January 18, 2021
by Joanne Green
As a one-to-one instrumental teacher, do you play duets with your students? Or accompany them on the piano? Do you get your students together to play chamber music? Do you encourage them to play in a string group or attend group lessons? Do you encourage them to join an orchestra? I think we all understand that music is ultimately a type of social glue; a way to bring humans together into a close-knit community. To study and play only in isolation defeats the purpose of learning to play in the first place.
Every teacher worth their salt will encourage some form of ensemble playing for their students. There are many pedagogies that embrace the importance of ‘playing together’ in their methods. Mary Cohen, revered teacher and composer of teaching materials, is a huge advocate of chamber music. She introduces it from the very first lessons and has given many lectures and conference talks on the topic. The Suzuki method encompasses mandatory group lessons alongside individual instrumental lessons. The group lesson experience prioritises the importance of peer learning and social interaction. El Sistema, the ‘Music for Social Change’ programme that originated in Venezuela, has a backbone of participation in classical orchestral ensembles.
To play with others can be inspirational, challenging and, most importantly, fun, and any opportunity to do so should be grasped firmly with both hands.
But in our time-pressured, cash-strapped society, if you have to choose only one, are any of these opportunities a better bet than the others? As an instrumentalist we can be soloist, chamber musician, or symphony orchestra member. In each of these genres a different role must be assumed.
As a soloist we are concerned with ourselves, our excellence, technical prowess, authenticity, strength of personality, and projection. In a large ensemble or an orchestra, the emphasis is on a shared vision, dissolving the individual ego for the benefit of the greater good. In the string sections where 14 violinists may be playing the same part, the emphasis is on uniformity. In chamber music, where all musicians play their own line (and this is particularly relevant for string instruments as it rarely occurs at any other time), one is forced to act as both soloist and ensemble player simultaneously. This means you must constantly assess your place in the texture, be able to assert yourself in the group or give way to someone else. It’s a chance to be heard as an individual but also to rely on the strengths and different musical personalities of the other players. In this way, chamber music is a microcosm of all the skills we may need as musicians and, for me, places it as the most important and useful activity for my students to participate in alongside individual lessons.
The skills we learn whilst playing our own line in chamber music run much deeper than purely acquiring musical skills. Participating in chamber music can teach life skills that can help employability in any profession: collaboration, tolerance, democracy, humanity, and leadership. A student will learn how to ask open questions, give constructive criticism and be able to receive it too. Then there are subliminal skills to be acquired. Rehearsing chamber music develops different forms of communication; a positive alertness, reading of body language, the development of shared performance cues and nonverbal communication, and the developing of a type of sixth sense - ‘a sense of hearing and feeling’.
A recent article by the CBC reports a strong link between success in medical school and early training as a musician. Musicians learn to constantly reassess, reflect on what they did well, and determine what improvements need to be made – all skills which make for an excellent physician or surgeon. One student interviewed stated in particular that playing chamber music helped prepare her for the culture of medical school: “When you play chamber music, you are required to show up prepared, and bring a pencil. We were required to meet on our own time, to work together, to discuss what we want and how to achieve that."
In a student-centred learning space, students choose what they will learn, how they will learn, and how they will assess their own learning. This is in contrast to traditional education, also dubbed ‘teacher-centred learning’, which situates the teacher as the primarily ‘active’ role while students take a more ‘passive’, receptive role. One-to-one instrumental lessons are, of course, a teacher-centred activity. The teacher is the knowledge holder, and the student is the recipient of knowledge. Sometimes I play duets with my students. This is the simplest chamber music activity available to the student and, whilst it is a valuable experience, it is by its very nature a teacher-centred activity. Likewise, being accompanied by the piano. It is not autonomous, nor exploring all those skills that peer-led experience can provide. Orchestra is another teacher-centred activity because the reliance is on a conductor to lead the ensemble along and the students are more passive. In a chamber setting however, it is possible to create an environment where the players rely only on themselves. It then becomes a student-centred learning that empowers students with direct ownership of the learning experience. To be able to create this environment the teacher or adult needs to move away from ‘teaching’ or even ‘coaching’ and become more of a ‘facilitator’.
Naturally, to put four eight-year-olds in a room and tell them to rehearse by themselves is not going to work. They need direction and coaching. Therefore, to maintain my role as a facilitator rather than teacher requires careful structuring. I ask open questions, encourage them to ask questions of their peers, I get them to decide where they are going to rehearse from and tell me why. I ask them to review the section they just played. Could it be improved? How? I also have a role ensuring everyone has an equal voice; to control the more dominant personalities and support the less confident or passive ones. It is probably true that we don’t achieve performance-ready pieces as quickly as if the rehearsals were purely teacher-centred, but in my eyes this is not important. As the students grow and develop over a period of time, I’m able to downplay my involvement and they are able to take responsibility for the rehearsals themselves. This is one of the great joys of taking a long-term chamber group.
The beauty of having eight-year-olds playing chamber music is that the group can be better than the sum of its parts. Despite the music having to be at a level lower than their solo playing (it’s too difficult to concentrate on technical issues and ensemble techniques at the same time), the children feel a huge sense of accomplishment, particularly in performance where they have ‘done it by themselves’. They also have a great deal of fun. All of this directly reflects on their attitude in their individual lesson. They are more confident, more willing to take risks and more receptive to learning.
In a school or institution-setting it is easy to organise chamber music sessions. As a private teacher it is much more difficult, not least because all your students play the same instrument. But dig out those four-violin quartets and cello ensemble works, or collaborate with another teacher to make it happen. It’s worth it.
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