Questions for Chamber Ensembles

As coordinator of brass chamber music at BYU, I require that the groups I oversee rehearse at least one hour a week without a chamber coach. I have found that these ensembles seem to get significantly more done when they have some concrete things to work on (in addition to the obvious–notes and rhythms). Below is a brief handout with some ideas on what to focus on in chamber music rehearsals.

Questions for the Successful Chamber Ensemble

(What should we work on?)

Will Kimball, Brigham Young University

1) Are the attacks and releases of the ensemble together? What is the body language of the other members of the group? Because there is no conductor, this aspect of performance becomes paramount. Watch the movements of the other players as they prepare for an entrance or make a release. Become accustomed to what they do so you can match entrances and releases exactly. Adjust your own body language if what you are doing is not clear enough to be seen peripherally.

2) How does your pitch (intonation) sound relative to the voice closest to you in pitch? Follow the intervals created by the two voices as you play a piece. Consider, especially the following: unisons, octaves, fourths, fifths, and “landing points.” Are you making the necessary harmonic adjustments (e.g., lowering major thirds)? As you listen for pitch, begin with the instrument closest to you in range and branch out to the others.

3) Is the ensemble blending well? Are some in the group playing with a bright sound, while others have a darker approach? You may decide to meet in the middle. If you are serious enough as an ensemble, you may even wish to make equipment changes. Also, make sure your understanding of terms such as “dark” and “bright” are the same.

4) What is the texture of the piece (or passage)? Thick? Thin? Consider this both as an ensemble and as an individual. How does your part fit within this texture? Are you making the ensemble sound too thick when it should sound light and transparent? (Or vice-versa?) Are you blending too much when you should be coming forward as a soloist? (Vice-versa?)

5) What is the color of the piece (or passage)? Bright? Dark? Consider this both as an ensemble and as an individual. Should it be bright and aggressive, like a fanfare or shout chorus? Dark and chorale-like? Biting and edgy? Does the ensemble really match? How can you manipulate your individual sound in this respect to help the ensemble?

6) Does the melody get passed from one instrument to another? Are you anticipating, like merging into fast traffic or passing a relay baton? For example, when passing off a melody mid-phrase, the initial player shouldn’t taper the end of his/her passage, and the second player shouldn’t overemphasize his/her first note, or the overall melody will probably end up with the wrong shape. Recording the group is very helpful for detecting these types of issues.

7) What is the role of your instrument (or part) in the ensemble? Do you lay down the bass line, supply inner harmonies, provide the countermelody, or play melody? In actual practice, you fill numerous roles, of course, depending on context, and you should be aware of which role you’re in at any given time in any piece of music. More generally, how does your part fit into the work as a whole? Be continually aware of how your part reflects the meaning, nuances, colors, story line, character, or other expressive elements of the music.

8) Which part interplays rhythmically most closely with yours? Notice the interplay—whether your interpretation of specific rhythmic figures matches, whether your pulse is ahead of or behind theirs, etc.

9) Try listening to specific pairings as you play through a piece. How do the volume, rhythm, and tone color of your part relate to other specific voices in the group? Listen to your part as it relates to each member of the ensemble. Consider playing through passages with various instrument pairings (trumpet-tuba, horn-tuba, trumpet-trombone, horn-trombone, etc.).

10) What emotional content in the piece would the ensemble like to convey to the audience? Discuss this as a group, including specific ways you can convey this content in a unified manner (e.g., note length, phrasing, dynamics, articulation, tone color, rubato, vibrato).

11) How should the biographical background of the composer, history of the work, and time period in which the work was written affect interpretation of the piece? Discuss these elements with the group and pay attention to whether the ensemble is reflecting them in actual performance.

12) How should the musical form, style, and construction of the piece affect performance? What are you going to do to help the audience recognize the recap? Are you matching style in every statement of the fugue subject? Are you mistakenly trying to make the whole jazz arrangement a shout chorus? Consider musical form in light of both your specific part and the ensemble as a whole.

13) Are you willing to compromise when you don’t agree about interpretation? Chamber music is all about give and take. Be willing to at least try someone else’s way or meet somewhere in the middle.

14) Is everyone allowed to express their opinion freely? A chamber ensemble should ideally function as a true democracy, with every player in the group entitled to an equal voice. Many successful professional chamber groups actually vote on matters ranging from repertoire to note length. Can’t agree? Try a vote.

15) How can you communicate verbally in a manner that is both clear and respectful? Since they have no conductor to make decisions, chamber ensembles rely heavily on good verbal communication. How do you receive criticism? Work on developing a thick skin and not taking offense at criticism; professional chamber musicians universally agree that having a thick skin is absolutely critical for success in the business. On the other hand, work on being considerate and not needlessly offending people; very little progress is made when colleagues are irritated and defensive.