Like so many classically trained cellists, improvising was never something that I felt very comfortable trying. And although most of my professional life has been in the world of new music, improvisation was not something that I had explored in depth until a few years ago.
My improvisational journey began literally the day after my final day with the Kronos Quartet when I played a concert at The Stone in New York with John Zorn and several others on one of his monthly improv nights. For those of you who have never been to one, the way that these concerts work is that everyone sits downstairs in the basement and one by one people decide in the moment who plays with whom. It can be duos, trios or quartets – you literally have no idea what you are playing or whom you are playing with until two seconds before walking upstairs. Everyone then comes together at the end to play in one giant improv. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was taking my first step into a new world that, over time, has increasingly become a large part of my performing life.
TALKING AND LISTENING
A few days after the Stone show, Zorn and I grabbed some sushi together. One of the questions he had for me was, being fully aware of my rookie status as an improvisor, how I felt about improvising a few nights before. I responded by saying that I had made an interesting discovery about myself. I had learned that when I improvised with people I didn’t know, my musical behavior was no different than the conversation that I would have had if I were meeting people for the first time. I am much better in smaller groups, but when the groups get larger I tend to listen more than talk. This was exactly what happened when I was improvising.
Some time later I put together a concert as part of VisionIntoArt’s Ferus Festival at the Stone. The group was comprised of Vijay Iyer, Scott Colley and Satoshi Takeshi. These were all individuals that I had long admired and I was thrilled when everyone agreed to play. However, about two weeks before the show, I began to have a bit of a panic. After all, these are some of the best improvisers around. What was I thinking putting myself on stage with these master improvisors?
When we began playing together it sounded…GREAT! At that moment I knew what I needed to do. I would just lay back and let everyone else do they’re thing. They will sound great and I can just ride on their coat tails. What a great plan!
While we were playing, at some point I made a very minute change in what I was doing…immediately the entire group made a shift in the texture. Oh no – they are actually listening to me too! My plan was ruined.
I was literally shocked by the heightened level that Vijay, Scott and Satoshi were listening at. I have spent most of my career as a chamber musician playing at most of the major concert halls around the world. I had never played with musicians that were that closely tuned in to the nuances of everyone’s playing. Without a doubt this level of engagement would tremendously benefit any musician or chamber group regardless of what repertoire they were playing.
Over the years I have found that the best improvisors are also the very best listeners.
MAKE A PLAN. BUT BE FLEXIBLE: PLANS OFTEN CHANGE IN THE HEAT OF THE MOMENT
Part of the reason why classical musicians don’t want to improvise is that we are conditioned to fear making mistakes. Our job is to develop an interpretation with integrity and then attempt to execute it to perfection whenever we perform. When this works, the performance can be sublime. In our lessons we are told to vibrate on every note, to play the exact same bowings all of the time, not to play the wrong articulation, not to put the accents in the wrong place and to absolutely only play the correct notes. When we improvise, which ones are the correct notes?!
I am not saying that there are no mistakes when you improvise. But I have discovered over the years that often things that may immediately feel like they might be mistakes are actually opportunities to allow the music to evolve.
Several years ago I formed a trio with the German pianist Hauschka and the Finnish drummer Samuli Kosminen. We call ourselves H K Z. I love playing in this group. Hauschka and Samuli are both brilliant musicians and master improvisors. I have learned a great deal working with those two. Whenever we play together we always make a plan. We have yet to actually stick to the plan.
Last Fall we played two concerts in Berlin at Radialsystem V. The shows were packed and went very well. In our sound checks, after we had checked all of our microphones and effects units, we would generally just begin playing together in order to feel each other out. Often these improvisations are the best because you have zero expectations since it isn’t the actual concert. For this reason, it is not uncommon to stumble upon perhaps the most magical moment that you could ever imagine.
But then what do you do next? Do you try to recreate the same magic in the concert? Sounds like a reasonable idea. But I will tell you this, every single time that I have ever tried to recreate a magical moment in a concert it has fallen flat…every…single…time. Why does that happen?
It is just like taking a walk through the woods. You are only following your imagination and then unexpectedly you find a clearing that leads to the most incredible view you had ever seen. The next day you come back and make your way to the same spot. But this time you go more directly because you know where you are going. It is still nice, but the magic of stumbling upon that moment will never be the same. A mentor of mine once told me that “Life never turns out the way you planned. But it always works out.” I have found this definitely to be true.
After several decades of exploring the outer limits of music, I have thoroughly enjoyed returning to my classical roots teaching at Mannes College the New School for Music. My students are very talented and I enjoy exploring the possibilities of the cello with them. After spending so many years drawing outside of the lines, I definitely see the benefits for students to be able to explore this area of playing. It heightens one’s level of listening and teaches one all of the skills of chamber music. It also gives performers the ability to successfully turn any unexpected moment on stage into an opportunity for success.
When I reflect upon my studies, this approach does not actually clash with my training as much as it would seem. Paul Katz taught me a great deal about the cello and musicianship. However, I think the greatest gift that he gave me was the importance of listening. In addition to leading to artistic integrity, it also enables one to engage fully in all levels of music making whether you are an orchestral musician, soloist or chamber musician. When I was studying with Janos Starker he would tell us that we should have several different approaches already mapped out and that we should not stick to only one way of playing. This way whenever you perform you have choices. Listen to yourself and to others. Always make a plan, but be flexible.
One of the goals of good teaching is assisting students to develop into interesting, compelling and communicative artists. Of course, there are many influences that create artistic musicians and many of them can be discussed and demonstrated in lessons. However, one of the factors that I believe is extremely important is also one that cannot actually happen in a lesson. For it to get done, you must often rely on the parents of your students or, for collegiate students, the student themselves.
That factor is getting students to attend concerts to hear and watch professional and artistic musicians performing “live”.
Imagine the difference it would make to students who love sports if they could not see great athletes performing. It is relatively easy to see a basketball game, baseball game, tennis match, football game, gymnastic or swim meet, etc. All one has to do is turn on the TV! And yet, going to a sporting event makes a much bigger impression and is more fun that sitting on the couch at home, and certainly is a more dynamic experience than listening to a game on the radio. The same is true of music events. Listening to a recording or live radio concert of a great artist, orchestra or chamber ensemble has many rewarding benefits, but seeing it can be even better. In recent years, it has become possible to see some interesting performances on the internet through sites like You Tube. Especially interesting are the concert videos featuring legendary performers who have passed away. But, watching a video just is not the same experience as going to hear a live performance and being part of the audience. And unlike sporting events, concerts on television are relatively few and far between…..especially concerts of chamber music.
Artistry is often necessarily a part of studio teaching that is generally taught to more advanced players. There are so many issues that need to be covered in a lesson that artistry is frequently ignored or at least put on the back burner. However, there is a way to start teaching artistry to even beginning students….Concerts!….getting them to hear and see concerts! Much like a picture is worth a thousand words, so too is concert attendance. The more concerts a student can attend, the more they can learn. Orchestra concerts are fun, exciting and large scale. Many students play in youth symphonies and can benefit greatly by hearing a professional caliber orchestra concert. However, individual artistry is hard to observe and though there is often a soloist who is usually a great player and often a great artist, they most often have to be observed from afar.
On the other hand, chamber music concerts are almost always in more intimate spaces allowing students to observe up close just what artistic playing is all about. Tickets are usually far less expensive than orchestra concerts and some are even free. In addition, many chamber music concerts feature unreserved seating. This means that if you arrive a little bit early, you can get the best seats in the house and sit very close to the artists if you so choose, sometimes even right on the stage with them! You can literally feel the artistic intentions of the musicians and observe how they approach their instrument from a technical point of view. A motivated student can observe each player for many things such as the bow hold, vibrato, use of color in the sound, cueing, breathing and other communication techniques among the performers and sometimes even how they put markings in the music. A good chamber music concert not only has great music as a part of it, but also can cause audience members to feel a direct and personal connection to the artists on stage. There can even be a personal connection made through eye contact during moments of applause. As a bonus, many chamber music concerts also have post-concert receptions where audience members can not only have a delicious snack (a big draw for some younger students!), but also have an extended conversation with some or all of the musicians who just played. All of these things can have a significant and lasting impression on students and significantly affect how they grow artistically and what they strive to do when they perform.
The studio teacher can do many things to encourage concert attendance. Chamber music concerts should perhaps be included more often near the top of the list of concerts students should be encouraged to attend. Usually, it makes a bigger impact if specific recommendations are passed along. This can be done in many ways, and often the best strategy is to employ more than one. For instance, teachers can inform students and/or their parents of concerts via email and Face book, a prepared list printed out on a sheet of paper, flyers for concerts posted at the teaching studio itself and personal verbal reminders. Some teachers may want to consider requiring that their students attend a certain number of concerts each year. This sends a message that the teacher really does feel it is truly important to the development of their students.
To find out what chamber music concerts are going on, the “entertainment” section of newspapers, flyers in violin shops and at universities, magazines, and the web all are excellent sources of information. Most students and their families are very busy with day-to- day events and it is often hard for them to squeeze in yet another music activity. Some have parents who like to go to concerts, have the financial means to do so, and bring their kids along. Others are less into doing that, or simply can’t swing it logistically. For those students, carpools are an often-overlooked possibility. A small group of students can go to a concert together with only one parent as a “chaperone”. Another thing that can make a big impact is a concert “field trip” with the studio teacher. There may be a concert by a particular artist or chamber music ensemble that the teacher wants to attend. This can be a great opportunity to bring their students with them. With some advance planning, group tickets can be purchased if necessary, and students can attend without their parents. It can make a lasting impression on students, especially if the teacher can lead the group after the concert to meet the artists. Then, in subsequent lessons, that particular concert and traits that were observed can be referenced in helping the student to strive for artistic excellence.
There is one final thing that can result from having students attend chamber music concerts. It can give them the desire to play in a chamber music group if they don’t already do so. For those that already do, it can be a tremendous way to learn how to improve their ensemble playing. For all it can help to develop opinions on what styles of playing they desire to emulate, and learn about repertoire they look forward to playing. One of the great benefits of playing a string instrument is having the opportunity to play the enormous and amazing repertoire of chamber music masterpieces. Teachers can really influence the type of ensemble playing they encourage their students to take part in. All are wonderful, but chamber music can push their musical and ensembles skills forward faster than most. Usually, the first step is getting students to the concerts…events that are truly worth a thousand words.
Today’s Blog is devoted to some thumb position exercises by Diran Alexanian that my teacher in Freiburg, Spanish cellist Marcal Cervera, gave to me in 1972. These exercises are not in included in Alexanian’s seminal book on cello technique, Traite Theorique et Pratique du Violoncelle (Theoretical and practical treatise of the violoncello).Alexanian’s book includes several pages of other thumb position exercises (pages 125 ff.) which are well worth practicing, but I believe that these 13 exercises have never actually been published. I do not know how Cervera got these exercises, but I copied them from his notebook, and studied them with him. I find them to be very useful.
Alexanian was born in Armenia in 1881. He became Casals’ assistant at the École Normale de Musique in Paris. His treatise was endorsed by Casals (on the cover it says “compiled in complete accord with Pablo Casals”), and in the preface Casals writes:
“When Alexanian submitted to me a well elaborated plan for the analysis of the theory of violoncello playing, based on principals that I myself accept, I recognized that I had before me a serious effort towards the casting off of the shackles of the superannuated prejudices with which the above mentioned works were replete…I would therefore recommend to all those who play or who wish to play the violoncello to imbue themselves thoroughly with the contents of this treatise”.
Alexanian’s students included Bernard Greenhouse, David Soyer, George Ricci, Raya Garbousova, David Wells, and Mischa Schneider in the US, and Gabriel Cusson, Maurice Eisenberg, Antonio Janigro, Gregor Piatigorsky, Hidayat Inayat Khan, Pierre Fournier, and Emmanuel Feuermann in Paris.
For more information about Alexanian, you can go to these websites:
These following 13 exercises all deal with opening up the hand in thumb position, and as such, they would be useful only after the basic thumb position formation (discussed in Blogs #19 and #20) is secure.
For seven long minutes he stood. Then he stirred
And he said to the bear, “do you know what I heard?
Do you see that far mountain…? It’s ninety miles off.
There’s a fly on that mountain. I just heard him cough!
Now the cough of a fly, sir, is quite hard to hear
When he’s ninety miles off. But I heard it quite clear.” Dr. Suess
In Dr. Suess’s story, “The Big Brag”, the rabbit goes on and on about how well he can hear. Of course, that is not the point of the story, which is about how dumb it is to brag about how great you are. (That is a possible topic for another article…not that musicians ever do that!). But it does have an important message that many musicians, especially younger musicians need to learn. Our ears are remarkable and can hear at an amazing level of detail. But it is also remarkable how poorly many music students really listen.
Although it seems obvious, a huge part of musical training involves getting our ears to listen to what our ears are hearing while we are playing our instruments. Fortunately, many students are actively encouraged to do this by their teachers. An equally or perhaps more important part of listening education involves how to teach a student to listen to their self as well as the other musicians playing in a group with them. This is not the type of listening that is commonly focused on in individual music lessons. Hopefully, youth orchestra conductors do this. But they cannot really work with the individuals in great detail. But, a good chamber music coach can work on this in great detail. This is another tremendous benefit to having young musicians play chamber music.
Listening to oneself:
In a chamber music group, each member must listen very carefully to themselves.
Many of the listening issues are the same as in solo playing. They include such things as good intonation, good use of dynamics, quality of sound, color of sound, choice of vibrato, types of articulation, bow proportioning and what part of the bow to use, tempo, good rhythmic accuracy, choices of where to use rubato and simply being sure to play all the right notes. One of the truly interesting and often startling things about playing chamber music is that one could come to rehearsal wonderfully prepared in all of the just mentioned topics, and yet have to make changes to nearly all of them!
Listening to those around you:
Everything your hands do to play your instrument is guided by signals the brain sends them, based on what your ears tell the brain is needed. In a chamber music group of inexperienced players, it can be obvious that some or all of the players are not in sync with each other, or are only listening to themselves or part of the total group. One person might be behind the beat, or playing an altogether different tempo than the rest of the group. Or, they might be in the right tempo and playing all of their rhythms perfectly, but not in a way that lines up with the beat that the others are playing to. Sometimes I am amazed at how a young musician can do that. There are composers, like Charles Ives that deliberately compose a particular part to make it sound like it is unassociated in any way with the others. It often takes a group with tremendous rhythmic skills, determination, and rehearsal time to pull that off. Yet, inexperienced players often do that without even hearing that they are off from the rest of the group. Another interesting hearing issue is intonation. A note that might sound wonderful in a solo context might be horribly sharp or flat in the context of vertical intonation that is so often required for good ensemble intonation. Unless the player is listening to the entire structure of the intonation, they won’t be able to adjust. Matching ones vibrato to others is also a matter that is often not listened for. When it comes to interpreting the length or articulations of notes, unless one watches for and listens to differences, those things will go un-unified. One of the roles of the coach is to help all members of the group learn to recognize and self-correct many of these issues. If any one player fails to do that, the group cannot reach it’s potential.
Adjusting ones playing to fit the context of the music:
One of the most difficult areas to excel at as a chamber musician is knowing how to use voicing in the group. It can be confusing to an inexperienced player to know what to do, and is always a matter of opinion, know matter at what level a group plays at. For example, take a passage marked with a piano dynamic. It is rare that each player in a group would actually play their part in exactly the same dynamic. So many issues are at play here. The goal is for the audience to always be able to hear the primary voice. Which instrument and in what register that instrument is playing the primary voice will totally determine what the others must do. On top of that, the actually tonal capabilities of a players’ particular instrument needs to be noticed and adjusted for. A melody in the low register of the cello in the context of a piano trio will almost always need to be louder than it would be in a string trio. The melody might jump from one player to the next. To attain the proper voicing from an audience perspective might perhaps require the first violin to play piano, the violist forte and the 2nd violin mezzo forte.
One good way of getting a group to think about this is to give the example of a solo pianist playing a sonata. It is easily understandable to see how within one dynamic that a pianist would have a specific finger play louder than another, or how they might bring out or subdue certain notes to make it all sound the way they conceive it in their ear. But, a solo pianist’s job is easy in comparison to a string quartet for example. The pianist has only one brain to process the sound. A string quartet has four. The pianist has only one opinion. A string quartet has four. The pianist has only one place they are listening to the sound from. A string quartet has four, and beyond that, some players are closer to their sound than others, and the sound goes out to the audience from different distances. Achieving this balance takes teamwork, experience, problem solving, and most of all, great listening skills. (This is yet another way playing chamber music can help gain skills needed in other aspects of life!).
Besides having a coach help achieve this balance, there are several ways the members of the ensemble need to listen. One is for each player to be carefully listening to themselves. There are two others that I think are very effective ways of increasing listening skills, both of which require imagination and instinct, and are highly subjective. One is for each player to listen to the group as a whole, as if their sounds are all meeting in a large sphere hovering above and just in front of the group. It is almost as if there is a virtual microphone hanging in front of the group that each player plays to. Another very interesting concept is for each player to imagine they have 2 sets of ears….their own attached to their head, and a remote set that are perched above a seat in the audience that send back signals as to how things sound out in the hall. I realize this is in some ways a strange concept to explain, but I also think it vitally important to how each member of the group and the entire group sounds. After all, the goal is to make the piece sound right to the audience.
Adjusting one’s playing to the acoustics of the performance space:
One added complication is that almost always, for chamber ensembles the performance space and its acoustics are different than the performance space. Major orchestras often get around this difficulty by owning or leasing the concert hall in which they give most of their concerts. Just the same, they also may travel, and will need to be making adjustments to their playing from one city to the next. Chamber ensembles may find they need to adjust such things as tempo, voicing, articulations, etc. when they get into a new space. For groups with piano, this is even more complicated, as the pianist may need to make all sorts of adjustments to their playing compared to their practice or rehearsal piano. Although not always possible, a set of real ears from a trusted coach or colleague out in the hall can really help, assuming the group does get to “try the hall” before the performance. And, there is no substitute for experience. The more types of acoustics a group experiences, the more likely they will be to make decisions that work based upon what they each are hearing and listening to.
Chances are, Dr. Suess’s rabbit would have made a lousy chamber musician. Even though he had such a great set of ears and knew how to use them, it took him seven whole minutes to hear that fly cough. A good chamber musician might need to know what he or she heard in less than seven milliseconds! On top of that, he was too arrogant and obnoxious to be a colleague that would be tolerable for very long in a chamber music group…but that is another issue altogether!
When violinists are asked what part they prefer to play in chamber music, there are often just two answers. I wish more often that there were three common answers, but more on that later.
Some like to feel like they are the star, and so they want to play 1st violin. Others are either unwilling or unable to take on the 1st violin part which often features the most virtuosic part writing in the strings and so they choose 2nd violin.
The irony in that decision is that playing 2nd violin well in a chamber ensemble requires a skill set that is in many ways more difficult than what the 1st violin is required to do. And, it is very different than in orchestra, where the individual player can and often should blend into the section. In a chamber ensemble, the second violinist has tremendous responsibilities.
Here are some examples:
- Setting the tempo. Although the tune at the beginning of a piece may not be in the 2nd violin, the inner rhythm is often in the second violin. In those situations, that player controls the actual tempo of the piece. A great example of that is Beethoven’s Quartet in F, Opus 59 #1, where the cello has the tune, but the 2nd violin and viola have the eighth notes under the tune, and therefore are really in control. By the way, the 1st violin doesn’t play anything at the beginning of that piece!
- Having a very strong personality from the stage. In a good group, all the players have distinct and interesting personalities from the stage. But, because there is another violinist who sits in front of the 2nd violin, AND who has their part written in a better register for projection than the 2nd violin, AND whose part is often more “showy” than the 2nd violin, the 2nd violin needs to play with more character and power than would possibly make sense if they were playing the 1st violin part. A great example of this occurs in the last page of the finale of Beethoven’s Quartet in C, Opus 59, #3.
- Understanding the emotional context the harmony plays in a quartet. Often, this difficult tasked is placed upon the second violinist. A great example of this is the first movement of Schubert’s quartet in A minor. Many students only see the pages of running 16ths and think “they don’t have anything”. While it may seem that they don’t, what is more accurate is that they don’t have much melody. What they do have is the heart and soul of the music. Every one of those 16ths relates to and affects the melody in both subtle and bold ways. Those 16th notes are actually the most interesting part of the four in that very beautiful work.
- Understanding how to adjust thirds and sevenths in chords so that the group intonation works. The second violin more often than not is given a note other than the root or the fifth in chord writing. This means that most of the time, the second violinist will need to be the one to alter their note to fit the vertical intonation required of good ensembles. Take the example of a standard C Major chord. The cello will have the low C….an open string. The viola will have a low G, also an open string and (hopefully!) a perfect fifth above the cello. The 1st violin will have either a C or G in the melody and will have an open string in the cello or viola to match to. That leaves the 2nd violin with an E natural to fill out the chord. If the 2nd violinist plays an open E, or matches an open E, they will sound out of tune (quite sharp!). This is one of the great difficulties of quartet intonation. Thirds and sevenths almost always need to be slightly low to sound in tune in the chord. While all four players need to understand this, it is the 2nd violin part that usually requires this more often than the other parts.
Earlier in the article, I mentioned that I wished there was a third response to which part in a chamber ensemble violinists would like to play. That third answer, which is a choice that from my perspective is not heard enough is: “I want to play the viola!!”
The viola is an awesome instrument that is fun to play, often has spectacularly gorgeous part writing, is uniquely colorful and is much like a good character actor in a movie….interesting…..vital to the whole….but not the main star. Yet, the honest truth about most pre-college chamber ensembles (and youth orchestras) is that there simply are not enough good violists to go around. There are many reasons for this that are too complex to go into in this article with any detail. But some of the obvious ones include that many more students start on the violin (especially in Suzuki programs), there is more quality solo repertoire for the violin, the viola projects with more difficulty than the violin, and there are many more violin teachers than viola teachers.
There is a relatively easy solution to this problem, and some regions of the country have figured it out at the pre-college level.
In some ways, I have a unique window on the nation’s pre-college chamber music scene. For over thirty-five years now, I have been the Artistic Director of The Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition. That competition remains unique in that it is the only major chamber music competition in the world with a pre-college division. As such, I have watched the amazing evolution of the nation’s pre-college chamber music movement as it has grown both in scope and quality, and also have observed what cities and programs seem to always have wonderful violists for their pre-college ensembles. The answer to this is often that the top violin teachers in those cities or programs not only allow their students to try viola, but often require it.
It is also very common at that competition for the top groups in the pre-college level to have players switch instruments from one piece to another. So for example, the 2nd violin will move over to viola, the 1st violin will become 2nd violin, and the violist will then play 1st violin. They will all take turns playing each part. Of course not all groups do this, but a surprisingly large number do. The result is equally strong players on all three parts, and students who learn and understand the differing but equally important roles those parts have in a good chamber ensemble. They are better musicians for it! A well coached group will get the best player on a particular piece in the most suitable chair. For example, if the viola part is especially dynamic, such as in the Smetana E minor Quartet or the B-flat Brahms Quartet, the strongest player will be on viola.
As a pre-college chamber music coach, I do often ask violinists to try the viola for a piece. I do this for several reasons, including the fact that in this region of the country, there are too few good pre-college violists. (It is true in the region’s youth orchestras as well.) Of course, the results can vary. Some students immediate love the different sound and physical sensation the viola has compared to violin. Some enjoy being in a position of less audience scrutiny than 1st violin, and revel in the role they play in adding color and depth to the quartet sound. Some love the often quirky part writing that violas get to enjoy. I find that most often, a student will start with reluctance, and usually end up enjoying playing the viola. Learning a new clef is challenging for the first week or two, but is almost always quickly overcome. Some end up permanently switching, or at least playing viola all the time in chamber ensemble or orchestra while still playing violin as their solo instrument. It is also wise to have students to start playing on relatively small violas, to minimize the slightly different issues that arise in left hand position. I have found that overall, intonation issues are not nearly as significant as people assume they will be….the ear leads the left hand to play in tune.
Students who learn to play both instruments well gain a lot. They not only become more versatile artists, but they can play leadership roles as violists in orchestra as well as chamber music. Music schools and colleges around the country often seek good violists and often offer scholarships to those that are violists or play both violin and viola. At the professional level, I believe many orchestra viola sections have players who start out as violinists. In many professional touring string quartets, including some of the greatest in the world, the violist was or still may be a violinist.
If you are a student who plays violin….I encourage you to give the viola a chance! If you are a violin teacher with students ready for a chamber music group and all the benefits that experience will give your students….I encourage you to urge them to try the viola. If you are a chamber music coach, try to create violists!
Many violinists quickly learn to enjoy playing viola and happily play it some of the time. Of course, not all students who agree to try the viola (or are required to by their teachers) do well. Some never sound right or get comfortable. And…..some truly fall in love with the viola, realize they were meant to play the viola and make the permanent switch. So remember….there are three parts every violinist can play in a chamber music group…..choose that often overlooked third one and see what amazing things might happen!
100 Cello Warm-ups and Exercises Blog 19: Cello Geography -Part 5: Thumb Position and the Upper Registers
Blogs #15 and #16 discussed the geography of the lower regions of the cello. In sorting out the “latitude” and “longitude” in this part of the instrument the main organizing principle is the knowledge and use of positions. We identify the positions by the location of the first finger on the string up through Seventh position, with “normal” and “extended” variants throughout. When the first finger is playing the A in seventh position on the A string the thumb is still behind the neck – so this is still considered neck position. Seventh position is a significant place on the cello, because it divides the string into two equal parts, and as a result we find the A harmonic there as well.
After seventh position, the thumb is used as a finger up on the fingerboard. (It can also be used on the fingerboard in the lower part of the cello, and is employed there very often for octaves, double stops and special fingerings, even in literature as far back as Boccherini and Haydn.) When the thumb is up on the fingerboard we call it thumb position. I described the basic outline of the thumb in thumb position in Blog #18 (the “inny and the outy”, the C-shape, the Perfect Fourth between the thumb and the third finger, etc.)
The organizing principles of geography in thumb position are different from those of the neck region. We don’t identify positions in the upper part of the cello. Instead, there are three important techniques for understanding location and for navigating around in the cello’s upper regions.
1. Using nodes and other fixed points for reference
2. Measuring distances:
a) understanding and using intervals
b) the “Configuration of the Hand” across string
3. Using the basic thumb position, as described above, and organizing the finger spacing with tetrachords
1. Using nodes for reference
We use the harmonic nodes on the cello in the upper positions as a fixed reference in our GPS system to locate where we are. Most cellists are aware of the second harmonic, because that is often used to help tune the instrument. For example, on the A string the second harmonic is the A in seventh position, which divides the string in two parts. (The first harmonic is actually the open string; the second harmonic is also called the first overtone – but rather than confusing things further I will just refer to these as harmonics!). The 3rd harmonic on the A string is the E that divides the string into three parts. The 4th harmonic is the A that divides the string into four parts, and the 5th harmonic is the C# that divides the string into five parts.
Below is a simple chart that shows the most important harmonic nodes. The view here is looking down the cello towards the bridge (bottom up). There are many more harmonics on the string than indicated, but these are the most important nodes to use as points of reference. Naturally these harmonics repeat themselves in mirror image going up the string (but we don’t need them right now for this discussion about thumb position). We need to practice finding these nodes using muscle memory with a certain amount of rote practicing, so that we can locate them easily. The 3rd, 4th and 5th harmonics should become as easily accessible as the 2ndharmonic.
Another piece of information that is useful is to know is what note is right at the end of your fingerboard. Usually it is an F or F#, though depending on the length of your fingerboard it could range from an E to a G.
Once you know where the harmonic nodes are, or knowing what the note is when you put your finger right on the edge of the fingerboard, you can find other notes around by using the second method mentioned above:
2a. Measuring distances – understanding and using intervals
The second important system for understanding the geography of the instrument is to know the distances between notes in different parts of the fingerboard. Basically we measure distances from the node to a note, or from one note to the next. Our unit of measurement is the interval. Unlike the piano, where the distance between half steps remains constant through all 7+ octaves, on the cello a half step (or any interval) gets smaller as you go up the string. This is why it is so important to do scales and arpeggios in all keys in the upper part of the cello – to know and feel the distance of a whole step or a half step, or a minor third or a perfect fourth all over the cello.
Since the basic thumb position involves a perfect fourth between the thumb and third finger, it is important to do exercises for sensitizing this distance all over the cello. A great warmup is to do the Feuillard thumb position scales (#26) and the arpeggios (#27) in every key:
Practicing octaves is important for the same reason, since the octave shape across strings in thumb position is the same as a perfect fourth on one string. Similarly, it is great to practice artificial harmonics to maintain the P4 hand position on one string. So, practicing artificial harmonics is a great way to reinforce octaves, and vice versa. And both are great for maintaining the all-important relationship between the thumb and third finger.
It is critical for cellists to know the sound and spacing of the intervals all over the cello, both on one string and across strings. I like to do whole tone scales and chromatic scales to focus on whole steps and half step distances up the cello.
Two other warm-up exercises that I like to do are great to focus on intervals and distances going up a string: an octotonic scale (alternating whole and half steps), and a diminished seventh arpeggio with a replacement fingering to sensitize the distance of the ascending and descending minor thirds.
2b. Configuration of the Hand
Knowing the intervals and distances on one string is vital in understanding the geography of the upper part of the cello. But one still needs to know how notes relate across the strings. For this it is important to understand the intervals that are created when you play two notes on two neighboring strings. I address this with a system that I call the “Configuration of the Hand”, in which we explore all the combinations of the fingers across two strings. Here is a chart with all the combinations of the fingers for playing different intervals. Notice that the fingerings are reversible for fourths and sixths, and for thirds and sevenths (in reading the fingerings, the first number is for the finger is on the lower string, the second number is for the finger on the higher string. For example, 3-1 means 3rd finger on the D string and 1st finger on the A string, producing a P4).
It is important to know these fingering combinations for playing across strings in the upper part of the cello.
As discussed previously, it is important that the basic thumb position is stable and consistent. In other words:
- the octave or P4 relationship between the thumb and 3rd finger must be clear and the intonation solid
- the “inny and the outy” shape of the thumb must be consistent
- there should be a C-shape between the thumb and the first finger so that the knuckles are not squashed down
- the fingers should be round
- and the fingers should be strong enough so that joints don’t collapse.
The next important step in creating a usable thumb position is figuring out the spacing between the other fingers within the octave (or P4) frame. Since we can play four notes with the four fingers in thumb position (using thumb, 1,2,3) it is useful to identify the various possibilities as tetrachords (four note groupings), giving them names. The most common tetrachords are:
Major: W W h
Minor: W h W
Modal (Phrygian): h W W
Octotonic: h W h
(W=whole step; h=half-step; A=Augmented 2nd)
Notice the relationship of the first three to the Marys that were discussed in an earlier Blog (#17) – the intervals from the bottom up are the same. All of them are named after the scales that they initiate. The Harmonic Minor Tetrachord is used in minor scales, with an Augmented Second between the 2nd and 3rd fingers:
Harmonic Minor: h A h
We also have Tetrachords in which the interval between the thumb and the 3rdfinger is bigger or smaller than our standard octave or P4. For example the Chromatic Tetrachord, the Lydian Tetrachord (named after scales that begin this way). The Gypsy Tetrachord, and two others are used less often in western music, but they do occur and it is useful to practice them.
Chromatic: h h h
Lydian (whole tone): W W W
Gypsy: W h A
W h h
h h W
I find it helpful to do a variety of different scales in thumb position, recognizing that scales are made up of two tetrachords. In the following chart I present some of the many possibilities of scale systems using thumb position tetrachords. The first three are symmetrical scales, with the same tetrachord on both strings. The others use a variety of combinations of tetrachords. They should be practiced in all keys going up the cello. The ( w ) or (h) in the middle column indicates the interval (whole step or half step) between the third finger and the thumb as we cross strings. In the Locrian, Whole Tone and Octotonic scales the thumb has to move back a half-step during the string crossing. In the Octotonic scale we need to use the 4th finger as well.
Of course sometimes the interval between the thumb and 3rd finger will be much bigger than a P4 (as in the examples of the Locrian, Whole Tone and Octotonic scales above) – often we may need a 5th or a 6th. In playing 10ths across the string, such as in the Haydn D-major concerto, we are playing a distance of a 6th on the top string between the thumb and third fingers, or an octave between the thumb and first finger across the string. Any interval is possible between the thumb and the third finger on the same string, up to (or perhaps more than) an octave. This will be discussed next Blog on the Alexanian exercises.
Analyzing passages in the repertoire using Tetrachords can be very useful. For example, in this passage from the 3rd movement of the Saint-Saens Concerto we can see that there are groupings of Major Tetrachords, Minor Tetrachords, Octotonic Tetrachords and Modal (Phrygian) Tetrachords. The numbers in this example show the fingering patterns; the colored lines show the tetrachords (not the bowings).
In the second half of this passage the thumb works like a percussive finger, lifting each time it moves back. More about this in the next blog (#20) with exercises by Alexanian for the moveable thumb.
Reprinted from The Violin Channel February 4, 2016
Read this wonderful news from the Violin Channel and then go change.org and sign the petition insisting that WestJet Airlines also adopt Industry standards for accommodating musical instruments. Together we can make a difference – Thank you!
Norwegian Air has today announced a new official cabin-baggage policy – allowing violins and violas to be brought onboard as hand luggage.
The policy change comes after an expose was posted on The Violin Channel on January 20th – which to date has received over 160,000 page views, and more than 400 comments, 3000 social media shares and 15,000 Facebook likes.
“We understand that sometimes you’ll want to bring your instrument with you onboard … if you’re traveling with a larger instrument, such as a violin or a viola, then you can bring this instead of a carry-on bag,” the new policy has officially stated.
“If your instrument’s bigger than 90cm x 35cm x 20cm and you’d like it to travel in the cabin, you must book a separate seat for this,” the new rules have outlined.
The social media furor erupted after an incident in Copenhagen on January 19th where Principal Second Violinist with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Ari Vilhjamsson was informed his violin, valued at over 200,000 EUR (US $220,000) ‘must without exception be stowed in the cargo’.
The Violin Channel’s October 2nd, 2014 coverage of Air Canada’s inconsistent viola policy received over 4000 social media shares, 200,000 page views and 33,000 Facebook likes – leading to the airline also promptly readdressing their stance.
Power to the people.
Nathan Chan, a young student cellist at the Juilliard School, was recently prevented from boarding a WestJet flight because he was traveling with his cello – even though he had purchased a ticket for the instrument in advance.
WestJet, whose policy is clearly out of step with virtually all other airlines, refuses to budge, and thus prevents musicians from doing their jobs.
In February 2014, the International Music Federation adopted a regulation facilitating the transport of musical instruments in cabins:
Then, in a December 2014 ruling, The U.S. Dept. of Transportation stated,
“Carriers are required to carry large musical instruments in the cabin if the passenger wishing to carry the instrument in the aircraft cabin has purchased an additional seat to accommodate the instrument […]”:
In light of these regulations, which are followed by virtually every other airline, WestJet Airlines must change its current policy and accommodate for musicians with instruments.
With this petition, I wish to support not only Nathan Chan, a young virtuoso cellist bumped by WestJet, but also every musician around the globe who has experienced horrendous travel problems. WestJet refused to allow Nathan to board even though the instrument had a valid boarding pass that had been purchased and cleared by TSA.
It is my wish that all musicians, locally and globally, are able to travel side-by-side with their treasured instruments. With this petition, we can make a difference, and I ask for your help and the help of all musicians and music lovers worldwide.
Signing the petition takes less than 2 minutes.
If you feel this petition sounds reasonable, vote to support this positive change. Each signature will further encourage WestJet Airlines to take immediate action and change its policy, and to recognize that musicians with instruments are traveling professionals.
On that note, I’d like to thank you each and everyone for reading, signing, sharing/re-posting this petition. Please help spread the word!
A Note from CelloBello:
We salute Air Canada. They offered Nathan Chan and his cello a flight back to YVR after hearing about his experience with WestJet!
“Purchasing a Seat for your Musical Instrument […] If you wish to purchase a seat for your musical instrument, you will receive a 50% discount on any published fare (including the lowest available fare)* to accommodate the instrument in the same cabin you are traveling in.”
Comments from Change.org signers:
“The first sentence on WestJet’s About Page states: “WestJet was founded in 1996 by Clive Beddoe and a team of like-minded partners, who believed that just because you pay less for your flight, doesn’t mean you should get less.” If this still holds true, WestJet should match Air Canada’s policy of allowing musicians to purchase seats for their instruments. WestJet’s current policy is an impediment to musicians’ livelihoods and alienates a group of people who must travel frequently and who may have become frequent fliers on WestJet had this policy not been in place.”
“Canadian-based WestJet Airlines, to my knowledge, is the only airline with an official policy of not allowing a cello onboard, yet they seem to have no problem selling a seat for a cello and then denying boarding at the gate! Read in the Boston Globe how this happened to me in 2013. The situation has been suffered by cellists numerous times since, the latest being Juilliard student Nathan Chan, who I applaud for fighting back! By contrast, competitor Air Canada recently adopted a a “friendly skies” policy towards musical instruments as cabin baggage, even offering seats at 50%, and in the United States, the Passenger Bill of Rights says that airlines must allow the purchase of a ticket for a cello. Lets send letters of outrage to WestJet! Use your Facebook and social media pages to publicize WestJet’s outrageous behavior.”
– Paul Katz
New England Conservatory
Artistic Director, CelloBello.com
Paul Katz says he is ‘outraged’ after WestJet refused a cello in the cabin during a flight from Vancouver, four years after he received the same treatment.
Reprinted from the Vancouver Metro, January 28, 2016
By Thandi Fletcher
A renowned American cellist says he is “outraged” after hearing that WestJet refused to allow a young musician’s cello in the cabin during a recent flight from Vancouver, even though he bought an extra seat for the instrument.
Nearly four years ago, Paul Katz says he received the same treatment. “I get angry,” he told Metro. “I just think WestJet is so indefensible, and their attitude is so cavalier. They’re just so out of step with the whole airline industry.”
Earlier this month, Juilliard School cellist Nathan Chan attempted to bring his cello onto a flight from Vancouver to Toronto but was refused by the airline.
The 22-year-old bought his ticket through American Airlines, which allows passengers travelling with a cello to buy an extra seat for the instrument. When he arrived at the airport, however, he found out that the flight was operated by Calgary-based airline WestJet, and was forced leave the instrument behind with family and forfeit his US$250 ticket for the extra seat. (American Airlines has since reimbursed him for the forfeited ticket after Metro published a story about his experience.)
According to WestJet, the airline is “not licensed to carry anything in our seats that requires a specialized strap or other device to attach it to the seat.”
But Katz argues that WestJet seems to be one of the only airlines in North America with such a policy.
A member of The Cleveland Quartet, a successful but now defunct string quartet, Katz spent nearly 50 years touring the world with his cello in tow.At the height of their touring career, he said he took his cello on more than 200 flights a year, mostly without incident.It was only in 2012, on a WestJet-operated flight from Calgary to Los Angeles, that Katz said he encountered an airline policy that seemed off-key.On that day, Katz had already secured his cello in the seat beside him— the tickets for which he had also booked through American Airlines— when a flight attendant informed him that the instrument would need to be stowed in the cargo hold.Without knowing anyone in Calgary that could hold on to the cello for him, Katz said he eventually agreed to allow the airline to check the instrument.When the plane encountered severe turbulence, Katz said his stomach was in knots throughout the flight, fearing for the safety of the priceless instrument, which was made in 1669. Fortunately, when the plane landed, he said was brought to tears when he opened the case and saw the cello was still in one piece.
“My particular instrument is historic,” he said. “You just cannot take that instrument with that kind of historic significance and leave it to chance. When you own an instrument like that, I think of myself as a caretaker for the next generation. It’s a treasure for humanity and you feel a responsibility to take care of it.” Katz wrote about his experience for the Boston Globe. Soon after, he said he was contacted by an Air Canada flight attendant who told him she was shocked to hear about his experience. She told him that she would take the issue to the airline’s administration and, within a year, Air Canada announced a new policy allowing passengers traveling with a cello to buy an extra seat for their instrument at a 50 per cent discount.In the U.S., an airline passenger’s bill of rights protects passengers wishing to carry a large instrument in the aircraft cabin to purchase an additional seat to accommodate the item.After hearing about Nathan Chan’s experience, Katz said he is shocked that WestJet still hasn’t changed its policy.
“It seems so simple to me that WestJet would just, as a matter of customer relations and its own public image, do the easy thing and change its policy,” he said. “But I don’t know that there are enough cellists in the world to effect a big powerful business like that.”Metro reached out to WestJet about its policy, but the company refused to comment.
Canadian-based WestJet Airlines, to my knowledge, is the only airline with an official policy of not allowing a cello onboard, yet they seem to have no problem selling a seat for a cello and then denying boarding at the gate! Read in the Boston Globe how this happened to me in 2013. The situation has been suffered by cellists numerous times since, the latest being Juilliard student Nathan Chan, who I applaud for fighting back!
By contrast, competitor Air Canada recently adopted a a “friendly skies” policy towards musical instruments as cabin baggage, and in the United States, the Passenger Bill of Rights says that airlines must allow the purchase of a ticket for a cello. Lets get behind Nathan and send letters of outrage to WestJet! Use your Facebook and social media pages to publicize WestJet’s outrageous behavior.
– Paul Katz, Artistic Director and Founder, CelloBello
Reprinted from The Strad Magazine, January 26, 2016
WestJet refuses to allow cello in the cabin – despite musician buying extra seat
Juilliard School cellist Nathan Chan has shared his story in the hope of shining a light on the airline’s policy
Following Norwegian Air’s refusal to transport Helsinki Philharmonic violinist Ari Vilhjalmsson’s $200,000 violin in the cabin – and the airline’s subsequent promise to review its policy in the wake of public condemnation – Juilliard School cellist Nathan Chan (pictured) has published a blog on his website describing a similarly upsetting experience on West Jet.
The young musician booked a flight from Vancouver to New York via Toronto on American Airlines – however, the first leg of his journey was operated by WestJet. Although he had booked an extra seat for his cello for the entire journey the Canadian low cost carrier cited its rule of not allowing cellos on bard because they don’t have ‘specialized tie downs’.
Chan recalls: ‘In what was a very stressful moment, I had to abandon my instrument and leave it with family in Vancouver and board the plane on my own. This was a “sold out flight”. Hope the person on the standby list wasn’t mad that there was an empty seat on the plane due to WestJet’s maddening and confused little policy.
‘Because of this, I’ve had to spend more money to have a 3rd party to fly the cello to me in New York. I still have not been issued a refund for the abandoned seat.
‘Cellists. Never. Fly. Westjet.’
Nathan Chan Comments: Since a month has passes and WestJet has not yet made any moves toward changing this policy, I feel it is important to share my disheartening experience with musicians and artists. WestJet doesn’t allow cellos in extra, purchased seats due to a very specific policy targeting musical instruments. I have yet to be issued a refund for the extra seat and believe WestJet’s policy in question should be reconsidered for the betterment of travelers everywhere.
We are learning to do consciously what Nature intended.
– F.M. Alexander
Spending a week remembering Bernard Greenhouse on CelloBello brought back memories of many hours of lively conversations and shared experiences. Bernie had naturally what we call ‘a back’ in the Alexander Technique, and there is no faking or pretending to have a back…you either do or you don’t, and the evidence of it is felt in the power of presence. The back mediates all our responses–a strong and expansive back gives one the ability to speak and act from a place of natural authority. Bernie’s quiet but strong presence when playing, teaching or just conversing emanated from that central core that Casals spoke about, and which no doubt magnetized Bernie from far away and moved him across an ocean in search of the master. Like recognized like.
One day I said to Bernie, ” You know, you have naturally what we all work to develop in our practice of the Alexander Technique –over many years of study.” He asked me for a lesson, and I obliged. I started off by giving him what we call a ‘table turn’, after lunch. Having had a substantial meal, he soon was asleep on his back, but later said that he recognised the benefit of it. I am not so sure…I think he was being kind! But he did show me his way of using his back at the cello, with the swing of the bow arm in opposition to the back, exactly what I teach in my Alexander lessons. I break it down into smaller steps so that students can acquire it eventually as a natural part of their technique.
Being ‘in the back’ as we say, not pushing forward or collapsing, but allowing the back to expand and lengthen, means as well that our perception of time falls into place. We are neither pushing or rushing time nor dragging, because the back maintains a firmness which is effortless and produces a sense of ease, allowing for expression which is unhurried.
The Chinese have a wonderful saying: Tension is who you think you should be, relaxation is who you are. Bernie was just who he was, and perhaps that’s why we all felt happy around him. Finding your back and living ‘in your back’ is being who you are.
When students come to study cello with me in college they often arrive with problems in their fundamental technique which must be addressed: issues with collapsing fingers, bow angle, underlying tension, weak sound, etc. Most of these basic problems can be dealt with fairly quickly once the student becomes aware of the issues and knows how to fix them. However the bad habits that seem to be the most intractable are problems regarding the curvature of the thumb. In pedagogy classes and in talking with teachers I always emphasize that young cellists should be taught to train their thumbs correctly in order to help avoid excess tension and to allow maximum flexibility. Teachers need to be vigilant about this in the early stages of a cellist’s development in order to prevent future problems, including tendonitis. The incorrect usage of the thumb is one of the most difficult problems to correct later in a cellist’s development. It is crucial that students learn it properly from the beginning, and that teachers monitor it constantly throughout the student’s career.
In playing the cello the thumbs on both hands should be bent outward (some teachers say a “bumpy thumb”), not squished in.
The reason for this is that when the thumb is bent inward it is designed to grab onto something like a hammer or other tool. It maximizes the grip and enables power and strength from the arm to manipulate a tool. However in playing the cello we do not need that kind of force – in fact, we need to reduce tension to facilitate the flexibility of the thumb and fingers.
It turns out that the thumb has more nerve connections to the brain than any other part of the body – except the tongue. I think that this is interesting in that what separates Man from other animals is that humans have the ability to speak (tongue) and the ability to use tools (thumb). So, evolutionarily the prehensile, opposable thumb was intended to be used for holding things and using tools, while at the same time it can be amazingly sensitive and dexterous.
The thumb should be across/behind the second finger on both hands in playing the cello. Although some cellists advocate the thumb connecting with the middle (3rd) finger on the bow, I think it is preferable to use bilateral symmetry, with the same thumb-2nd finger relationship in both hands, so that one side of the body is similar to the other side. It is especially important for the left hand thumb to be under the second finger in extensions. One of the major problems with young cellists is that they don’t release the thumb before making forward extensions, so the hand position becomes distorted, tension is increased, and intonation suffers.
Although it is sometimes difficult for students to train the thumb into the optimal configuration, it is important for teachers to help them get this right. That means being vigilant, determined and also thinking creatively about how to build good habits.
Students are also often confused about the placement of the left hand thumb in neck positions for playing on different strings. When playing on the C-string, the thumb should be under the A-string; when playing on the A-string, the thumb should be under the C-string. The entire arm moves up when going from the A-string to the C-string, and the thumb moves around the back of the fingerboard so that the whole mechanism works together as a unit.
The left hand thumb needs to be well organized in the neck positions before a young cellist starts playing in “thumb position”, where the thumb is used as a finger up on the fingerboard. In “thumb position” the structure of the left thumb is opposite from what was previously described. In “thumb position” the joints are reversed: the distal phalange (the part with the nail) should be bent inward and the joint at the base of the thumb should poke out. I call this the “inny” and the “outy”. In establishing the basic “thumb position” (creating an octave between the thumb and third fingers across the strings, or a Perfect Fourth on the same string), the knuckles should not be squashed down, and there should be a C-shape between the thumb and the first finger as you look down the fingerboard.
Using the thumb with this configuration adds strength and stability to thumb position, and prevents the thumb from wobbling when moving up and down the fingerboard. To help strengthen the thumb you can use isometric exercises, as described in an earlier blog.
Paul Tortelier “How I Play, How I Teach“, page 28
There is some disagreement among professional cellists whether the thumb should be on one string or two strings in thumb position, but I recommend first creating a stable thumb across two strings in the octave position for young cellists, and then later using it on just one string in order to reduce tension in passages where the second string is not being used. However, most pieces which require “thumb position” employ octaves and double-stops. In those situations it is best to have the thumb across both strings.
In next week’s blog, I will discuss a way of thinking about geography in the upper registers of the cello. We will also look at tetrachords and the configuration of the hand.
In a typical private instrumental lesson, until a student has reached a fairly high technical level, much of the time in a lesson is spent on issues such as good hand positions, intonation, tone production, fingerings and bowings, and the development of technique in both hands through scales, etudes, etc. The choice of a solo piece or pieces is usually connected to these same issues. Musicianship is hopefully discussed, and hopefully in some detail. But, the fact remains that it is unlikely issues of musicianship will dominate the lesson time.
One of the great benefits of having students play chamber music is that it helps them become better musicians faster. A good, well matched chamber music group with a good coach will push forward the abilities a student has already developed and enable them to be able to play everything on the page. This includes the more empirical things that are in ink such as the notes, the rhythm and the basic dynamics. Then there more subjective elements such as crescendos and diminuendos, accellerandos and ritardandos, tempo changes, tone color instructions ( i.e. sul tasto, espressivo, sul ponticello), mood suggestions from the composer (i.e. tranquillo, con forza) and articulation suggestions through the use of symbols and words. Beyond that are the things not specifically instructed by the composer. These more intellectual and intuitive issues include how a phrase should be shaped, the pacing of an entire movement, how to convey the emotions in the music to the audience, how to lead and cue, and how to really listen.
A vast majority of students will do some ensemble work. They usually will play with others in a school orchestra, or a local regional youth symphony. These types of groups are great for many reasons. It can really help a student to be in a group with many others to help them realize that there is more to their instrumental training than the practice room and private lesson time. It also is hopefully fun and there is a lot of great music. In a good youth orchestra setting, many of the issues mentioned in the previous paragraph are touched on, and that is good. However, by the nature of an orchestra, these things can only be touched on. In string sections, it is rare for a student to be playing alone, and even more rare to be playing with only one member of each of the other string sections. In rehearsals, the conductor, or leader of a string sectional can usually only work on getting a group of players to generally do the same thing. I have observed many very good players who have played youth orchestra for numerous years come into a chamber music setting and still not really know how to do these things. Their listening skills and leading abilities are also only partially developed. This may be because in an orchestra it is easy to feel one is not personally responsible for the musical decisions, and one is supposed to blend into the group. In addition, it is just not practical for the conductor to listen to each individual player and spend significant time with them working on these skills.
A well-balanced and well-coached chamber music group is different. The students are personally required to take full musical responsibility. The students are personally required to play really in tune. The students are personally required to use the bow creatively and artistically. They are personally required to make the dynamics, tempo changes, issues of timbre, balance, etc. They are personally responsible for the shape of the phrasing. Unlike in a student orchestra where there are others to help and a conductor to make decisions, if they don’t do these things, they won’t happen! And, they each are constantly being carefully listened to by a coach and each other. There is also the possibility that members of a chamber ensemble will develop real friendships. Groups that stay together for a number of years often become best of friends, develop a group personality of their own, take on a name, and as they get older and more responsible, even put on their own concerts! Unfortunately, it is still a small minority of students who have a significant chamber music experience.
Here is just one example of how when working with a group, I will challenge the students to really think about the phrasing. I try to explain that just as in speaking, even though you may be using one general speaking level, there is still shape, changes in color and emphasis on a specific part of the sentence. A composer may only write one dynamic for a phrase, yet that doesn’t mean the notes should all be played the same. An interesting experiment is this: give each member of the group the same passage from a good book and ask them to read it as if they were an actor on a stage. Each of them will do it differently! Some will be very effective, while others might be less, or even expressionless. The point is that the author wrote the words, but leaves the delivery of the words up to the imagination of the reader, usually with little instruction other than simple tools such as italics or punctuation marks. Although it may be necessary to give the students some help in making the passage sound good, most have the natural ability to quickly assimilate ideas and have their voices recreate the ideas. Next, have them read it together and try to shape it the same way. They will see that there are often are many ways to make a phrase sound great…but rarely does it involve lack of shape or expression. Next, just as they did with reading from the book, now have them sing a passage from their music individually and then together. Often they will sing a phrase more naturally than they can play it on their instrument. (When you think about it, that is probably why teachers and conductors, many of whom have no real vocal training, will sing their phrasing or articulation ideas to their students or fellow musicians.) Finally, have the students try the same thing with their instrument and see how closely they can match. The coach can really help facilitate this process. More advanced groups can try several different ideas for shaping the same phrase.
Of course, there are also many other ways to help students bring a score to life. Usually, once they understand that they have been given this great responsibility, most really strive to greatly expand their musical skills and start paying much closer attention to the details that make a performance great.
I believe that studio teachers can really help their students develop more quickly by urging them to consider chamber music as an important part of their training, at least equally important as orchestra. And, just as it is true with the conductor of a student orchestra, the guidance of a skilled coach can make a big difference in the training students receive.