, on the very day that we’d play our first concert together. I grinned at her and said, “You have no idea how I’m going to screw up tonight.” And she grinned back and said, “Yep. And you have no idea how I’m going to screw up tonight,” and we stood there just grinning. Because apparently we are adrenaline junkies.

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