Tips For Successful Ensemble Playing

Chamber Group **I originally wrote this article for the ‘Behind The Bridge’ D’Addario String Orchestral blog.

Many years ago, I and a few of my colleagues decided to form a string quartet for the purposes of performing at events around the metro Atlanta area.  After playing with the same musicians for a while, I started to instinctively know how my chamber mates would react to and interpret various musical passages.  I call this the ‘sweet spot’ of ensemble playing.  This is the point where you don’t have to always mechanically think about what you’re doing anymore but can rather feed off the energy of your cast of players.  In my opinion, your relationship with your ensemble requires a degree of trust and intimate knowledge of each other’s musical quirks, which is very similar to what you would experience in a relationship with your significant other.

As a contract musician, I don’t always get the luxury of playing with the same group of people all the time, so I find that I’m always adjusting my style of play to match the strengths and weaknesses of the musicians around me.  In a large orchestra setting, I usually feel like I can relax a little since the pressure isn’t on one person to present an artistic expression to the entire audience.  On the other hand, playing in a small ensemble where I have to carry my whole section as the only principal player is a whole other ball of wax that requires so much more focus and effort.  I was recently asked to join the in-house quartet of the Atlanta chapter of the Bach Society as their cellist in residence at the Southwest Fine Arts Center.  I was excited for the opportunity, but also very nervous since I’ve spent most of the past few years perfecting my solo cello act.  I decided to seek some professional help from Judith Cox who runs the chamber music intensive through the Atlanta Symphony community school.  She’s also a 1st violinist with the symphony.

Below are some helpful tips for anyone who currently plays in an established small ensemble or if you’re looking to join a chamber group one day in the future:

  • Respect the abilities and opinions of your colleagues. Everyone will have an opinion, which should be respected even if the group decides to go in a completely different direction.  Most people just want to know that their voice was heard and taken into consideration.
  • Study the music, and come to rehearsal with some ideas to try. You should look at a score and listen to a recording of the music (if you can find one) prior to rehearsal.  This will help you come up with some musical ideas to experiment with and will make your rehearsals so much more productive.
  • Talk openly and agree on what you all want the group to become. Everyone should agree up front on rehearsal schedules, performance schedules and goals for the group.  Whether you decide to treat the group as a hobby or a professional job, everyone needs to be aware of those expectations from the very beginning.
  • Learn how to give constructive criticism and sincere compliments. Your ensemble mates will be happier to play with you if you have a positive attitude.  You will also have a better experience as well.
  • Work as a group towards perfection. The group should work together to perfect phrasing, articulation, dynamics, intonation and balance.
  • Listen closely to what’s being played around you. You don’t want to trample over anyone’s solo nor should yours get lost in the fray either.  You should listen to your ensemble mates to make sure you’re matching intonation and articulations.  Instruments in the lower register may need to play out more so that the bass voice is audible.  You may want to have an independent listener sit in on your rehearsal and critique your instrumentation balance if you’re not sure about what you’re hearing while you’re playing.
  • Practice thoroughly at home before coming to rehearsal. All members of the group should make a conscious effort to learn all notes and rhythms at home during individual practice sessions.  The ensemble rehearsal is not the place to try and figure that out because it slows everybody down and takes time away from other music that needs to be looked at.
  • You may want to consider designating someone to lead rehearsals. This may help to make your rehearsals run smoother and more efficiently.  Everyone can still make suggestions about which passages they would like to work on, but the leader should make the final call about where the group should start and when the group should stop to make fixes.
  • Make sure to have a copy of the full score, a tuner, and a metronome present whenever you rehearse. A full score should be readily accessible so that everyone can see how all of the parts are supposed to fit together.
  • Try to run through the entire piece or movement before you leave rehearsal. After you’ve had a chance to fix mistakes, phrasing, articulation, etc., you should try to pull everything together in a final play through before you pack up.  This will help to reinforce what you’ve rehearsed.
  • Ensemble chairs at rehearsal should be set up in the same arrangement that you’re planning to use in live performance. Rehearsals train your ears to hear your music a certain way, and if you’re seated next to someone different on stage, it will most definitely throw your ears and performance off.

These are just a few suggestions that should be helpful to any musician no matter their level of experience.  As always, you should remember to have fun when you play!  Music is a gift that should be enjoyed by all.  Happy practicing!

“All About Bach Concert” – Program Notes

Oct8Performance For decades, I have performed a host of Bach compositions of varying arrangements and ensemble sizes.  J.S. Bach has always been one of my favorite composers for piano and cello, and it was a labor of love to do further research on his life’s works for a concert that I headlined last month with my pianist Alfred Miller.

We decided to alternate between solo cello selections and our duo selections throughout the program so that we could better illustrate Bach’s ingenuity and range involved in composing his masterful works.  Below are the program notes from the concert.  Even though I’ve studied Bach for years, I was delighted to learn some new facts about him and his music as I prepared for this performance.


Program Notes #1

Johann Sebastian Bach is without question one of the greatest composers of all time.  He wrote hundreds of pieces for the organ, choir and many other instruments.  He spent most of his life as a church organist and choir director.  His music combines profound expression with clever musico-mathematical feats like fugues and cannons in which the same melody is played against itself in various ways.  Bach composed six suites for cello that showcase a great diversity in mood and presentation.  Of all his 6 suites, Suite I is the lightest in temperament.  It is quite likely that these works were never played publicly during Bach’s lifetime.  His cello suites wouldn’t have survived at all were it not for Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, who made a copy of them from the original manuscripts.

Cello:  Prelude from Suite I –  This movement is reminiscent of the Preludio I from the Well-Tempered Clavier with the use of pedal points heard throughout.  The pedal inflection is heard in the very distinct bottom note of the broken chords.

Cello:  Allemande from Suite I – The Allemande is originally a German invention in which the broken harmony is supposed to reflect a satisfied, orderly and tranquil mood.

Program Notes #2

Bach is probably the best Baroque era composer to have ever lived.  He was born in 1685, died in 1750 and is revered for his complex stylistic innovations.  You may be familiar with some of his best known compsitions such as the ‘Mass in B Minor’, the ‘Brandenburg Concertos’ and ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’.  He came from a family of musicians that stretched back for several generations.  He took on various organist positions during the early 18th century, and his Lutheran faith influenced his later musical works.  It is believed by historians that Bach learned the violin from his father who also worked as a town musician in Bach’s birthplace of Eisenach, Germany.

Bach also created musical interpretations of the Bible using arias and choruses.  This is how he created some of his most famous religious masterworks such as ‘The Passion According to St. Matthew’ and the ‘Mass in B Minor’.

Piano & Cello:  Arioso – In classical music, an arioso is usually a solo vocal piece.  Though originally a vocal form, the arioso’s melodic format was extended to instrumental compositions.  One of the most famous arioso instrumentals is Bach’s.  This is a very popular wedding and performance piece.

Piano & Cello:  Gigue – The Gigue is a lively Baroque dance that originates from the British jig.  It was probably never a royal court dance, but it was danced by nobility on social occasions.  Several court composers, including Bach, wrote gigues.  The Gigue to be performed is written in 3/8 time which was the norm for this musical form.

Piano & Cello:  Chorale – Bach harmonized hundreds of chorales which he typically used at the end of his cantatas and as the concluding scenes of his Passions.  Traditionally, hymns were sung to the chorale melodies in Protestant and Lutheran churches.

Piano & Cello:  Bouree – A bouree is essentially a country dance.  As its name suggests, the Bouree has something full and solid about it, but not without some softness and a little bit of charm.

Program Notes #3

When Bach was 18, he landed his first musician job playing violin and occasionally the organ for the Duke of Weimar.  Bach’s reputation as a great performer and his amazing technical skills would then earn him the position of organist and music instructor the the New Church in Arnstadt.  He accomplished all of this before his 21st birthday.  At the New Church, he constantly clashed with church officials and didn’t get along with his students.  After leaving the church, he gladly accepted another church organist position that unfortunately didn’t turn out as well as he’d hoped.  Bach’s gift for creating beautifully complex melodies put him at odds with the church pastor who felt that church music should be simple.  During this time, Bach created on of his most famous cantatas entitled ‘Actus Tragicus’.

Cello:  Courante from Suite I – Bach chose to compose this Courante in the Italian style.  The general tone of this movement is supposed to be one of sweet hope, happiness and cordiality.  The racing movement of the notes justifies the name, even though it should always remain pleasant and full of tenderness.

Cello:  Sarabande from Suite I – The Sarabande was intended to be pompous dance that is distinguished by a certain Spanish haughtiness.  It was written to express no other passion but pride and solemn grandeur.

Program Notes #4

By the time he was 10, Bach had already lost both of his parents, so he went to live with his church organist older brother, Johann Cristoph, for the next 5 years.  As a young boy, he had a beautiful soprano singing voice which helped to earn him a spot in a school in Luneburg.  He later switched to playing the violin and harpsichord as his voice began to change.  During his life, Bach was better know as an organist than composer which is why most of his works were published after his death.  He was considered to be an expert at musically telling a story and invoking emotion due to his keen sense of musical style and richly detailed compositions.  He often used musical styles from across Europe as inspiration for his works.  He’s definitely one of the most important characters in classical music.

Piano & Cello:  Ave Maria – Ave Maria is a much loved and recorded piece with arrangements done for almost every instrument you can think of.  The cello melody line was written by the French composer Charles Gounod and was specifically designed to be performed on top of Bach’s Prelude No 1 in C major which was written some 137 years earlier.  The lyrical text is also sung in the tune of the melody.

Piano & Cello:  Sarabande – The Sarabande is a dance that is believed to be of Mexican and Spanish origin.  It was danced using double lines of couples with castanets and is always in triple metre (meaning that it was counted in 3).  At first, the dance was thought to be indecent which is what got it banned in Spain.  In the 17th century, the dance spread to Italy and then to France where it became a slow court dance.

Piano & Cello:  Forlane – The Forlane is a traditional Italian quick folk dance that is counted in 6.  This piece is written almost entirely in running eighth notes and makes considerable use of syncopation.  Bach incorporated his Forlane in his 1st orchestral suite.

Piano & Cello:  Allegro Moderato – As the title suggests, the Allegro Moderato is one of Bach’s inventions that is played at a moderately fast tempo.  You will hear a lot of running eighth notes passed back and forth between the piano and cello parts.

Program Notes #5

Bach worked for a lot of nobles and Royal courts to include quite a few Dukes and Princes.  Unfortunately, this is what got him locked away in jail for several weeks when he attempted to leave Duke Ernst’s employment to work for Prince Leopold.  Bach actually wrote his famous ‘Brandenburg Concerto’ in tribute to the Duke of Brandenburg.

Cello:  Minuet I and II – Both of the minuets feature expressive melodies that reflect joy.  Minuet I is played first then Minuet II before finishing up with another round of Minuet I minus the repeats.

Cello:  Gigue from Suite I – The Gigue ends Suite I in a happy and optimistic mood.  This was customary of Baroque composers since gigues were intended to be lively folk dances.  The ordinary gigue, or English gigue, is characteristically vibrant with a dash of anger that gets quickly appeased.

Program Notes #6

Bach has been described by historians to be a devoted family man.  He had 7 children with his first wife who was also his cousin.  When she died, he had 13 more children with his second wife who was the singer Anna Magdalena.  In those days, it was common for children to die young, and this was the case, unfortunately, with most of Bach’s children.  A few of his surviving children did follow in his footsteps and also became accomplished musicians in their own right.

Piano & Cello:  Siciliano – The sciliano is a musical genre that started in the Baroque period and is often included as a movement within larger pieces of music or instrumental works.  It’s typically in 6/8 or 12/8 time and written in a minor key.  Loosely associated with Sicily, the sciliano is supposed to evoke a pastoral mood that is often characterized by dotted rhythms.

Piano & Cello:  Minuet – A minuet is a social of French origin that was mean for 2 people and is usually written in 3/4 time.  Until 1970, this Minuet in G had always been contributed to Bach.  Now, it is believed that this composition could have actually been the work of the German composer and artist Christian Petzold.

Piano & Cello:  Pastorale – The pastorale is a musical form intended to portray an idealized version of country life.  A common time signature for this style is 6/8 which happens to be the case for the Pastorale that will conclude the program.



Movies Starring The Cello

I’m always game for a good movie with a compelling story line.  While volunteering for this year’s Atlanta Film Festival, I had a conversation with one of the patrons that got me thinking about movies that feature the cello.  If the cello is your thing, then below are some movies (or scenes) you might want to check out:

  • The Soloist (2009)

Untitled1This movie is based on the book, The Soloist by Steve Lopez, which is a true story about a child prodigy cellist named Nathaniel Ayers who developed schizophrenia while attending Julliard and later became homeless. Jamie Foxx plays Nathaniel Ayers and Robert Downey, Jr. plays the reporter Steve Lopez. Both of these men develop a profound relationship after Lopez hears Ayers playing the violin on the street and is able to get him a new cello and a cellist mentor.  This is an emotionally intense movie that will probably make you cry and smile as you follow this tragic yet brilliant cellist who had the misfortune of manifesting a severe mental illness in the prime of his life.


  • Take The Money and Run (1969)

Untitled2The cello only appears in the opening scenes of this Woody Allen movie, but those 2 appearances are very memorable and hilarious to me. ‘Take The Money and Run’ is a comedy satire about an inept criminal named Virgil Starkwell who takes cello lessons as a child and tries very hard at it even though his cello teacher doesn’t have anything good to say about him except that he loved his cello.

The interview with his cello teacher was probably the worst review one could ever give a student, but it was so funny that he made all of his disparaging comments with a straight face … ‘His cello playing was just terrible….. He would saw it back and forth and scratch the instrument to such a point that it would drive everyone who would listen to it absolutely insane… He had no conception of the instrument… He was blowing into it…. I think he stole to pay for his lessons, but he wouldn’t apply himself one iota.” I had to laugh. He said out loud what a lot of music teachers are probably thinking in their heads but would never have the nerve to say externally to their students or their parents. One scene shows the cello flying out of 2nd story window of the Starkwell household. Another scene shows Virgil rather humorously running with his chair and cello as he tries to keep up with the marching band and play at the same time. For me, that scene was worth the price of the download even though it was sad when the neighborhood bullies destroyed Virgil’s cello. The rest of the movie is funny in a dry humor sort of a way.


  • Hillary and Jackie (1998)

Untitled3And, of course, there is HILLARY AND JACKIE, which is supposed to be the story of sibling rivalry and dedication between Jacqueline du Pré (who was arguably one of the world’s greatest cellists) and her sister Hillary, who was a talented flute player. It must be mentioned that the truthfulness of this film has been vehemently challenged by Jacqueline’s teachers and others – even though it was based on conversations with her brother and sister. My cello teacher introduced me to some of Jacqueline du Pre’s recordings somewhere in the midst of my high school years. It was very inspiring to hear how great she willed herself to play even though her MS had taken away most of the feeling in her fingers.



  •  Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990) 

Untitled4The main character, Nina, is beside herself with grief after the passing of her boyfriend, Jamie, a cello player. While Nina is in deep despair, Jamie reappears as a cello playing ghost and the couple is temporarily reconciled. Nina is ecstatic, but Jamie has a heartbreakingly beautiful reason for returning. He’s actually trying to help Nina let go and move on with her life.   He turns up the heat, moves furniture around and invites his ghost friends over which gradually infuriates Nina and causes their relationship deteriorate.  She meets someone that she is attracted to but is hesitant to become involved with him due to Jamie’s continued presence. Nina continues to love Jamie but is conflicted by his actions. Jamie eventually decides to leave to allow her to move on. By the end of the film, we see that Jamie wanted to tarnish Nina’s idealized image of him so that she would feel free to move on.

  • Love In The Afternoon (1957)

This is an older romantic movie starring Audrey Hepburn as a young cellist femme fatale who gets herself caught up in a love triangle while trying to prevent her future love interest from murdering his cheating wife. Supposedly, Audrey did the basic cello playing herself.

These are just some of the movies whose cello features really piqued my interest. There are definitely others out there that I’m still planning to watch – starting with this list of recommendations below:

  • Gauche The Cellist, a 1934 short story by Japan’s Miyazawa Kenji
  • Micki and Maude (Blake Edwards, 1984. Starring Dudley Moore.)
  • If I Stay (2014)
  • The Living Daylights (1987)
  • A Song from the Heart (TV Movie 1999)
  • Departures (2008