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Strength in Numbers, A Creative Way to Motivate Adult Players

Judy Chaves | December 2020 January 2021

    Six years ago, I retired from teaching cello to devote more time to writing. Not wanting to stop teaching entirely, I suggested to three of my intermediate adult students that we continue a monthly ensemble that had been a regular part of their study. My idea was to keep the ensemble running for a year. At that point I would have weaned myself from teaching, and the three would have realized their desire to keep playing, lessons or not.
    When the year ended none of us wanted to disband. The quartet continues to be an important part of our lives. It brings us great pleasure, and is primarily what keeps my three former students playing.
    Two of the three are directors of non-profits; one manages a literary magazine. All are spouses and parents, one of a toddler. They are typical adult players. Practice time is hard to find, and motivation can easily wear thin. While younger students often have auditions or other incentives to practice, adults generally do not. To maintain their motivation, they need regular reminders of why they are studying. Lessons, alone, do not necessarily provide this reminder. The chamber group, for my three, does. It is the fuel that keeps them playing, especially since I changed how I ran it.
    I originally ran our monthly ensemble as a group lesson intended to hone skills and stretch the players. Retirement caused me to see the ensemble in a different light: I was no longer the teacher. I became a combination of ensemble member and director, and our sessions changed from lessons into rehearsals. I stopped focusing on skills. Individual practice became less important than our time together. Quartet became an independent entity, serving a monthly dose of the reasons my three former students took up cello: for relaxation, enjoyment, and connection with others. The chamber group was an oasis in their busy lives.
    Any working teacher can create such an informal ensemble to keep adults motivated. The ensemble could be led by an advanced student or its members, with the teacher making an occasional appearance. Alternatively, the group could be led by a teacher acting more as a member than formal instructor. The essential thing is that the group’s goals and expectations remain distinct from those of lessons. 
    Here are suggestions for running such a group, based on our quartet’s six years of highly successful and enjoyable experience. I have included comments from the other members of the ensemble.

A Balancing Act

    “[The quartet is] challenging enough to keep us all on our toes but not so challenging that we feel in over our heads.” – Eli

    Our ensemble works within its members’ current skill levels and acknowledges the limited practice time available. Within these bounds, it provides enough challenge to maintain interest and produce a sense of well-earned accomplishment, while also keeping things simple enough to maintain a sense of fun. This balance influences the music we play and how rehearsals are run.


    “The music we make as a group feeds my heart, while the music I made as a student fed my brain.” – Emily

    “The repertoire we play is more for the fun and joy of the music, rather than to play the most difficult pieces we could try to master.” – Kristina

    Choosing appropriate music is essential. We play intermediate level pieces that have a powerful effect: music that is more than the sum of its parts. It might be deeply moving (the Scottish lament, Adieu Dundee), rousing (Matt Teehan’s Polka), or simply a lot of fun (Up on the Housetop in 4-part pizzicato). Melody is essential.
    Our repertoire is for three or four voices. Even the simplest round played by four cellos can be movingly beautiful (Hava Nashira [aka Let Us Sing Together]). Our favorite source of three- and four-part harmony is the Sacred Harp repertoire, easily transposed to bass voices (Africa, Idumea, New Britain [Amazing Grace]). Some are rousing, others hauntingly beautiful; all lend themselves to creative arrangements.
    We play music in which the challenge lies less in learning parts than in putting the parts together. This reduces individual practice time required. For example, in pieces from Praetorius’s Terpsichore, individual parts are straightforward and relatively easy to learn. Fitting the parts together, combining four different rhythmic patterns into a unified whole, requires group focus and proves enormously satisfying. Madrigals provide a similar challenge, often with dotted rhythms playing off each other.
    I look beyond the usual cello repertoire for sources: early music, Irish and Scottish traditional tunes, English country dance tunes, Sacred Harp, madrigals, and other choral music. If the original version is in an awkward key or octave, I make it friendlier for cello by transposing.
    I introduce new pieces at a slow rate, balancing the interest and challenge of the new with the comfort and minimal time demands of the old. We give an annual winter holiday concert that ensures a large body of familiar traditional pieces, but we also learn at least a couple of new pieces for the program each year.
    We play pieces in which the four parts are equally interesting and challenging. Four equal parts provide that sense of physical support that is one of the best aspects of playing in an ensemble. We are here for one another, bolstering each other’s voices. If there is a slightly trickier part that no one else wants, I will take it on, but my part should not be so different that it makes me a soloist. Our music needs to affirm everything that is possible at the intermediate level, not a reminder of what is not.  We divide up parts as soon as possible, rather than having everyone first learn them all. Parts are assigned according to player preferences and strengths.


    “It’s a great social gathering as well [as musical]” – Eli

    “For me, music is about relationships and people, and our quartet embodies both those things.” – Kristina

    “I love making music together, the community, and all the laughter….It is a joyful experience.” – Emily

    Music aside, the key to our success is that we allow time to enjoy each other’s company. I watch the clock, but there is always time for conversation and laughter. There’s no meter ticking and, aside from rehearsals prior to our annual concert, no deadlines looming.
    I am as much participant as director. The four of us discuss tempos, dynamics, and arrangements. We try things out and decide together when something works, when to keep working on a piece, and when to stop. Sometimes I suggest and demonstrate fingerings and bowings, but I keep such advice to a minimum.
    That said, it can be hard to turn off the inner teacher’s voice, to let go of expectations that would be appropriate in group lessons. I remind myself the group does not need to play a piece because it would be good for them. There are excellent reasons people arrive tired or have left half their music at home or keep misreading their parts. Understanding on everyone’s part is essential. We forgive each other’s lapses, laugh at our mistakes, and acknowledge that rehearsals will vary in quality, depending on what’s going on in people’s lives. The commitment to the quartet is strong, but it is within the context of busy lives.
    This is not to say that we do not maintain high standards. One benefit of giving an annual concert is that it sets our standards at performance level. Picking the right music enables us to attain that level. If, given our time and energy limitations, we cannot rise to a piece’s challenge, we remove it from the program. The ensemble should provide fuel, not consume it.

Lasting Benefits

    “What I’ve learned by playing with the quartet is how to play music with others. I’m learning a great deal about listening, not just to myself, but to what the other parts are doing and how the harmonies work. I’ve gained a tremendous amount.” – Eli

    “As we practice, I start to hear my part in relationship to each other part, and then there is a moment when…the whole takes over, and my heart races.” – Emily

    “I would probably not be playing right now, if not for the quartet.” – Emily

    “Sometimes it is hard to make time for the group…but as long as we’re going, I’ll make the time. It keeps me practicing.” – Eli

    “While I wish I could say I play masterfully and could whip off a Bach Cello Suite or two….I have found the joy and sense of accomplishment of making music together with others more important, more fulfilling, and a more sustainable endeavor.” – Kristina

    I may no longer teach formally during our sessions, but the players continue to learn an enormous amount. Their musicianship, which can become secondary to skill-building in lessons – has increased dramatically. So often, when the teacher takes a back seat and students are engaged in an enjoyable collaboration, magic happens.