City Lit Blog

Playing ensemble music and the pandemic

Story added 1st Dec 2020

Reflections on learning and playing chamber music online by Gisela Meyer (chamber music tutor)

One of the many things we can’t engage in during lockdown is live chamber music. So what do we do to replace the thrill that comes from exploring music with others, sharing the flow with others in real time that comes from being in the same room, feeling the same vibrations? The truth is: we can’t replace that.

We might assemble our microphones and recording devices and, with a lot of hours and technological expertise, produce an amazing virtual performance. But the experience is still different, and the task of recording oneself can be overwhelming and time consuming.

Change of focus: Jigsaw mode

A friend and mentor of mine has an alternative name for lockdown: she calls it "cocooning."

In a cocoon—or my interpretation of it—life is suspended, but a lot is happening that only becomes visible later. And of course, the caterpillar turning into a butterfly is a well-known image for transformation.

I found that during this latest lockdown, thankfully, I did not revert to the lethargic state that I had experienced in March and April. Instead I find myself in "jigsaw mode," exploring technique in all my music-making, and also balance, both within notes of a melody and between parts, in my piano repertoire. I have also been teaching Chamber Music Skills classes online.

So if we can’t replace the essence of chamber music, what is the point of having a class like this?

The essence of chamber music isn't just the playing together, it's also that we learn to hold a part on our own, be aware of other parts, and put them together to create something that feels whole and complete. We can develop the skills to do this even when we can't play together in real time.

Holding my own part

Understanding my own part fully

  • What is required of me to hold my own part, technically and in terms of sound?
  • How is this part showing off the particular sound of my instrument?
  • If it is an arrangement, how does this change affect the music? Does it limit the effect, or does it simply alter it?
  • What does playing my part feel like? How will I contribute to the overall character of the piece?

Back to basics: how do we practice?

Through teaching piano to absolute beginners I have gained profound insights that have helped me tackle complex piano solo pieces such as Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit much more efficiently. It is immensely helpful to go back to basics sometimes.

Like all my colleagues, I have had to adapt to explaining and demonstrating things online. Over time I feel I have gained more clarity, and understand even better how students progress on their own. Going back to basics in studying your own part in a piece of chamber music part means thinking about:

  • Pulse—how accurate am I really, in terms of holding a pulse myself? how can I feel the pulse in my body, if I’m not carried along by a group?
  • Rhythm—how clear is my understanding of rhythm? how does rhythm relate to emphasis within the beat, and within the bar? how can good technique aid accuracy of rhythm?
  • Intonation (if applicable)—how does my part use melody? can I anticipate aurally the note that I’m meant to play? how do I adjust my intonation when I can't hear the other players live?

Breaking the piece down into sections

Playing through any piece—even more so, a chamber music part—all the time, is boring and frustrating. Breaking the piece down into phrases and sections, and concentrating on what is essential, can be very productive. Are the notes easy, but maybe I can practice timing, observing my rests? Can I find a better sound? Or is this phrase difficult, and how can I tackle it?

At the end: can I play this piece against the recording and hold steady in my part? If yes, recording a longer stretch of music will be a much easier task.

Integrating other parts

In real-life chamber music, we often play together a lot, then we (sort of) know what the others are doing. As a pianist in chamber ensembles, I have always enjoyed the luxury of having the overview: I can see and follow other parts while playing my own from the score. This visual insight is amazingly helpful. Other instrumentalists normally play from their own part and cannot see the score.

Score study

  • We learn quickest when we use as many senses as possible, so studying the score is a very helpful tool indeed. In combination with listening to a recording, we discover details that we would have missed otherwise.
  • We find out about the form: a score reveals more easily where the sections of the piece are.
  • We learn about texture, that is, how our parts relate to each other: which notes sound together, how the rhythms fit together; who is leading at which times; how each part contributes to the overall expression.
  • We enhance our understanding of harmony, which is usually hard to figure out from a single part.
  • We learn about specifics of other instruments e.g. notation of bowings for strings or transposing instruments, and how this affects the way their parts are written and played.

Online discussion

  • We look at the score with others, and we will discover even more detail. It is fun to exchange views about how the piece should be played, in our opinion, which interpretations we prefer and why.
  • It is also very helpful to talk about and share practice tips.

Online rehearsal

We can’t play together, but we CAN all play at the same time.

Due to the time delay online, we have to have one part audible and the other players muted when we are playing most music, where things must be precisely co-ordinated in time. This means that often, we will hear ONE other part and our own.

In live rehearsals this sort of practice rarely happens, but maybe it should happen more often. It might seem boring to sit and listen while others work on matters relating only to their parts. But when we do everyone can play and understand more about a single other part, whether in the lead or accompanying, taking turns to be the one that everyone else can hear, studying phrase after phrase, section by section. We can give and receive constructive feedback on detail in a way that we often avoid in full rehearsals.

Looking forward to putting the jigsaw together

Even though we might have to wait for this moment for now, it won't be forever! There is a lot of merit in polishing one’s own part of the whole for now. Better still, it is a chance to acquire some good practice for future projects.

All of the methods mentioned above not only enhance the experience of music-making (chamber, or otherwise), they also save us a lot of time and effort because they help us focus.

I am sure that our whole, global experience of the pandemic bears the potential of shifting our focus, and we never know what adventures might await us at the other end!

Chamber Music Skills     Score-reading    Musicianship