On Chamber Music, Trust, and Empathy

In summers, I often teach at chamber music festivals for young musicians. It is some of the most rewarding work I do. Recently at one of these festivals, I spent a few days working with a group that had a difficult time communicating with one another. Over the course of just a few days working toward a common goal, with some advice from their coaches, they began to listen to each other and freely share ideas.

On our last day together, the group played a run-through that went spectacularly well and I responded in a way that has become habitual for me: I complimented them on their successes and then told them something they could improve upon. One of the members responded despondently, “…but I thought that was perfect…”

I took a moment to think, and decided to be completely honest with them. “I don’t believe in perfect.” I said, “Your performance later today will be totally different from the way you just played. The adults who will be in the audience sometimes fight with each other, and it’s easy for us to forget how to work together on things. I know that when your parents see you listening to each other, adjusting to one another, having each other’s backs, and working together to build something beautiful, they are going to be so proud of you, and hopefully it will remind them of how important it is for them to be kind to one another.”

Without missing a beat one of the other members of the group said, “sometimes my mom fights with the washing machine…”

It took me several minutes before I was able to stop laughing and get back to work.

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ABOVE: Civic Fellow Philip Bergman | Photo by Tori Rogers.

This story is a distillation of why I love chamber music.

The fact that we exist is incredible. The fact that we are conscious is impossibly unlikely. The idea that a few sentient beings would spend part of their precious lives making abstract sounds with each other, responding to those sounds, and debating the meaning of these abstract sounds with their spoken language? This is a preposterously unthinkable idea. Everything that goes into the ability to assemble a piece of chamber music is nothing short of a miracle.

Of course, many of these concepts are present in other types of music. The soloist seeks to make their music comprehensible to an audience. An orchestral musician is constantly responding to the sights and sounds surrounding them. The thing that makes chamber music exceptional is that each member gets a say in the musical output. The soloist has no one to negotiate with during their creative process. The orchestra has a built-in hierarchy of artistic input and leadership (though I could write another entire article about the benefits of learning to give oneself up to the orchestral organism). The chamber ensemble is a fully democratic institution, wherein each member has equal say in the final product.

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ABOVE: Civic Fellows perform Schubert’s Octet in F Major at the Zhou B Art Center (2018).

I have heard it said that watching improv comedy is like watching people assemble an airplane in mid-air. I have a similar feeling when I watch chamber music concerts. Obviously these performances are rehearsed, but in the best chamber concerts the ensemble is reacting spontaneously to one another; constantly challenging each other.

This requires an incredible amount of trust. It is easy to think that due to the indirect nature of music, one would feel safer sharing their perspective through it rather than through speech, but often this actually makes music feel more personal. Without words to hide behind, we can feel even more vulnerable. It doesn’t take long to get to know someone when you play chamber music with them. Being a good colleague in a chamber ensemble requires you to be able to represent your own ideas clearly, understand your colleagues’ points of view, and lovingly find solutions when disagreements arise.

ABOVE: Civic Fellow Philip Bergman | Photo by Christina Tarn.

Often these negotiations happen non-verbally. When you attend a chamber concert, you are hearing negotiations play out in real time. You can hear when a musician has strong feelings about a certain perspective. Some of the most fun moments in rehearsals and concerts occur when the entire group is inherently drawn toward one individual’s compelling idea. Of course, the risk we run when taking a stand on an idea is that it will be ignored – or worse – dismissed. This is why it is so crucial for chamber musicians to learn how to disagree with one another empathetically.

This is the real reason I love to play chamber music. All interactions with music teach empathy. The ability for the audience to understand the soloist is directly tied to their capacity for empathy. An orchestral musician’s ability to respond to their fellow musicians comes from their ability to empathize. Chamber music continues to teach me these kinds of empathy but also gives me the tools to share and discuss firmly held ideals, difficult emotional reactions, and abstract concepts all while acknowledging and respecting the perspectives and the humanity of the people around me.

By Civic Fellow and cello Philip Bergman.

TOP: Cover Art from String Quartet No. 1. Frank Hovart, 1996.