“When everyone else has finished playing, you should not play any notes you have left over. Please play those on the way home.” Anon.
Making music with other people is one of the best ways to enjoy playing the violin and an important part of developing your skills as a musician. The benefits of playing as part of a group or ensemble include improvement in every aspect of general musicianship, a better sense of pulse, rhythm and intonation, a heightened awareness and a chance to learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
A chamber music ensemble plays without a conductor. This is a small group such as a string trio or quartet with one person playing each part. A larger ensemble where many people are playing the same part, normally guided by a conductor, is called an orchestra.
When you are learning to play in an ensemble of any size, there are important skills you must develop and practicalities to consider.
Say you’re playing your violin in an orchestra for the first time. What things do you need to know?
- Violinists in orchestra share music stands, one between every two players. This is called a desk, and the person you share with is called your desk partner. Space is important. Make sure you can both sit comfortably, that you both have space to bow and can both see the music and the conductor. Sometimes sharing a desk with someone who is much taller or shorter than you, or who has long arms or bad eyesight, can require careful arrangement of the music stand and chairs so you are both comfortable. Don’t compromise your posture just because you are sharing a stand, and don’t expect your desk partner to either.
- Watch the conductor. You will be able to see the conductor in your peripheral vision. Most of your visual work is done reading the music, but make sure you can see the conductor and the music at the same time. Sometimes you may need to look directly at the conductor for an important cue. Enjoy the communication and follow the conductor’s interpretation of the music.
- Don’t make a fuss if you make a mistake. It’s off-putting for everyone else and detracts from your own concentration. Play with confidence and don’t be ashamed if something goes wrong.
- Listen; not just to your own part but to everything else that is going on as well. There is truth in the adage that a right note at the wrong time is a wrong note. By listening you will find you can blend your sound and intonation with the other musicians and play with everyone else. It’s sometimes better to skip a note or two rather than play out of time or risk playing a solo in the rest. You should never be the loudest player in a group.
- Watch the leader of your section to see how to use your bow. Write any bowings in your part (but not too many fingerings – your desk partner may want to do a different fingering and there’s nothing worse than a part littered with someone else’s fingerings) and notice which part of the bow and how much bow the section leader is using. When all the players move their bows together and use the same bow stroke, the sound becomes unified.
- When the part divides into two separate lines, the outside player will take the top part, and the inside player takes the bottom part. If there are more than two lines the section leader will decide how to divide the parts, but often they are split by desk.
- Learn your part, turn up to rehearsals on time and warm up, but don’t show off playing your latest concerto or caprice. People might start to dislike you. Don’t practice when other people are trying to tune their instruments.
- The inside player will generally turn the pages, but take equal responsibility for putting bowings and other markings in the part. Bring a pencil and a rubber to the rehearsal. Bring a mute too. The chances are if you have to borrow a mute you will forget to give it back and someone will be annoyed with you about that.
- If you have any questions, ask your section leader. It’s not helpful to stick your hand up to ask the conductor a question during the rehearsal.
- And it seems obvious, but try not to give in to the temptation to surf the Internet on your phone, update Facebook, read a newspaper or gossip with your desk partner when the conductor is rehearsing another section of the orchestra. It’s really useful to be engaged in what the other musicians are doing. There are stories of conductors pompously exclaiming, “This is not a library,” to bored trombone players who were caught filling their three hundred bars rest by reading the paper.
Chamber music playing is different from orchestral playing. Communication is intensified because there is no conductor. To play one to a part gives more interpretive freedom but means you have to really communicate to form expressive unity. Playing in a small group is more individual and personal than playing in an orchestral section but still requires the musicians to merge their ideas. In some ways, chamber music is a solo activity because you are the only person playing your musical line. It’s also a social activity in which you are making music with friends and have to be perpetually responsive to what they are doing. It doesn’t work unless you are listening and responding to each other, not only when you are playing, but also in the discussions that inevitably arise during rehearsal.
Here are some tips and ideas for playing in a chamber ensemble:
- Make sure you have a good edition of the music and keep your music clean and in good condition. Mark in any bowings and fingerings you need and remedy any bad page turns with photocopies. It’s helpful in rehearsal to have bar numbers marked in your part too.
- Your bowings should be carefully thought out, where possible respecting the phrasing, musical line and dynamics. You may have different ideas from the other players but it’s good to know why you like a particular bowing when you may have to discuss which bowing to choose.
- In rehearsal, try anything the others suggest, even if you disagree with their ideas. Be flexible. You will want people to try your ideas too and may find that you learn something new.
- Make suggestions gracefully. Phrase any criticisms carefully and have an idea of what can be done to remedy a problem before mentioning it. Be sensitive and positive. “This could sound so much better,” is much nicer than, “This sounds horrible!”
- Practice slowly and without vibrato for intonation.
- Find out about the composer and the music. Having a sense of the cultural and historical context of the composition, and perhaps a little about the composer as a human being, helps you to interpret the music.
- Know the whole piece; the score, the structures of movements, where important points such as recapitulations happen, what the principle themes are and what key each section is in. It’s good not only to know your own part, but to know who is playing the tune, what role your own part plays at any given moment, and which other musicians you are paired or juxtaposed with at any particular point. Know when it is your turn to lead a phrase and know which players will be following you.
- Discuss the tempo. The printed metronome markings should be tried but they are not always practical. It’s commonly believed that Beethoven’s metronome was wrong and if you can’t make musical sense at the written tempo, it’s not right for you. “I tried the written tempo marking but just can’t get it to work,” is a perfectly good way to begin a rehearsal.
- Don’t forget to acknowledge rests and silences. Rests; the absence of noise; are a scary prospect but they create suspense, drama and a chance to breathe. Try exaggerating the rests until you feel comfortable with them.
- Discuss phrasing and line. Where do the phrases begin and end? Is there long line or is the phrase made up of several shorter ideas? Where is the high point and where does the line culminate? Sing the phrase and notice where your voice shapes it and how the tone colour and dynamics rise and fall.
- Intonation in chamber music is really important. It only takes one person playing out of tune to undermine the whole ensemble. Tune your violin carefully. Check tuning against the open strings and make sure you have all tuned to the same A.
- Think about matching your vibrato in the group. Even if you are playing in tune, vibrato that is wider or slower than someone else’s will make you sound out of tune. Match bow speeds and point of contact to unify your sound.
- Try recording some of your rehearsals. When you are in the middle of playing it can be hard to keep a sense of the bigger picture, but by listening back to a recording you will easily catch what is and isn’t working.
- Video yourselves occasionally too. Music is about sound, but performance is also visual. It is important to be aware that how you look can detract from or enhance the audience’s understanding of the music and their enjoyment of the performance. It can also have a bearing on how the other players in the group respond to you. By watching yourselves back on a video you should get a clear idea of what you are projecting.
Enjoy the experience of playing with other musicians and discovering great music together. There is nothing better than the exhilaration of creating something that is greater than the sum of its musical parts, and of extending your own technique and creativity along the way. You will learn musicality, diplomacy, how your friends take their tea, and most of all, you will open yourself up to a world of great music.