By Greg Cahill
When New Jersey cellist and music teacher Oliver Shapiro decided to dig deeper into chamber music, he turned to Associated Chamber Music Players (ACMP), a New York–based nonprofit that matches up adult musicians with similar interests. “The current chamber group in which I play—the Radiance Chamber Ensemble—performs something like eight to 15 times a year, and got its start from ACMP,” he says. “One of our violinists had reached out on the service to see about getting together a new string quartet. Our other violinist saw the notice and responded, and the latter contacted me and a violist that we both know. We managed to get together a couple times and it seemed to just click. We’ve been together since 2011 and we’re going strong. We rehearse usually twice a week, and perform at libraries, private gigs, music clubs, civic groups, and so on, something like once every five or six weeks.”
Of course, juggling the demands of work, family, and other obligations with chamber music has its challenges. “Organizing five people’s disparate schedules—we do a lot of work with a pianist—is like herding proverbial cats. But if the cats are all sufficiently dedicated and motivated then you can make it work.”
And the rewards?
“Well, nothing too earth-shattering,” he says. “But I’m constantly learning new stuff, always being pushed to improve, and most of all just having great fun.”
If you’re wondering how to get a new chamber ensemble together, there are numerous programs and services that can help get you started. Check out the ACMP Facebook page. Or go to meetup.com, which connects amateur chamber players through a nationwide network. Numerous summer festivals provide chamber-music workshops as well.
There are also many symphonies that sponsor programs that team up professional and amateur chamber players. “Has your local symphony ever hosted a ‘side-by-side’ event in which amateur musicians can play alongside professional musicians? You may be surprised at how receptive your local symphony may be,” says concert violinist Judy Naillon of Wichita, Kansas. “Professional symphonies are eager to bring in new audience members and make connections with their community while raising funds.”
Beyond your own musical development, adult amateurs provide a valuable community service. “Never underestimate how moving and transcendent music can be for the listeners in your community,” Broadway and concert-hall violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins says. “You never know, it might be just the thing at just the right time for someone in need. Whether you’re a professional or amateur, chamber music is one of the most powerful and rewarding ways to express your musical voice.”
David Wallace, chair of the string department at Berklee College of Music, has been involved in chamber groups in which both highly skilled amateurs and professionals have participated, and offers this suggestion: “Highly-skilled amateur chamber musicians who aren’t seeking to form a permanent group should consider the possibility of involving professional musicians alongside other skilled amateurs. Beginning in the 1990s, former prodigy and acclaimed visual artist Anne Kirkwood organized her own regular series of chamber-music readings at her Brooklyn apartment. Anne accumulated a sizable roster of New York City freelancers and orchestral musicians, alongside skilled amateurs who had found careers in non-musical professions. Because the level of musicianship was high, and most of us jumped at the chance to dig into late Beethoven quartets and other chamber-music masterpieces that we weren’t playing on a daily basis, Anne always had a high-level, engaged group to read.
“Professionals had an opportunity to network and to enjoy playing chamber music on a regular basis, and some amateurs actually reemerged as professional musicians.
“And at least one marriage resulted!”
“Whether you’re a professional or amateur, chamber music is one of the most powerful and rewarding ways to express your musical voice.”
Chamber music has been defined as “a conversation among friends,” says Desirée Ruhstrat, lecturer and violin coordinator of the strings chamber program at Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. “The goal is to find a group of compatible musicians. It can take a while to find the right mix of personalities, people whom you want to spend time with and people with the skills needed to create a satisfying experience. This only comes with playing with many different people. Adding professionals to the mix occasionally can also make for a great experience. It is supposed to be fun as well as challenging. The vast majority of amateur chamber-music playing is done informally and may or may not involve a ‘regular’ group. It almost always involves music for pleasure and not performance.
“Finding a community orchestra is a great place to start. Also, your local music school or college may have teachers with adult students or adult music programs. The adult chamber-music week at [the Interlochen Center for the Arts] in Interlochen, Michigan, is a good place to start.”
And don’t overlook possible opportunities on the other side of the music stand once your group is ready to perform. “You can produce your own concert,” says Sybarite5 violinist Sarah Whitney, founder and artistic director of Beyond the Notes. “Brainstorm with anyone in the group that might have connections at venues—churches, galleries, cafes, et cetera—and it’s likely you can find a space with a low rental fee or door split. You may even be able to use a space for free if you can bring in a new audience and they’re interested in getting exposure for their space. Learning to produce a concert is one of the most valuable skills you can learn.”
Phyllis Kamrin, director of the Adult Chamber Music program at Crowden Music Center in Berkeley, California, shares these additional tips:
Set a Goal
Do you want to read through lots of material? Work through Beethoven string quartets? Spend an extended amount of time on one piece? Prepare for a recital? Decide what you want out of the experience. The more specific you are, the better able you are to find people who want to share that experience. Use a site such as ACMP or local chamber-music referral websites, local amateur orchestras, music schools, or even meetup.com to find people for your group. ACMP has a useful rating system so that you can find people at your playing level.
Establish Your Group’s Parameters
Scheduling rehearsals is easy with online software like Doodle or WhenIsGood. Things seem to work best if parameters—goals; number, length, and frequency of rehearsals; scheduling; repertoire; settling disagreements—are laid out ahead of time. Even better is if one person takes the lead on establishing the parameters and then discusses those with the rest of the group. If you are preparing for a recital, having a coach is good for the last few rehearsals before the performance to iron out phrasing, balance, pitch, and other concerns. Also, settling disagreements works best with an outside party, such as a coach, as an intermediary or a sounding board.
Chamber Beginners, Manage Your Expectations
If this will be your first chamber-music experience, start small. It takes a lot of brain power to play an instrument while trying to listen to and match other people playing at the same time. String players should start with a duo piece, preferably with someone more experienced. First-time chamber players need to learn their parts cold so that they can start to learn to split their focus between what they are doing individually and what is happening in the group. If you can find the piece that you want to play on YouTube or on a recording, listen to it obsessively, try to pick out your part while listening, and use a score to follow along with the recording. The more you know going in to the experience, the better.
Chamber players soon learn that playing chamber music is all about rhythm. You must be able to be stable in your own sense of rhythm, but also able to react to someone else’s sense of rhythm. Be aware that it can take months or years to develop chamber-music skills, so you might as well get started and prepare to be lost and frustrated initially, but also exhilarated and excited as your ears start to open and you develop awareness of musical interplay.
Find Performance Opportunities
Contact local churches, libraries, coffee houses, senior centers, or have a soirée at your home or a friend’s. The stronger your ties to your local community, the more options you will have to find performance space.
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Strings magazine.