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How to Rehearse Chamber Music

Craig Goodman | February 2017

    When rehearsing and performing chamber music there are infinite interpretative possibilities. Having a methodical approach while still being open to the unexpected will ensure that your rehearsals and performances will be convincing, clear, and inspired.

First Rehearsal
    Before the first rehearsal agree on which edition will be used. While there is only one edition for some compositions (Francis Poulenc’s Sextour for Winds and Piano), others (Mozart’s Flute Quartets) will have many. Playing from the same edition saves time as it is easier to make changes together. Players should number measures (one number per line is sufficient) even when there are printed rehearsal letters.
    Each person should have studied the full score enough to understand the form and where the various sections begin and end. Compositional details, such as repeats, changes in rhythm, harmony, and voicing should be carefully noted and marked in the score. Players should have the full score available at all rehearsals.
    Allow enough time before the first rehearsal so that players have time to learn their parts. The first rehearsals will not necessarily have mistake-free playing, but everyone should play well enough to get a sense of the piece as a whole. As you play, begin to experiment with what you feel intuitively. Notice where your part is more soloistic, and where it should blend more.
    Plan rehearsal time wisely. This means setting an allotted time for each section or movement. In a Mozart quartet, for example, start by playing some scales and thirds together for ten minutes and then rehearse the different movements. This might be 40 minutes for the first movement, 20 minutes for a slow second movement, and another 40 minutes for the last movement. Players who have already performed the piece with other musicians will need less rehearsal time than those who have never played it before.

Learning by Listening
    Listen to as many recordings as you can find to explore different ideas about phrasing, dynamics, and tempos. Jot down ideas about what you like and what you don’t and share them with your chamber group. Discovering what you don’t like can be an important step in figuring out what you do actually like and how you want the piece to sound. The goal is to find your own way.

    The primary objective of rehearsals is to make each player more and more aware of what is in the score, to hear details clearly, and to understand how different elements work together to communicate the composer’s ideas. While it is important to be methodical in rehearsals, don’t try to decide every detail as you want to leave some room for elements to merge together in future rehearsals and in performance. Too much uncertainty can be dangerous, but over-deciding can keep you from reacting to a spontaneous idea in concert. Learning this balance is an art that comes with experience.
    You will hear things differently through the rehearsal process, and based on what you hear, members of the ensemble will make changes in the overall interpretation of the work. Always begin and end rehearsals by playing through a large section of the work to develop flow. This can be an entire movement or a part of it.
    Record and compare rehearsals and concerts to look at what happened that you did or did not expect. Notice what worked well, and what needs further work. It is also important to evaluate whether the performance sounded the way you meant it to.

    Interpretation is a combination of hearing the score and being yourself. The interpretation will develop from finding this balance. Too much you in performance results in caricature. Too much score makes the playing too square. Balance is the key.

Group Dynamic
    When I first moved to New York, I was confronted with a situation where former coaches and teachers were now sitting next to me in ensembles. It was very difficult to think of myself as an equal. I did not dare impose my will on people who had so recently been my superiors. I wanted to be able to say what I thought the music should sound like and to describe the kind of playing I felt was needed to make it sound that way. I said very little despite my strong feelings about the music.
    It was an uncomfortable situation to be in and it only got worse. I so wanted to discuss what I was feeling about different phrases and sections of the piece, to describe those feelings as visual images, to use poetic terms. No one seemed that keen on this kind of approach, and those who tried, generally failed to get their point across.
    Over the years, two things became clear. First, you should minimize talking about an idea, and instead show what you mean by playing the phrase. Even if colleagues do not initially like your idea, they will have heard it and may reconsider later.
    Secondly, differences are often less pronounced than you would think. Long discussions over disagreements are rarely constructive. Better rather to note differences and move on without making formal decisions. Focus your attention on relatively simple, concrete elements; they are more useful than emotionally charged arguments. For example, you might say, “Do we both have the same rhythm as we cadence together?” rather than “One of us must be rushing there.” Another example might be to ask, “Do our parallel open fifths sound in tune?” rather than “I can’t find your pitch.” 
    You will advance more quickly together as a group by focusing more on elements of the piece itself rather than on your inner emotional world or in seeking to discredit your colleagues. Members of the ensemble may well adopt a position that initially some were hostile to without even realizing that their positions have changed.

    There are times to be assertive and times to be receptive. A young professional violist who wanted to participate in the festival in Denmark where I am artistic director wrote to persuade us that all performers in a group must have exactly the same ideas about a piece. To prove his point, he sent a recording of an entire Brahms sextet where he was playing only the viola part alone. Apparently, he could not find partners who were his clones.
    I mention this odd anecdote to emphasize that you are playing with other people. One person should not insist on only his ideas, no matter how brilliant they may be. Display an attitude that encourages others to work with you. To play chamber music well, you have to want to go beyond yourself.
    When faced with contrasting viewpoints and musical ideas, try them all in rehearsal, but wait until the next meeting to choose. The interval between rehearsals allows players to get used to new ideas and consider them more objectively.

Intuition and Analysis
    Many instrumentalists are reluctant to use theory and analysis skills when practicing and rehearsing. They do not want to think about anything that takes them away from playing their instruments. Nonetheless, analytical skills are meant to serve instrumentalists; understanding harmony can be used to clarify many issues such as phrase direction or intonation. A group can best work on balance and voicing issues by exploring how a composer hides and changes primary and secondary themes, etc. The more you understand, the more you can put that knowledge to use. The result will be greater musical depth and more conviction in performances.

    Pulse is the primary element that makes it possible for a group to play together. It should be felt by each player individually and also as a group. When pulse is felt by the group, it is as if there is a pulsing heartbeat in the middle of the ensemble. The following exercise, often taught in conducting classes, is useful in developing group pulse for ensembles without conductors. Toss up a key chain (with keys) gently above your head in view of everyone in the group and ask them to clap at the precise moment the keys hit the ground. The speed of the keys as they arch and then fall to the floor is not constant. Nonetheless, the moment of impact is predictable; musicians will nearly always be able to clap right when the keys hit the ground even without looking at the floor. However, if you repeat the exercise, but this time throw the keys straight down at the floor, they will not have the same success. 
    In the first example, tossing the keys up acts like a conductor’s preparatory movement, which is always in tempo. The preparation sets the pulse by showing the players when to breathe and where to place the downbeat together. In the second example, there is no preparation, so without knowing the pulse, no one can accurately judge when to clap. Whoever cues the beginning of a piece must feel the pulse very clearly first before communicating it to the others. In rehearsals, practice starting the piece several times to get used to making the right physical movement and breath so that the pulse is felt by all.
    The pacing or flow of a piece is regulated by pulse. When playing chamber music, learn to anticipate what another player is doing with the pulse and learn to react spontaneously to what you hear. If your focus on being together is excessive, you will always be behind. Being together is anticipating, doing, reacting, and at times, adjusting. You are neither leading nor following.
If an ensemble partner’s pacing is radically different from yours, you both will be uncomfortable. Playing alone for each other, with and without a metronome, can help improve accuracy and work towards a compromise.

    Who is the conductor? Is there one in chamber music? When I ask these questions to less experienced groups, they generally respond that the conductor should be whoever plays the highest-pitched instrument such as the flute in a woodwind quintet or the first violinist in a larger mixed group. Sometimes this is true, but not always.
    The role of conductor exists in chamber music performance, but it is a shared responsibility, and it changes all the time based on how the composition is written. Someone has to start the piece. The conductor at this point is the player who has the first entrance and is able to comfortably give the cue. Later in the piece when another cue is needed, the conductor may be a different player in the ensemble. Decide who is going to give cues at different spots in the music and write that information into the parts so each player knows who to watch. Sometimes the best person to offer a cue is the one who has a least active part. Always remain open and alert, whether leading or accompanying.
    Suppose that a friend asked you to accompany him home. You would not walk shyly behind him or be overly focused on regulating your steps to the exact rate of his paces either. You would walk next to him without focusing on whether your steps were exactly in sync. You would be sensitive to his movement without being obsessed with it. You would simply be aware of his presence – listening and reacting to him as he is reacting to you. This is exactly how you should play with others in an ensemble.
    Write in with whom you play at different moments, and whether your role is more melodic or secondary. Generally, melody should soar above and be played with more presence than accompaniment figures. However, finding the right intensity for the non-melodic passages is as demanding if not more so.

    Rests are silence, and silence is a part of the piece, not separate from it. Everyone in a group has to play silences accurately. One note held over after the harmony has changed can muddy the harmony. Practice hearing the silences together. They are as important as everything else.
    Often a silence is linked to a breath. You breathe in the rest. The sound of breathing can be expressive – great opera singers can intensify the emotional impact of what they sing through dramatic breaths. Don’t feel hurried to get through a silence and don’t feel guilty that you have to breathe. Practice making silences longer and shorter, with louder or softer breaths. Think about how they affect the way you feel as you play the piece, the way the audience experiences the piece, and how it sounds.

    Music is much more than silence, of course. Dynamics provide clues to pace gradations from silence to maximal sound. Dynamics do not correspond to exact decibel levels, but instead refer to relative changes in loudness and softness. A mf dynamic must sound different from a forte and a mp from a p. Sculpt these differences into your music to express your interpretation.
    Beethoven’s dynamic markings are extremely precise as are all of Beethoven’s indications. When he writes ff after a f passage, he wants more excitement. Other composers like Mozart have relatively few dynamic markings, but you still should play the music with color and contrast. Some composers write dynamics to balance an ensemble. They might indicate a louder dynamic for the flute than for the trumpet with the idea that they should sound equal in a passage. Take the time to analyze what each composer’s dynamic markings mean.

Balance and Voicing

    Balance and voicing refer to bringing out one voice or group of voices more than another. If an important melodic figure is covered by a secondary motif, an audience will not understand and enjoy what you are playing. Experiment with bringing out different instruments in the same passage. Start with a section where all the instruments move together in the same rhythm. Try repeating the passage a few times, each time with a different instrument playing louder and the others less. Notice what the effect is, and how the group color changes. Vibrato also influences dynamics and group balance. Try playing forte without vibrato and fortissimo at the same level but using vibrato. Notice how this affects contrast in the group. Because instruments project differently in different spaces, check balance in each venue where you perform.


    Ideally you should be able to adapt your sound to the other instruments. Playing the flute in a woodwind quintet is different from playing the flute in a duo with guitar. In a woodwind quintet, the flute should have enough core in the sound to mesh or contrast with instruments whose sounds are fatter. In a guitar duo, a flutist can use more transparent sounds and still be heard. The decibel level and sound quality for the same dynamic in the two groups will not be the same. In both cases, however, there should be marked differences between the dynamic levels. A piano dynamic must sound different from a forte.

Rhythm, Accents and Resonance
    Attacks in music function like consonants in words. Without them, there is little clarity. On the other hand, attacks or consonants alone, are rather incomprehensible. The mechanism of attack for each instrumental family is different. Within your group, discuss the attack technique used by each instrumentalist. A flutist can see exactly when a violinist attacks a note by observing when the bow makes contact with the string. For a flutist, attack and support are produced inside the body and are nearly invisible.
    Rhythmic clarity is influenced by how attacks are produced. Percussion and brass instrument attacks tend to be more pronounced than string attacks. You will need to adapt the quality of your attacks to the type of ensemble and music you are playing. If a piece has a strong rhythmic element to it, it might require more energetic, crisp attacks. Another work might sound best with more gentle attacks to help bring out a more sustained, melodic character. At times, it can be both, and one instrument or group of instruments might best emphasize the sustained quality of a note or notes while another instrument or group emphasizes the attacks of those same notes. Solutions vary depending on musical context and instrumentation. Experiment in rehearsals by varying who sustains and who attacks, and by varying how much they do it. Notice what the effects are. Only then can you choose which solutions you wish to use.
    The effect of the attack on sound varies from instrument to instrument. Consider a string instrument. If the player attacks a note on one of the lower strings and then plays on an upper string, the lower string continues to vibrate even after bow contact has ceased. For flutists, the attack is made with releasing the air. You can get a similar effect to the violinists’ attack by playing an extremely rapid diminuendo on a note before moving on. The ear is fooled and believes it hears continued resonance as on a violin.
    There are stylistic differences to consider for accents. Stravinsky’s accents, often in loud dynamics, are meant to be sharper and more pronounced than Schubert’s. Beethoven’s accents are a subject for an essay in itself.

    I was quite surprised the first time I heard the Vienna Philharmonic perform a Mozart minuet. Much too slow, I thought. It was much slower than I had ever heard, but the players seemed comfortable with the tempo and after a minute or two, it started to sound right. I stopped disliking the playing for being in the wrong tempo for me and was soon enjoying the performance. I went from rejecting a tempo and character for being different from what I was accustomed to, to hearing it as working beautifully. I was hearing it as the performers did.
    The word minuet does not imply an exact speed. It rather refers to form and meter. In order for a minuet to work in performance, you have to bring both form and meter together so that your performance has character. In a Classical minuet, you might choose to separate the minuet from the trio by changing the tempo for the latter or by changing the sound, or both. Another decision is whether to give equal weight to all three beats or emphasize first beats. Try many options before you decide.
    Musical terms used to indicate tempo refer as much to character as to speed. Take the word allegro. In Italian it means lively and cheerful. While it cannot be denied that those two words are usually associated with a certain briskness, the speed of an allegro movement, like a minuet movement, will vary. An allegro movement played with great speed can be exciting. You and your audiences may enjoy that, and you have every right to. However, before deciding definitively on your performance speed, try to get the feeling of liveliness and brightness at different speeds from very slow to moderate to very fast. You may discover elements in the movement that come out more convincingly at one tempo than another. The goal is to expand what you know and feel so that when you do choose the tempo, you are sure of what you are doing.

    Once you have a clear sense of how the piece works, and you have rehearsed enough together to feel that you are indeed playing with character and understanding, it is time to perform. Ideally, you should perform the same pieces more than once, and with time between concerts to discuss and rehearse. Interpretations become more convincing over time.
    In a short rehearsal before the concert, play just the opening and ending of each movement in the tempo and character you have decided on. If they are not absolutely clear, do not hesitate to play those few measures three or four times until they are. Each movement must be distinctly different from the others.
    After the concert, discuss what worked well, what worked less well, and what you hope to accomplish now. This type of discussion is best to have a day or so after the concert, not immediately after. Relax and celebrate first!
    I hope that musicians will take an approach to chamber music where performance and learning are as inseparable as instinct, intellect, hearing, feeling and understanding.