Plays Well with Others: A Chamber-Player’s Primer

Find the right program to help you hone your skills
If you’re an adult enthusiast seeking to learn more about chamber music, you’re in luck. You can pick from literally hundreds of chamber-music programs designed for adults of all levels of experience. Maybe you haven’t touched your violin, viola, cello, or bass since college but now that the kids are grown, you want to ease back into playing. Or maybe you already play in a local community orchestra but want to branch into chamber music. Perhaps you’re in a quartet or trio with friends and want some professional coaching. Regardless, you can find plenty of ways to pursue your interests.

Participating in a chamber program can be musically rewarding. “It’s continuing education,” says David Salness, music director of the Adult Chamber Camp at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Interlochen, Michigan, where, he says, “some participants were actually music majors but took a different career path, while others took up the instrument later and now want to grow and enjoy chamber music.”

Picking a Program

Your first task is to pick a program from the huge range out there. Start by asking yourself about your playing abilities and specific goals.

How polished—or rusty—are your basic skills and technique? Are you completely new to chamber music? Are you already familiar with the Haydn and Mozart quartets and want to try some Barber, Shostakovich, or Ravel? If you’re already a member of a chamber group, will you be applying to programs with your fellow players and bring your own repertoire? Are you drawn to a program sponsored by an international heavyweight, such as Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, or do you want a lower-key session organized by a small nonprofit such as Lakeside Chamber Music in Lake Forest, Illinois?

Also ask yourself some practical matters: How much are you willing to spend on tuition? Are you able to leave home to attend an out-of-town program and for how long? Do you want an urban atmosphere or a country setting where you might rehearse outdoors, surrounded by grass, trees—and possibly mosquitoes?

Your self-evaluation will guide you when you pick among the programs, which range from weekend intensives to sessions lasting for an entire semester. A program’s duration is a key criterion, giving you a sense of how intense the experience will be and how many hours a day you’ll be practicing, rehearsing, or performing.

That level of time commitment roughly correlates into how much you might expect to accomplish. Also consider your energy level: Weekend intensives and summer-camp style programs pack multiple coachings into a single day, often including break-out evening sessions, so if you’re not up to spending more than a couple of hours a day with the instrument, you’re better suited to a program that spreads a series of two-hour coaching sessions over many weeks.

Exploring Your Options

To give you a sense of the wide variety of programs available, consider the following:

Curtis Institute’s program runs over four days encompassing a weekend; in 2015, it’s scheduled for the end of May. The program draws about 50 participants, largely string players, of all levels of experience. “This is about inclusion,” says David Ludwig, Curtis’ dean of artistic programs.

“We see the program as a little like baseball fantasy camp. You can get a taste of conservatory life, working with professionals.” No live audition is required, but to help organizers match players into groups, you need to submit, electronically, a sample of your playing, plus a list of solo and chamber repertoire that you’ve played in the past.

If your pre-formed group wants to go, no playing sample is needed. Participants receive coaching from Curtis faculty and alumni and perform in a recital on the final day. You can choose to live and eat on campus or stay elsewhere in Philadelphia.Fee: $600, plus $460 for room and board.

Austin Chamber Music Center in Austin, Texas, offers its Adult Academy, stretching over a 14-week semester. Participants receive four 90-minute coaching sessions with local professionals, perform, and attend master classes. Auditions are live, but short, requiring two contrasting solos or etudes, each only about one minute in length. Fee: $160.

Interlochen operates its Adult Chamber Camp, geared toward intermediate and advanced players, during a week in the summertime. In 2015, it’s planned for mid-August. Besides coaching sessions and performances with your chamber ensemble, you can take part in “conducted group ensembles” in which you play quartet repertoire in a larger group with several people on each part. Participants have access to an extensive library and take meals in the cafeteria.

You can stay in an on-campus hotel, a cabin, or a dormitory. Given the rural lakeside setting, you’ll be spending plenty of time outdoors walking to rehearsals and performances. (Bring insect repellent, Interlochen recommends.)


Participants don’t have to play a live audition and are simply asked to rate their own playing level.Fee: $500, plus $700 to $1,000 for room; $25 a day for board.

Lakeside Chamber Music runs Chamber Music Workshops over five days in the summer at Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Illinois, in suburban Chicago. The workshops are geared toward intermediate or advanced players with prior ensemble experience, says artistic director Bernard Zinck.

Participants rehearse one new piece daily and perform every day in the late afternoon, letting them kick back and relax during dinner. The frequent performing is especially helpful to those wanting experience beyond playing in their own living rooms, Zinck adds.

No audition is needed; participants self-evaluate and rate their own playing. Although some participants commute daily or live in a nearby motel, others live a dormitory, take meals in the college cafeteria, and hang at the student union and recreational center. “It’s like going back to school,” Zinck says. Fee: $650, plus $60 a day for room and board.

Music Northwest in Seattle holds its Adult Chamber Music Camp over two consecutive weekends (Friday evenings and Saturday during the daytime.) Participants must have at least three years of playing experience and audition either live or via audio recording.

The program includes coaching, master classes, and sessions in sight reading and overcoming performance anxiety. The session culminates in a recital in a local church in the afternoon of the second Saturday.Fee: $270.

Crowden Music Center in Berkeley, California, runs ten-week sessions during which participants receive eight 90-minute coaching sessions and perform in a recital. Beginners, advanced players, and pre-formed groups are all welcome, says director Phyllis Kamrin. Short auditions, which include some sight reading, are required but low-pressure. “I call them interviews, because adults get nervous about the whole audition thing,” Kamrin says.Fee: $315.

Kinhaven Music School in Weston, Vermont, holds a five-day summer session offering daily workshops and an optional performance. Participants of all levels of experience are assigned to at least two ensembles. Motels are nearby, while on-campus lodging resembles summer camp with bunk beds, shared bathrooms, and meals in a cafeteria. Kinhaven requires a CD or DVD audition (a home recording is fine) of any solo, étude, or chamber work.Fee: $900, including room and board.

Relax about the Audition

Once you decide on the environment, academic focus, and session length you want, look to see if there’s a required audition. Remember that the purpose of the audition isn’t to allow others to cast judgment on you but rather to help the organizers place you in a group with others of a similar level. As a result, auditions are relaxed and tend to last less than ten minutes.

Generally, programs request either one single piece or two contrasting pieces. To ease anxiety, pick pieces within your comfort zone instead of the most difficult piece in your repertoire.

Most of the time, an excerpt from a longer piece or even an étude is fine. Some auditions require a short sight-reading test. Once you have the music in front of you, spend half a minute or so eyeballing the piece, noting the time and key signatures and main rhythms, before you play.

If an audition isn’t required, you’ll be asked on the application to rate your playing and describe your musical background. Be realistic when assessing yourself.


Kamrin, of the Crowden Music Center, notes that it’s common for players to overestimate their prowess on the instrument and end up with players who are far more advanced than they are or with repertoire that’s too challenging.

Prepare to Succeed

Once you’re confirmed to attend, you want to prepare. If you’re not already in a group, the best preparation is to find a few people in your area and read through a few quartets or trios with them, says Interlochen’s David Salness.

If that’s not feasible, practice on your own. Most programs will let you know in advance what piece you’ll be rehearsing.

Try to learn your part as well as you can “so that the group coaching doesn’t transform into a mini-private lesson and instead you can concentrate on ensemble issues,” Zinck says.

Become familiar with the other parts, too, by listening to recordings and following along with a full score. Get to know the basic form and structure of the piece. It’s great if you have the time to read up on the composer.

“Many adults, regardless of their technical abilities on the instrument, are passionate and read books about the composer or his letters,” Zinck adds.

Brush up on your scales and spend enough time with your instrument so that when you arrive, “you should feel like you’re able to play two to three hours in a day,” says Salness. “That takes some endurance.”

Pack your metronome, a tuning fork, a folding music stand, and lots of pencils. Once you arrive for your first coaching session, dive in. If you’ve already learned your own part, you can zero in on ensemble matters. “Chamber-music skills can be quite daunting,” Kamrin says. “Besides working on issues like intonation, a lot of the time you’ll be working on staying together and knowing whom you’re playing with.”


Chamber music is also about personal interaction, so you want to be psyched up to play (and socialize) with new people. How much you actually accomplish will vary with the group. “Each group has its own dynamics,” Kamrin says. “Some are very focused, and some can start out ragged and get it together later. Others are more interested in the social aspect of the group and might not progress as much.”

Keep Progressing after the Program

Even so, organizers say, everyone ends up learning and leaves a better player than before. After your program ends, you can help yourself retain what you learned by continuing to play.

If you were matched up with players from your area, you can try to meet up afterwards; some groups formed at Crowden, which attracts local players, have stayed together, Kamrin says.

If you’re not able to keep playing with your group, find others in your area, perhaps through a chamber-music network (see sidebar.)

Keep up the motivation and momentum by sticking to a schedule; plan rehearsals and perhaps work up to a performance at a church or retirement center to share your music. Salness notes that if your ensemble lacks, say, a violist, contact your local college to find a music student willing to play with you, perhaps for a small fee.

Even participants who aren’t able to play in an ensemble afterwards can still find ways to keep learning.

Curtis, for example, is planning a free course via online education site Coursera titled “The World of String Quartet,” taught by Guarneri Quartet violinist Arnold Steinhardt and Curtis faculty member Mia Chung.

“This kind of course is for lifelong learners,” Ludwig says.