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How To Play Chamber Music

June 28, 2010

chamber.jpegIt's hard to get the right balance with community music-making. As an oboist, I've played in groups which take themselves far too seriously and others which don't take themselves seriously enough.

The too serious groups usually produce a higher quality product, but you don't have much fun in the process of creating it because the leader or conductor (who tends to view the ensemble as a sort of reflection of his or her inflated ego) spends too much time haranguing the players about every last detail. The not serious enough groups are full of conviviality, but the musicianship often leaves much to be desired because the players are more interested in rampaging through as much repertoire as possible than stopping to think about such crazy stuff as hitting the right notes or playing in tune.

There's no reason why the two qualities should be musically exclusive though.

The musicians in one group in Oakland with which I sometimes play, have at least a sense of self awareness about their lack of diligence at the expense of fun. At last week's rehearsal, one of the players handed around sheets of paper imprinted with seven pointers for "How to Play Chamber Music." The handout, which is currently attached to my fridge, made me giggle. Anyone who's ever played chamber music in a not-too-serious setting may recognize some if not all of these standards:

1. Everyone should try to play the same piece.

2. If you play a wrong note, give a nasty look to one of the other players.

3. A repeat sign means everyone should stop and discuss in detail whether to repeat that section or not.

4. If the ensemble has to stop because of you, explain in detail why you got lost. Everyone will be immensely interested.

5. If you are completely lost, stop everyone and say: "I think we should tune."

6. If everyone is lost except you, follow those who are lost.

7. If everyone else has finished playing, do not play any notes you have left over.


  • This just made me nostalgic for the Portsmouth Sinfonia. Why are their recordings still only available on vinyl (according to both and There is only the "Zarathustra" track on a British comedy anthology (which I may have first heard thanks to Doctor Demento). We need more recognition of the Portsmouth rules!

    By Blogger Stephen Smoliar, At June 28, 2010 at 9:44 AM  

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