Some of the greatest gems of music are written for small ensemble. But in chamber music you don’t have a conductor to tell you what to do, nor are you entirely on your own to make musical decisions. How does one begin? Here are a few hints for the novice.
Be Prepared: Learn your part thoroughly. This means playing the correct notes, rhythms, and dynamics. It means playing in tune with a nice sound, and the right articulations. It’s a good idea to listen to a recording of the piece after you’ve learned the notes, to understand the style, tempo, and interpretation, and to learn the other parts. Purchase a score of the piece so you can study the music. Know when your part needs to shine, where other instruments are featured, and when you are playing in unison or octaves with one or more instruments, like the opening to Beethoven’s String Quartet op 18, No 1., I usually write that into my parts— “unis” or “with viola”, or “solo” or “lead.”
Practice body language: Staying together in chamber music is all about subtle head movements, eye contact, and audible breaths to alert your colleagues through body language. Practice leading an entrance with a quick sniff and an upbeat with your head. Know your part well enough to be able to look up to engage with your colleagues.
Make sure your part has the same rehearsal numbers or letters as the other parts. It saves a lot of time in rehearsal if you’ve numbered your bars, counting each bar and penciling the number at the beginning of each line of written music.
Be professional: Arrive ahead of time to warm up and tune your own instrument. Bring a pencil, a metronome, and set up your stand with your music in a formation where everyone in the group can be seen by the potential audience, and can see each other. Keep the score handy. When everyone’s ready, tune one at a time. In a string ensemble, the cello usually gives the A; in a woodwind ensemble, the oboe gives the A; in a brass quintet instruments compare B-flats; in a group with piano the piano will sound an A.
Be responsive: Each musician will have some ideas about how the music should go. Be willing to try different ideas and approaches. When you settle on a tempo after trying a passage faster, then slower, confirm the tempo with the metronome and write it in your part so you can practice at the correct speed at home.
Determine who should lead: Often the instrument with the melody will be responsible for giving the cue, but sometimes the accompanying player has a slew of notes to play. In this case, to make certain he or she can manage all the notes, the cue should be given by that player. Study how the pros do it, in for example the wonderful and virtuosic Sextet by Poulenc— see at 6’16 and at 8 minutes in who leads, and 16 minutes in how they communicate ending together.
Rehearse passages slowly and deliberately: This will ensure you are together and in tune. If it is not, play two at a time in order to get tricky rhythms under control. Malcolm Arnold’s flashy Brass Quintet would take a fair bit of slow work. Practice intonation. The piano is the final arbiter if you’re playing with a piano, such as a piano quartet or quintet. In other ensembles try having one instrument play a drone while one or two others try to match the pitch. Build chords from the lowest notes—start with the bass notes and build upwards one instrument at a time, i.e. in a string quartet, start with the cello note. Watch the thirds of a chord and the 7th tone of the scale, the leading tone. These should be on the higher side. A good rule of thumb is if a note has an accidental on it, and the note is not in the key signature, play sharps a touch on the higher side and flats lower.Arnold: Brass Quintet No. 1, Op. 73
Count: A silent pulse should be going through your mind at all times. Never zone out during long periods of rest. Count! Write cues in your part so you don’t get lost. You cannot rely on your ears to bring you in at the right spot.
Set goals for the rehearsals: Your ensemble will improve incrementally if you decide ahead of time what you’d like to accomplish. Will you work on one or more movements? One or more pieces? The trickiest passages in slow motion? Intonation? A run through without stopping whatever happens?
Settle disputes: Agree to disagree. Each ensemble member gets to voice their opinion and to vote. If something isn’t working move on. Be willing to play a passage one way and then another way the next time. Be positive and reassuring whenever anyone in the group is struggling with a passage. Music can be interpreted in many ways. If your ensemble should get stuck ask a professional to coach you.
Discuss balance and sound quality especially in different sized spaces: You may have to project more in a larger hall but the leading voice still has to be heard. Decide on the emotional context—what feelings are your trying to convey? Your sound production will vary depending on the mood of the music. Ask yourselves if the music should sound floaty and ethereal? Then use more bow or more air. Should the music sound eerie and haunting? Then place the bow closer to the bridge. Should the music sound rich and romantic? Then use a broader vibrato, and rounder sound. Listen to the several moods conveyed in Schumann’s Piano Quartet in C minor. These conversations enrich your music making.
Set up performances: Whether at your place of worship, a retirement home, a hospital, or at a school, performing always enhances your ensemble’s teamwork. During the concert give it your all. Sometimes nerves will cause us to bury ourselves in our own part! Concentrate on deep breathing and engaging with your colleagues and the audience. Move more, take more time than you think for endings and between movements, and check in with your colleagues with a little smile or nod whenever you can! Never scowl if you or a colleague makes a mistake.
Know that each of you are doing your best. You’ll realize that despite being novices, your ensemble as a unified whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Appreciate that you are offering a delightful musical experience for the audience.