It is widely agreed that chamber music experience is crucial to the development of every musician.

Glenn Dicterow (American violinist, former concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra) says, “For every musician who wants to be a great musician and well rounded, needs to have chamber music experience.” He shared that without his chamber music experience at age 12, he would have never gone on to play in an orchestra. He also observes that musicians without chamber playing experience would be unable to relate to other musicians, as well as to the music.

In this post, we hope to consolidate some of the experiences from successful chamber ensemble stories, and provide some thoughts for the formation of chamber ensembles in Singapore.

Question 1: How to start a chamber ensemble?

“Your name is who you are”

Your name, as a quartet/chamber ensemble, is very important in reaching out to your potential audience. Your name can either reach people or be overlooked by people. Every name should have a story. [Guide to choosing an ensemble name]

According to Tully Potters, professional journalist of more than 50 years for international musical journals such as The Strads and Classical Record Collector, gathering the right people and playing well is only the beginning. There are other areas such as performance management, financial management, marketing (social media and traditional), sponsorship management, venue management, recording skills, etc that requires significant investment in order to be successful.

How many occasions have you met up with amazing talents whom are relatively unknown due to non-existential marketing plan? If there are no plans to outsource non-performance related functions to external individuals or group, it would be good to develop the above mentioned non-performance areas within the chamber ensemble.

For example, you will find it useful if one of you can handle recording equipment. You can save money if one of you is able to write programme notes and if someone in your group or immediate circle has a talent for drawing and design so that you can personalise your flyers and programme booklets. It will also save a lot of bother if one of you can do rudimentary instrument maintenance. Such jobs should be shared out as equally as possible, so that no one feels resentful about being lumbered with too much work. If routine matters are organised well, your main task of making music should be all the easier. In summary, be clear on the roles and responsibilities of each individual member, as you start your chamber ensemble.

As the Chinese proverb by Lao Tzu goes: “The Journey of A Thousand Miles Starts with a Single Step“; more importantly, it is a single step in the right direction.

Question 2: I have started a chamber ensemble, what’s next?

Now that you have a chamber ensemble with clear delineated roles and responsibilities, and you have to commitment to make the chamber ensemble a success, the next progressive stage would be sustaining it. A lot of chamber groups, especially amateur ones suffer what one would coin as a premature death. There were a lot of expectations and possibilities beyond your imagination, and due to various reasons, they just couldn’t take off. Along the way, there are definitely times where internal/external conflicts arises and it becomes challenging to keep to the idealistic path. One way to minimise these would be to focus on the group dynamics.

Audrey Williams, co-founder of The Atlanta Camarada String Ensemble, shared her thoughts on managing the social dynamics of the chamber ensemble. She proposed the following:

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.

Question 3: What are the factors that contribute to a successful chamber ensemble? 

Here are some advice from successful chamber ensembles:

Imani Winds: To be a classical full time group, you need to have a lot of faith (not in the religious sense). It is about the craft and devotion to excellence that get you where you are. Prepare the audience for what they will be hearing, and the audience will be better engaged.

Canadian Brass: Don’t let the critics affect you, especially if they are behind the times (on their non conforming performances in the earlier years.). It is a support system playing in the quintet, and you need each other to sound great.

American Horn Quartet:  Perfectionism is dangerous game the ego plays to prevent us from giving birth to any creative endeavour. In our rehearsals, we sometimes go into ridiculous, microscopic detail, even on pieces we have performed dozens of times. The alchemical transformation comes about as a result of the absolute trust we have in each other on stage.

Even if clams happen (for my non-musician friends and readers, that’s what we call the occasional splats that happen to every horn player!) or if a passage doesn’t come off the way we did it in the practice room, that trust remains. [Kristina Mascher-Turner]

What do you think of our article above? Do they help you better understand the importance of chamber ensembles?

For a more detailed read on creating successful small chamber ensembles, refer to this arts management research by Daniel Bertolini.


Written By Editor

A contributing editor at TBP.