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!