Psyched to hear this tonight in Jordan Hall with the NEC Jazz orchestra.
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!
For our damp and gray morning.
Awesome write up on NEC alums!
While this program is presented as part of the German-titled “Liederabend” series, this program will offer an evening of French mélodies—a tribute to John Moriarty and his special association with this repertoire. Moriarty retired from NEC last spring. He is a man of many talents and literally “wrote the book” on singing in French; Moriarty’s Diction (1975, rev. 2008) is still a standard reference work for singers.
If you are unable to attend but would like to join in the celebration, we encourage you to send us your favorite “Moriarty Memories” - his influence on your musicianship, how his teachings have resonated with you, memorable performances…we look forward to hearing from you and sharing your words!
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!
I’ve Got You Under My Skin
Cannot stop playing this song.