Working Upside Down

Working Upside Down

students in Princeton’s chamber music program

Preparing performances of written scores is a kind of alchemy. The process of transmuting a written medium into an aural one can be mysterious. In a heavily notated art form like western classical music, this creates certain types of problems.

  • Writing is not sound (one of these things is not like the other).
  • Gaining proficiency in a wide range of music that spans cultures and time periods usually means employing a combination of score-information and knowledge/experience to decode. 
  • Rehearsing and practicing this kind of music in a group requires you to develop techniques that assist in the alchemy.

A significant part of my current teaching involves explaining these techniques to younger musicians. What often surprises them is how concrete and methodical the process is, and also how the best way to work through a problem is sometimes counterintuitive.

It makes more sense to imagine that practicing music the “right” way as much as possible will produce the best results. This is essentially true. The recommendations in this article are not meant to completely replace that mode of working.

But in the course of changing written ideas into musical ones, the performer frequently encounters barriers to understanding what’s in the score. Tools are needed to illuminate ideas that don’t always fall naturally into your hands.

As an example: I’ve been coaching loads of Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Dvorak chamber music since Sō Percussion started our position as performers-in-residence at Princeton University. I must admit that I’d always privately relegated Mendelssohn and especially Dvorak to second-tier status compared to a composer like Beethoven. This probably reflects my bias towards strong structural thinking, and my experiences hearing these other composers’ chamber music had left me with the impression of a lot of passionate, melody driven, soupy not-my-thing romantic music.

Through working with students, I delved deeper into these scores. I was surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) that there were so many fascinating details such as accents and dynamics that could spur endless interpretive variation. Whatever impression I had – presumably due to the performances I’d heard – didn’t match up with what I was seeing on the page. Mendelssohn in particular is kind of a maniac for score details.

I started playing around with these details in my coachings. Why, with Dvorak being so interested in cross-rhythms and rhythmic play, should we be thinking about melody all the time? I taught my groups how to feel a proper 4/3 polyrhythm in a way that they could understand the latent tension in allowing it to continue for 40 bars. Many times, the teaching techniques that drew out new results took some aspect of what they’d already hard-wired and flipped it upside down. This could be scary and unfamiliar, but it spurred growth in new directions.

I thought of Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies,”, a fascinating set of tools created in 1975 with Peter Schmidt. These cryptic instructions are meant to help shake you out of creative dilemmas. They stimulate multi-lateral thinking. When I visited the website, here were my first three randomly generated strategies:

  • “Make an exhaustive list of everything you might do and do the last thing on the list.”
  • “Do something boring.”
  • “Emphasize differences.”

A lot of the time, what I and we in Sō are doing with chamber music groups is to work through a problem by reframing it, and also to eliminate or highlight some element that might improve their understanding of the score.

I came up with my own list of chamber music strategies. They are neither as mysterious nor as catchy as Eno’s, but they represent a toolkit that we employ all the time. I explain how they apply to my teaching and to Sō’s, and what kinds of results they are meant to produce. Few of these ideas were originally mine, so I try to give credit where I can remember the source. For the most part, they reflect a foundation passed from my teachers Michael Rosen and Robert Van Sice, filtered through the last 15 years of working with my colleagues in Sō. In much of this essay, I’m describing lessons that I saw Jason, Josh, or Eric applying while we taught as a group, as well as past colleagues like Doug Perkins. Some of our core chamber music techniques were also gleaned from watching amazing ensembles like the Tokyo String Quartet as students.

Some of these ideas may seem like ordinary, obvious good practice, applicable at all times. This may be so, but I explain the context in which focusing on that particular element is a counterintuitive but effective move. I imagine that this essay will be updated and expand over time as I think of more techniques.

Here are the ones I’m starting with:

  • Think loud, play soft
  • Find the Pulse 
  • Reverse the dynamic(s) 
  • Put somebody else in charge 
  • To play fast, slow down 
  • Take away the crutch 
  • Run it! 
  • Get away from the instrument(s) and Sing 
  • Learn Someone Else’s Part 
  • Screw Up/Make it Up

Think loud, play soft 

When I was an undergraduate at Oberlin, my teacher Mike Rosen explained his trick for playing soft triangle notes. Anybody who isn’t a percussionist may have a hard time appreciating how scary it is to ding a piece of metal on another at exactly the right time with exactly the right touch. Soft playing is the most difficult, and the student’s first instinct is to adopt a careful “don’t touch the stove” approach. This is inevitably the worst way to do it, because your chance of missing the instrument entirely and completely “whiffing” it increases exponentially.

The student allows his mind and body to adopt every posture of what quietness feels like: meek, careful, thin. But there’s no reason why this has to be. In fact, it’s more often the opposite, where quiet notes require extra focus, confidence, and boldness.

Mr. Rosen first had me play several notes at mezzo forte. This is relatively easy to do. He then asked me what it felt like to play those notes. I said that it felt comfortable: I knew that the amount of force I needed would produce a solid note with plenty of vibration, and also that I wouldn’t miss. He then asked me to play a soft note. I can’t remember whether I whiffed it, but I might as well have. The note was anemic.

His solution was think loud, play soft. He told me to start again playing a mezzo forte note, but to change only one thing in my body: don’t hit it as hard. It worked like magic. The act of playing softer was purely a result of the speed of my stroke (not how hard I hit, which is a misleading concept). A slow yet confident stroke produced a perfect piano note.

I’ve found that this concept applies to EVERYBODY. In a recent coaching at Princeton, I noticed that a string quartet was struggling with intonation and sound quality in an opening quiet section of a long piece. I asked them to play the section full force with vibrato, everything that a string player loves to do. They tried it, and were immediately smiling and playing to each other instead of cringing and gritting their teeth. They played in tune with a beautiful, cohesive sound.

Playing loud and within their comfort zone provided a return to what it felt like to play their instrument well. We repeated the section a number of times, gradually scaling the dynamics and vibrato back. If I felt them creeping away into timidity, we scaled back up to remember the confidence, then scaled back down. Eventually, the exercise worked, and they realized that they could have their focused, engaged sound while also playing more quietly.

This concept helped me a lot in learning how to play snare drum. Most quiet snare drum orchestral excerpts depict normal playing from far away. Honestly, as an originally military instrument, quiet snare drum playing is kind of dumb…it just happens to naturally be a bajillion times louder than a violin, so that’s your job in the orchestra. While perfecting an excerpt like Prokofiev’s Lt. Kije, which depicts a far away military march, the student often falls into these same patterns of trying to achieve soft playing via timidity. It never works, especially once the pressure is on in the audition room.

Mr. Rosen had me play Lt. Kije many times at forte. This was a march, after all, and that’s how it is supposed to feel. Gradually, over a period of days and weeks, I measured it down until I could control it at pianissimo.

Find the Pulse 

This concept falls under the category of “isn’t this always a good idea?” Yes, it is, but the best moment to remember it is not when everything is grooving, but when it’s not. Whatever element is foregrounded in a passage will tend to assert itself when you practice it (emphasis on line and phrasing in a lyrical section), so that sometimes other core elements don’t develop.

This happens most often with the dreaded rubato. Rubato is a perfectly wonderful concept, but in order to “rob” the phrase of time, you need to know where the time should have been in the first place. Many players, as with the “soft to loud” continuum, suddenly abandon all sense of time and proportion when they are trying to give direction to a melodic line or a lyrical phrase.

It is exactly at this moment that I ask them to peel away expression and focus on where the notes lie against the pulse. Some of them have been advised in the past that playing a phrase in a simple, straightforward way against a steady pulse will ruin expressive potential. This is nonsense. Every angle of examination of a way to play a phrase can teach you something about that phrase’s potential. Playing against a steady pulse will teach you a lot.

What they often find is that a brilliant composer – like my new buddy Mendelssohn – may have already thought of where the phrase is going, and might perhaps have planned his rhythmic and melodic ideas accordingly on the page. The student might be so eager to infuse the passage with expressivity as to have never considered just playing it.

For percussionists, this moment happens in marimba chorales, where we play unmeasured rolls. The simplest way to start learning a chorale is just to turn on a metronome and play the chords in time first. Get the proportions in your ear before trying to find all the things you think it could do with pushing and pulling. What you’ll find is that you probably have to do less than you thought in order to make it expressive, especially with a 12-dimensional genius like Bach.

The only time I would ever say not to do this is when music is explicitly unmeasured, such as some types of plainchant or in a contemporary piece with gestural notation.

Reverse the dynamic(s) 

This is specific to chamber music rather than solo playing. What excites me the most about classical chamber music is the complexity of interplay among the musicians. Haydn’s trajectory in developing this throughout his life was astonishing. Most composers after him who wrote for groups like string quartets mirrored this concern with internal complexity and equality among the parts.

Often, young players or pickup groups default to a way of playing that makes intuitive sense: melody is in the higher voice, support is lower, if there’s a piano it’s sort of doing both. But amazing composers rarely keep this default situation in place for long.

What often feels repetitive as listener in a 35 or 40-minute-long piece is when the players don’t look deeply enough to realize details in “supporting” parts that might enrich the composition or distinguish it from more ordinary music. The emotional content of the music – often, in my subjective opinion- doesn’t support the amount of time it takes to unfold, so is there something else?

“Reverse the dynamics” doesn’t have to apply literally to written dynamics. It might also mean to identify primary and supporting roles and try reversing which is foregrounded. This obviously is not how you’ll want to perform the piece, but the rehearsal room is a laboratory, not just a chance to run through the music a bunch of times (although that’s also extremely valuable). The most important outcome of this exercise is that the player of the primary voice (say a first violinist) might be compelled for the first time to listen carefully to the rhythmic underpinning in the viola part. Certainly she never meant to ignore it, but there might have been that one detail that she was too involved in her own notes to notice. The further outcome is that you will find many more opportunities for the voices to interact than you first thought existed. Perhaps that primary voice dips out of the way for a moment while another surges. Did you really know that was happening?

This technique is also great for group morale. A powerful string quartet, for instance, feeds energy from the inside out. A sharp first violinist rides on the wave of the inner voices, rather than dragging them through the piece. Reversing roles asks all of the players to step up and explore their part, which may serve to heighten the rhythmic excitement or contextualize an unusual harmony.

Put somebody else in charge 

When we were graduate students together at Yale, we bonded over a shared interest in chamber music for percussion instruments. Many university percussion programs since the 1950’s have featured this kind of music in their curriculum, but our teacher Robert van Sice approached it in a genuinely fresh way. Taking lessons from great chamber ensembles like the Tokyo String Quartet, he encouraged us to think of percussion similarly, as an intimate flux of constantly shifting energy.

Much of the decorum of classical percussion playing comes from the symphony orchestra section, where the conductor is the main conduit for expression. Performers are encouraged to be stoic and attentive to the action up in the front. Bob had a way of breaking through those norms and saying “why do we have to think this way?” He taught us how to distribute leadership roles around the ensemble in accordance with the demands of the music, and to show that energy vividly.

In any piece we play, we know at all times who is in the driver’s seat. It doesn’t mean that we defer in every way to that player, but we know if things get rocky who will give the signal to regroup. This decision comes out of evaluating our roles within the music and also our own relationships.

Some of our role assignments don’t match intuition. For instance, if one player has an ornate solo part over a steady rhythmic layer, you’d expect the soloist to be the leader by default.

We’ve found that exactly the opposite can be true: if one of the steady supporting players leads, the soloist often has more leeway to take risks with the interpretation of his part since he isn’t thinking as much about leading the other players.

Not all pieces need to be lead at every moment, but putting somebody in charge alleviates the anxiety of not knowing exactly how you’d get out of a section if something went wrong. We all know that white-knuckle feeling when a section goes well in spite of the fact that weren’t entirely sure what would have happened if it didn’t. In our group, we try to shrink the potential for these situations down to zero. Things don’t always go perfectly, but we do always know that we’ll be able to keep the ship afloat, and this instills confidence.

By using my previous strategy (reverse the dynamics), you might have become more aware of a supporting layer that could actually function as a leader. “Putting someone else in charge” could be a response to this shifting environment, or it could be completely arbitrary.

Remember, in the laboratory mindset, there are no negative consequences for trying anything, no matter how badly it turns out. All you will lose is a few minutes of your time. If a section isn’t working too well, it may be that the energy moving around the room is not moving in the optimum direction.

I’ll put this part in bold: this has absolutely nothing to do with who is the best player. If you’re even thinking in terms of the “best” player within your group, I regret to inform you that you do not have a good chamber music group. Beyond that, the choice of the proper leader of a particular section congeals out of trying it a few different ways and analyzing roles.

Try assigning it differently and see what happens. Maybe it’s just for ten bars, or perhaps it’s for a whole movement. Let other players try cueing you, and see if you like to follow. Great chamber music performers make an art out of engaged following. It should go without saying that everything you do is engaged. The word passive has no meaning within any small group playing. Following doesn’t mean that you sit back waiting for somebody else to do the work. On the contrary, it means you’re waiting expectantly on the edge of your seat, anticipating what you know is coming from your colleague, ready to fit right in to what they show you.

My favorite aphorism from Bob van Sice was this: the truth is in the sound. 99 times out of 100, you will be able to solve group problems by trying them out in the room. If somebody else takes a crack at leading a section, you’ll know if it’s right. The factors that determine whether it’s working or not are complicated and related somewhat to intuition, so if there’s a consensus about which is working better, hi-five and move on. Don’t question whether it’s because you or somebody else was “better” at anything.

Putting somebody else in charge can be employed both to decide leadership for the first time, and also to avoid getting bogged down when things aren’t quite working.

To play fast, slow down 

Here’s what is going on in most students’ heads when playing fast music: THIS IS FAAAAAAAST. Up-tempo pieces or movements have a rapid real or implied primary pulse, which as a human being you naturally associate with quicker bodily movements like running or fast dancing. You can’t help but be swept up by that sensation.

Unfortunately, and similarly to “think loud, play soft,” this is exactly the opposite mindset of what’s needed to play fast music well. Like Luke Skywalker deflecting lasers coming at him from every direction, you need to be focused and relaxed in order to play fast. This means that you have to detach the physical reality of rapid notes and a quick implied tempo from the actual functioning of your brain and natural tendency for your muscles to tighten up in “fight or flight” mode.

In chamber music, this usually translates to a frantic sounding music. Sometimes that may be what is called for, but more often the music exists in some kind of dance meter like “scherzo” that still requires good rhythmic command.

Below I’ve embedded one of my favorite things of all time: Maurizio Pollini performing Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata, movement 3. A master like Pollini understands that rhythmic tension and illumination carries far more weight in fast music than just going fast ever could. He perfectly outlines and emphasizes the odd 7/8 meter of the piece using both accent and articulation, shifting his phrasing around as the score dictates. I’ve heard other performances of this piece that felt like blurred clumps of rapid gestures, and have been so disappointed that the odd-meter groove is abandoned. By the time Pollini gets to the end, I always want to throw my hands up in a touchdown gesture. Ok, I sometimes actually do that.

If you tap your finger to the actual tempo, it isn’t really that fast. But your sense of excitement is undiminished.

What does this mean for chamber music? Try to understand the fundamentals of the score within a reasonable tempo before achieving escape velocity. A detail-oriented composer has probably left many juicy elements for you to tease out and master, such as unexpected articulations, cross-rhythms and hemiola, as well as voicing details among the instruments. My experience as a listener is that when details of a score are vivid and transparent, my brain is fruitfully occupied and inundated with plenty of information. When a player is just in frantic mode, I’m only thinking one thing: “gee, that’s fast.”

Remember one other thing: as you get to know a piece better and become more familiar with the information in the score, your perception of tempo will change. What felt fast before no longer will, and you will become more and more comfortable bumping the tempo up. But any audience member who is hearing the piece for the first time is getting all the information at once, and a slower tempo than you are hyped for might be just the way to give them an optimal experience.

Take away the crutch 

Sometimes we overuse the best attributes of an instrument. This is often not a choice, but more of a habit that helps us get to an acceptable result quickly – a shortcut. Seemingly each instrument has one: the pianist’s pedal, the string player’s vibrato, the drummer using too many cymbals or toms. There is nothing inherently wrong with them, unless we are covering up a shaky or uneven foundation.

Each of these crutches allows us to blur the integrity of the underlying issue, whether it be intonation, evenness, solid rhythm, etc.

The great and colorful drummer Bobby Previte has a class he has always wanted to teach about this issue: “Cymbals: The Last Refuge of the Charlatan.” Bobby loves cymbals…cymbals are fantastic. But in drumset culture, it’s generally understood that you can go splashing around on many different kinds of cymbals when you don’t have any good ideas or a solid rhythmic foundation to contribute. The wash of sound and color masks the poverty of your playing.

Take away the crutch is a reminder to yourself and your colleagues that you may end up going around in circles trying to solve a problem unless you peel back an important layer. This layer may actually be called for in the music! But in the rehearsal laboratory, sometimes we have to remove it in order to understand what’s going on.

For instance: in a mixed ensemble of piano plus string instruments, the pianist often inhabits the role of either an orchestra or a kind of complement to all the parts in all the registers. From the first moment that the group sits down together, the pianist wants to feel like he sounds good, and throwing some nice fat pedal down opens up the grand resonance of the sound board. Wrong notes also get blurred and pushed aside. It just feels good. Furthermore, it may actually be indicated and fit the music – especially in late Romantic or early Modern music – and so why not? It would be strange to come into the first rehearsal of a Faure piece playing a piano like it was a harpsichord.

Isolating the pianist’s underlying part requires somebody in the ensemble (or an ensemble coach) to actually say “hey, let’s pull up the pedal and see what’s there.” A string player might not feel confident asking somebody who plays a different instrument to try something like this out. The ensemble struggles with rhythm in a certain section, running the passage over and over again, without ever highlighting the nature of the rhythms in the piano part that they could be listening to more closely. The pianist, meanwhile, has to find out whether she is truly connecting the notes that she thinks she is, or whether a chord could be held simply by the hands without the pedal.

Young – and honestly older – string players know that vibrato is not only idiomatic to most of the music they play, but it also gives you more of a blurry range of intonation rather than having to land perfectly on the note. Less experienced players often deploy vibrato not as beautiful sustaining resonance, but as a mimicked habit that they’ve picked up. Therefore, they do it in the same rich way every single time they strike a note. Obviously this is not my area of greatest knowledge, but I can say that I’ve been amazed at how many problems I can dig up and address just by pulling back or away from vibrato. Once a group has tried simply activating their chords together, they can hear their issues more closely.

The greatest difference I notice between amateur/student performers and professionals is this willingness to root out the deeper problems for the greater good and not have as much fun during some portions of their rehearsal (actually, I think this problem solving is a lot of fun). The musician’s pure pleasure in the music is sometimes subsumed to a greater goal, which is to put the needs of the listener before those of the performer. Each time we in Sō coach a chamber group over an extended period of time, our goal is to turn them from a competent pickup group into a true ensemble. These exercises are part of achieving that cohesion.

Run it! 

Just play it down, top to bottom. This technique may seem obvious, but using it at the right time and in the right way is not always easy to know.

In this context, what I mean is to run it when you’ve become mired in detail work, not as the only thing you feel like doing and “ok see you at the bar.”

The past 5 years, we’ve been working with a theater director, Ain Gordon, who helps guide a process of synthesizing many elements in our theatrical shows – lights, video, movement, music, and everything else. I was amazed at how many run-throughs he made us do in these shows – almost to the point where I was ready to revolt.

But I learned a certain wisdom from this incessant process.

As a musician, I come from a world where many conductors delight in teasing out all of the fascinating interpretive details that make a great piece of music tick. This fascination is often propelled or augmented by the fact that they are conducting very old works that have been studied, absorbed, and reinterpreted. That conductor has a vested interest in making sure some of the details in his performance reflect a unique point of view on a well known text.

Some orchestra players would assume that a conductor who wants to run a piece frequently doesn’t have good rehearsing ideas. Further, they also may be playing a piece that they have known intimately for practically their entire lives. The ebb and flow and trajectory of that piece is imprinted, and so it makes sense to obsess on details.

Making new or unfamiliar music is nothing like this. When the big picture attributes of a piece haven’t been fully absorbed, the players may be wandering in a fog of uncertainty that they are only half-aware of. If they decide to double or triple-down on detail work, they may find that the performance is not coming together.

  1. My recommendation for how often to run a piece is to do it often early and late, and a bit in-between. Running a piece at the beginning of your process is crucial, and you have to be less compulsive about getting everything “right.” Follow the shapes, notice the big events, and get a sense of how large it is. 
  2. Dig into the details with awareness of where each section fits into the larger whole. This goes for a passage within a movement as much as it applies to a movement compared to a whole work. 
  3. At least a week or two before a first performance, run it a lot. You are short on time for fascinating detail work at this point, and run-throughs are your best diagnostic tool for figuring out what to address. Often, it will not be what you were obsessing about

Classical musicians can be on the compulsive side of the human spectrum, and sometimes it feels like we cannot move forward until every single detail is in place. Considering that time is our canvass, I’d invite you to step back from this mentality and consider that large brush strokes are incredibly important to the listener’s experience. You can only evaluate those within the context of your own larger experience of the music.

But, paradoxically, I think you’ll find that the big picture work helps your details enormously. Every single note or passage you play is coming from something and moving on to something else. You need to practice the feeling and habit of moving through the events that precede and follow each section, not just the section itself.

This is especially crucial in long multi-movement works. The composer often places demanding scherzo or rondo movements towards the end, and there’s a certain amount of mental energy that goes into hanging in. The only way to understand what mental resources you’ll have at this point is to play everything else first. Then you won’t be caught by surprise in the performance.

Every time I’m about to play a new piece, I try to remind myself to have a few bad performances first in front of people I trust. They’re pretty much never as good as I want them to be. Whenever I forget to do this or don’t have time, I inevitably have that first exploratory performance at the gig, realizing that I still have a lot to learn about performing the piece, but it’s too late.

Which brings up my last point in this section: running a piece in front of people is different than doing it in rehearsal. I don’t really understand why this is so, but it is. Certain human subtleties of energy-in-the-room will emerge; you will screw something up that never went wrong in rehearsal; a seemingly easy and insignificant detail mattered more than you thought it did to the audience member and you had better polish it up.

Get away from the instrument(s) and Sing 

I’ve come to believe that one of the conductor’s greatest advantages and most important roles is that she is not grappling with the technical details of playing an instrument. All of us who play in large ensembles have had that moment where we see the conductor channeling the composer and emoting and we are thinking something like “easy for you to say, you don’t have 3 new timpani notes to tune in the next 8 bars!”

The nature of the instrument we play in an ensemble has a dramatic effect on the role we play. This is due not only to its place in the tapestry of the score, but also in the physical attributes of the instrument itself. Percussionists often play large, unwieldy instruments, or we assemble combinations of instruments that take up a lot of space. This affects the way we communicate with each other: it stifles intimacy and inhibits eye contact.

I’ve noticed that in many mixed piano/string ensembles, these differences are especially pronounced. The piano is an extraordinarily large piece of furniture which the performer must be in a fixed position to play. The string players need to face out in some fashion so that their sound and presence projects out to the audience. This means that the usual instruction I provide to encourage frequent communication is difficult to manage.

But there is another way. Connecting even once on an important passage helps to solidify your command of playing it together.

Leave the instruments and gather around in chairs, sort of like story time in elementary school. Now, each participant is no longer the wielder of a piano or violin or clarinet – each is simply a human musician. The physical nature of your instrument no longer dictates your role in relation to the other players. Incidentally, this also forces you not to rely on crutches!

Sing, tap on your knee, do whatever it takes to convey the character of your part to your colleagues. It doesn’t have to sound remotely good or be any of the right pitches, and you can make sure nobody else is around when you do it. Find ways that are not ingrained habits of playing your instrument to express the character of the music. This kind of work is tied to the concepts of Dalcroze Eurythmics, although I don’t use any particular methodology when working this way.

When a musician uses the voice and the body directly to convey music, magic happens.

Sō Percussion started using this technique years ago out of necessity. We found that time and instrument availability was often limited, so we learned how to sit down with our scores and rough it out. What we found is that we became that conductor who is unencumbered by instrument management. We were free to emote, lean in, or gather. Our instruments could not either hinder or hide us from each other, and all were equal within the circle.

Several years ago, we were asked to present a TEDx talk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The organizers of the event wanted to do quick dress rehearsals at the museum to get a sense of what everybody would be talking about. Hauling percussion gear around New York City is not our favorite thing to do, so we begged permission to come in and sing through the piece to try to mock it up for them. They agreed.

We arrived at the rehearsal and explained what the instruments would look and sound like. We sang through the entire piece from memory, mimicking sounds and air drumming while frequently glancing around the ensemble to connect on score details. Once we finished, the organizer said “ok THAT’s what you’re doing for your TED talk.” They were even more fascinated by this process than they were to hear the piece!

Watching this performance will show you almost everything you need to know about how we approach the actual piece. Mimicking the instrument sound heightens your awareness of the character of the instrument you are playing. It attaches you to the sound instead of just walking through it with your hands. Singing your sound to your colleague tells them what role you think it plays in the piece. 

One of the other most important benefits of singing away from instruments is that it is a great icebreaker. Whoever came in with their “first violinist” or “virtuoso pianist” psychological armor is now reduced to “goofy mimicking singer person.” This fun energy ALWAYS translates back to the real instruments. I have never seen it fail (unless the musicians refuse to commit to it).

In western classical music, we’ve drifted quite far from the original roots of most functional music making, where somebody was always dancing or partying or observing a religious ritual. We have emancipated music making from those functions, which I think is a fantastic development. But we must not let our bodies and spirits become disengaged from why we sit in a room together and make sound. Put down your instruments, leave the concerns of grappling with them behind, and be human.

Learn someone else’s part

You are playing a Beethoven string quartet. You know your part, but you and the other players just can’t make it work. As frustration mounts, you dig your heels in deeper, playing your own part with greater determination, certain that you are not the problem.

The paradox in this situation is that in 9 times out of 10, playing your part “better” is not going to fix the situation. If it could, it would be obvious: you can play the passage accurately or you can’t. 

Usually this problem comes about because the players cannot wrench their version of “right” playing to fit into somebody else’s. The great law of ensemble relativity is that if it doesn’t sound good, nobody is right. 

You need to devise ways to delve deeper into each other’s playing, not shrink away into your own. One of the simplest is to just ask them to play for you while you listen and/or follow along with your music. This doesn’t have to feel judgmental or critical…it can be friendly and inquisitive. Notice aspects of how their part works and ask questions: “could I help to support you when this moment happens? Is this a difficult passage? I notice that you lean forward on the tempo more than I do.”

You should also take it upon yourself to work from the score as often as possible. With the extra 30% of energy that you would devote to making a solo piece note-perfect, noodle around with other people’s parts to understand how they work. This will return results ten-fold in chamber music over practicing your own part more.

We underestimate the role that listening plays in good chamber music because we think that our immediate sphere is the one that matters most. The truth is that your anticipation of and engagement in another player’s part is how you figure out where your own playing fits in. We can all tell when we are in a conversation whether the other person is actively listening or impatiently waiting to talk again. Their facial expressions and body language shift sympathetically with our words. We know when we are getting through. Playing music is exactly like this.

Here is the best example from my own world. Below is a video of Sō Percussion playing Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood in a carpenter’s studio for the Lincoln Center Festival. Music for Pieces of Wood is deceptively difficult, but not because the notes are hard to learn and play. The continual challenge is that when another player inserts their own part one note at a time, all of the other percussionists must be anticipating where that note is going to fall so that they are not thrown off their own pattern (which happens to be identical but starting in a different place).

In this situation, knowing each other’s parts is non-negotiable. If you aren’t aware that my first note comes in a space between other notes in the original pattern, you won’t know if you need to adjust. Worse yet, the piece is ingeniously constructed to convince the listener that the beginnings of bars are shifting around constantly. The performers cannot allow themselves to be similarly tricked, or they’ll lose their bearings.

My favorite example is the very last added pattern that Eric plays. The section has three beats to the bar, and he starts adding notes that feel like a downbeat and the second eighth note of the second beat. This would be counted “ONE – two AND – three.” The problem is that his part actually occurs on the second eighth note of beat one and on beat three. The obvious, simple pattern is shifted over by an eighth note from the group pulse. We who have already built up patterns must know exactly how these new notes fit into what we’re playing, or we’ll be tempted to hear his notes as a new downbeat, and the train goes off the rails.

Students are often surprised by how difficult this piece is, because it is fully an exercise in listening more than it is in playing. As far as they’ve often come in technical facility, usually these students haven’t yet developed flexible ears to take in the context around them.

Screw Up/Make it Up 

Sometimes, the way to get something right is to get it completely wrong.

Classical musicians have a common and glaring weakness, which is that we are too linear. We think and work from left to right because we play music where the entire multi-dimensional process of decision-making that went into a piece has already happened and been distilled into the score.

Great improvisers are usually great choosers. They rarely pluck an idea out of thin air, but are assembling smaller worked-out ideas in new and spontaneous ways. This is why John Coltrane would go out in to the woods for 8 hours a day with his saxophone. He imagined that it might be possible to come close to exploring everything that his instrument could ever do, and use that as a vocabulary of resources when playing his music.

As a result, when a musician like Coltrane was faced with a musical forking path, he had that entire vocabulary at his fingertips to take things this way or that. Ornette Coleman delighted in using the “wrong” notes as jumping off points for new ideas. Much of the anxiety and difficulty of playing classical music comes from the fact that we’ve only learned to walk in one direction, usually on a tight rope. The only path is forward, and if the vagaries of life on the stage interfere, we collapse. 

Chamber ensembles have a further challenge: when a fork or a barrier arises, we not only have to make a decision and change direction, we have to do it together. But there is no time to talk and plan how the new conditions “on the ground” change our battle plan. We must have worked on ways of facing adverse conditions and getting around them.

There are two important ways to develop this skill together. After you’ve made sure there there is always somebody in charge (see above), the next step is to start intentionally screwing up. This can be a somewhat orderly process.

The idea here is not to just arbitrarily play your part wrong, but to test decision points in the score. We make students do this all the time, and they absolutely hate it!

If you’ve decided who is in charge of a particular cue or arrival point, agree that nobody is moving on unless that cue is given. This flies in the face of what we’re trained to think about a score, which is that it is inviolable. Well, the composer is probably dead, and (most likely) he or she is not on the stage with you anyway, so really he/she is not the only stakes-holder in the situation.

So what do you do if the cue doesn’t come where you expect? Keep moving forward in the score and hope for the best? Make something up?

The answer depends on the context of the moment, but it approximates to “whatever sounds the best and minimizes the amount of time that nobody knows what to do.” Usually, a bar of improvisation is better than a whole lost section of players not knowing how to proceed. Your determination to press forward in spite of the fact that nobody went with you achieves very little.

We test each other to see if the cues really matter, or whether we’re just on auto-pilot. This addresses another common problem of classical music, which is that performances can become boring and rote if there’s no sense that things could change in live performance.

Allow the leader to put the cue in the wrong place. Refuse to move on until you’re sure you are together.

The second big technique, already incorporated above, is to improvise. Don’t worry about making up something good or interesting or original. Just mimic what you mostly think is happening in this section of music. Stay in the key, imitate the texture. Provide a reasonably convincing version of what the composer is doing. Yes, this is a kind of heresy, but falling apart or being lost for 50 bars is far worse.

Play a section leading up to a cue. Determine that the leader is definitely not going to put the cue in the right place. Be prepared to make something up until you get that cue, and then launch confidently into the new section. I promise that you will need this technique sometime in a live performance. 

Here’s one of the greatest benefits of this way of preparing: even if you have a steady performance where all goes as planned, you will have more fun and play confidently knowing that you can handle adverse circumstances. “Playing scared” is a common issue when performing music that has only one right path. Forget that there’s only one path, play like a musician who can make choices, and you’ll have the performance of your life.






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s