Chamber music is a complicated and intricate genre within the classical music confines. It requires a high level of musicality, an immense amount of focus and awareness, and the ability to communicate skillfully with other musicians, often without words. Chamber works can vary from two musicians up to six or eight (or even a chamber orchestra) and can consist of very diverse instrumentation. Making music in a small group can be challenging for even the most seasoned professionals, which is why I was especially intrigued when I learned the Citizen Musician Fellows were about to witness musicians as young as ten partake in the complex process that is chamber music.
As a bass player, I come to chamber music from a different angle than the other string musicians. The traditional string quartet consists of two violins, viola, and a cello, and there are very few string quintets that call for a double bass. I was first exposed to chamber music around age twelve during a Suzuki summer program that accepted bass players, but didn’t totally grasp the concept at the time. Lessons in high school during the school day often consisted of read-throughs of quartets with any number of musicians playing one given part (a quartet would often turn into an octet with all of the parts doubled), and as a bassist I would attempt to read the cello part as best I could. It was useful to have the opportunity to work on sight reading difficult music, reading various clefs and playing something other than do-sol-do because this kind of musical demand was applicable to working on the increasingly difficult bass solo rep (yes, there are concertos written for the double bass). However, rarely having a solid “home” in chamber music so to say, it took me until my early twenties to truly learn how to enjoy engaging with other musicians in a smaller setting, and how to communicate musically and effectively. How are there possibly ten year olds doing this?
We began the day at the Music Institute of Chicago in Evanston, one of the home-bases of the MIC program. During a meeting the fellows were introduced to some of the chamber coaches at MIC and had the chance to learn about the program. The coaches had so much insight and wisdom to offer regarding teaching methods and styles. They were all so enthusiastic and passionate about what they do that I couldn’t wait to go witness a live coaching session. I was amazed as they described the high level they demand of their students (score reading anybody?) and how they are able to maintain a comfortable learning environment. I was very interested to hear the coaches talk about how they have learned to become better teachers throughout the years by watching and learning from other great teachers. They also mentioned that patience is a key skill for what they do.
In the evening, we trucked to MIC Winnetka where the coaching sessions take place. The fellows split into two groups: half observed Sang Mee Lee (chair of the MIC string department) coach a quartet consisting of high school students; and the other half observed Elaine Felder (chair of the MIC piano department) coach a Beethoven piano trio. It was a time of day when everyone is a little worse for the wear. It was pouring and cold outside, the fellows had a busy schedule, parents were making tired small talk in the waiting room and the kids had all just completed a full day at school. But one of the amazing aspects of music-making is that it can give you a whole new breath of life just when you thought there would be nothing more appealing than sweatpants and a hot cup of tea.
Elaine began the coaching with some brief introductions – the pianist, a spunky ten-year old girl, a reserved and articulate eleven-year old boy on violin, and a very cool and collected thirteen-year old boy playing cello. She quizzed them on some aspects of the score: Who has the melody in the first few bars? In what measures do you all play the same rhythm? On which beats do you all have the same rests? She asked very specific and relevant questions, and I was so impressed with the student’s quick responses and willingness to learn. They clearly understand that knowing all of these things will help make them communicate better as a group and play more musically. A few more minutes of musical discussion and planning, and then the highlight of my day – the fourth movement of Beethoven’s first piano trio starts with an up-tempo piano introduction and the strings come in shortly with a similar musical line. They began to play, and my jaw dropped. This is complicated music! It’s Beethoven! And here, a group of musicians all under the age of fifteen were making such mature musical decisions and playing with fantastic technique! I was enthralled. As they continued to play, I could sense the group’s mindset. Everyone understood he/she had a role, and was determined to play that role to the best of his/her ability.
Elaine did stop them and rehearse several times, speaking in technical and demanding terms because she knows their capability as a group and has clearly set a very high standard. It was great to witness the progress they made as an ensemble over the course of an hour. They truly are very talented young musicians.
As we left MIC that night, the rain didn’t bother me as much and I had new energy. There is something about seeing enthusiastic teachers and talented students that really assures me that chamber music (and for that matter, classical music) holds a very significant role in our society. It provides a meaningful bond between people, allows younger people to communicate in new ways, and gives teachers the ability to pass down what they have learned throughout the years.