Chamber Music: It’s Your Move

Playing chamber music is one of life’s great pleasures. The literature is wonderful, of course. But there also is the joy that comes with shared experience. At its best, chamber music requires developing profoundly human musical relationships that are intuitive and creative, intimate and vulnerable. Yet, many students find it difficult to access these deeper levels of communication. Some, having never felt such intensely personal musical intimacy, simply don’t realize the possibilities. Others may sense hidden depths, but are reluctant or unable to lower their emotional defenses. Because achieving these relationships is critical, this article explores some ways in which we can help our students get the greatest rewards from chamber music performance.

How do we help our students enter a world of artistic communion? First things first, of course. We must lay a strong foundation by teaching the techniques of deliberate, structured practice. This involves aural, visual, and analytical work. We put our students through rhythmic exercises, induct them into the mysteries of intonation. We encourage them to breathe and move together. We insist they analyze a piece as a crucial step towards crafting a thoughtful, unified interpretation. With all that in place, each player must engage with the entire score so as to create a whole that is greater than the individual parts.

As teachers and coaches, we must help students do even more. Below, I present various extra-musical exercises that engender awareness and emotional connections within an ensemble.

To See or Not to See
A high level of physical integration is a clear indication that the players are responding to and valuing one another. Visual cues are one avenue to unified playing. Yet, too often, because students are watching and responding, they assume they are developing their listening acuity. This is not necessarily the case.

What happens if students play “blind?” Initially, chaos. But as necessity forces their listening to become more sensitive, new levels of insight unfold. I often ask ensemble members to spread out, turn their backs to each other, and then play. (No talking allowed.) It generally takes a few attempts to get in sync, but as students learn to listen more closely, the ensemble improves. In the process, students discover that visual cues can offer a false clarity. Seeing might be believing, but for musicians, listening is the key.

Let’s consider the opposite extreme – when visual aspects are over-stimulated. Occasionally, I have students stand as close together as possible, staring into each other’s eyes while playing. Unless there is a strong preexisting bond between them, this “in-your-face” maneuver invariably evokes embarrassed giggling. Students are uncomfortable entering each other’s space. The intimacy of such a sustained and penetrating gaze can be most uncomfortable, even threatening. Students’ nervous laughter is a symptom of their discomfort. Here they discover that there are psychological walls separating them from their partners.

On the Move
I have found one of the most immediate paths to the kind of deep connection required in chamber music is through dance and movement. A lifelong dance devotee, my current favorite style is Argentine tango. Additionally, I have been fortunate to collaborate on multiple occasions with Olivier Besson, a colleague who teaches dance improvisation at The Boston Conservatory.

For Besson, improvisation is “unpredictable and risky,” a state that develops awareness by increasing vulnerability and leveling the playing field. Last spring I invited Besson to give a session for my weekly string seminar. His improvisation exercises were aimed at increasing body and mind connections, and to get students engaged in high-level, non-verbal communication. As the class progressed, students found the immediacy and emotional potential of improvisational dance a revelation, beginning with a newfound awareness of space. It was clear from their weekly reflections that the class made a strong impression. (I have included a small selection of their online journal entries below.)

“I loved it. It was wonderful… I enjoyed dancing (mirroring) with my partner, because the way we ended up dancing was so different than the way we were at the beginning of the class. Somehow we learned to anticipate to each other and connect in a beautiful way.”

“When you were the follower, you had to be on the edge and anticipate what your partner would do next. It’s the nanosecond anticipation that really fascinated me with this exercises. I also wonder how I can now implement these exercises when I have my own chamber group at the chamber music festival I’m participating in this summer. After all, I felt a stronger bond with my partner. We were both able to anticipate the movements from each other and fun during the process!”

Although the class began with individual movements and tasks, I will only describe partner activities that are particularly relevant to the chamber music experience.

Studies in psychology have shown that people engage in unconscious mimicry, which plays an important role in creating strong social bonds. For my music students, conscious imitation within the context of a dance class seemed not only to accelerate social bonding, but also laid the groundwork for truly creative artistic collaboration.

“I have already brought some of the activities into my string quartet, and we had a great time with them! The mirroring really underscores the importance of being clear in your intentions. It’s so fun to figure out how to forecast every movement. Thank you!”

During the class, Olivier offered several partner exercises using mirroring, in which the initiator focused on projecting physical clarity while the responder harmonized. Exercises progressed from simple to complex, with each succeeding exercise building on concepts introduced in the previous one. Although these exercises sound rudimentary, they demand enormous concentration. Initially the students were tentative, and (perhaps defensively) skeptical. Their discomfort eventually gave way to enthusiasm as they fully entered into the spirit of the activities.

Students divided into pairs, with each playing a role: initiator or responder. Seated comfortably on the floor, the responder mirrored her partner, who moved only one hand. After a few minutes, the students switched roles.

Next, attentive (and physical) demands were raised as students used both hand simultaneously. After taking turns as leader and follower, the exercise became more subtle. Pairs engaged in mirroring without leading. When the exercise was proposed, the students responded with disbelief. How could it work? They would end up sitting there, they complained. That was not what happened, however. Movement began gently, then unfolded with an odd sense of inevitability. It was fascinating, and even more effective at removing unseen barriers between participants.

As the sequence of exercises evolved, we moved to mirroring while standing. Mobility was added to the mix. The pairs could move forward and backward, and side-to-side, and an element of freedom and risk. Attention had to be sharpened. Responses had to be quick and fluid. Otherwise, the mirroring partner would be left behind.

Finally, the individual pairs continued the exercise in the midst of a larger group. Partners were placed on opposite sides of a giant imaginary mirror. Those on one side of the line initiated action, and those on the other side responded. Each pair continued to reflect only each other, each remaining on his side of the line. Partners could now move between, and play around the other participants – perhaps incorporating them into their own actions, teasing, and even causing a little bit of good-natured trouble.

“I felt like if I were to now play duets with ___, we would be greatly connected. I wonder if my current chamber group did this, if it would help us to connect on a new and refreshing level. I think that this can be a great exercise for chamber groups. We always tend to focus just on the music aspect, but people who are connected through movement and their energy are always the greatest partners when playing and performing.”

Positive and Negative Space
After the mirroring exercises, we moved on to a different mode of interaction. We explored solid objects and (as Besson termed it, the “negative”) space surrounding them. The students kept working in pairs, alternating active and passive roles. Initially, the passive partner became the solid object by assuming a pose. The active partner explored the resultant negative space, moving around, over and under, but always without touching the poser. Students experimented with distance and variety of movements. They found it took considerable concentration to move close to, yet avoid touching their partner.

“I found myself reflecting on the concept of boundaries and personal space. It took most of the class for the laughter to subside, and for the participants – myself included – to give themselves over to Olivier’s exercises and experiments. But by the end of the class, I was genuinely enjoying ‘dancing’ with my partner, and it felt like we had achieved an odd kind of intimacy. A few minutes later, I couldn’t believe that I had been so close to a relative stranger.”

Next, the “moving” partner took on the responsibility of manipulating the shape of the poser, moving head and limbs. The poser offered no resistance, but was required to maintain the given shape. After taking turns in each role, the exercise became more demanding, as partners changed roles mid-stream when Olivier called out, “Switch!”

Finally, each pair took control of their own experience. The dancer whispered “switch” to exchange roles with her partner.

Interestingly, students discovered that after participating in these activities, staring into a partner’s eyes did not provoke uncomfortable laughter. Instead there was a sincere, intense effort to reach out – to “find” each other. Through movement they had investigated thoughts, feelings, ideas, desires, and their own body’s capacity for movement invention. It required inhabiting the moment, being fully “present” to whatever ideas and actions might unfold.

“This class was just like chamber music. I’m surprised I never noticed this parallel before! It definitely sheds a new light on the communicative aspect of chamber playing. I think I do a lot of this simultaneous acting and reacting in chamber music, but it could really be interesting to bring it to a conscious level the way we did in class.”

The session was profoundly affecting for the students, and the relationship to their work as chamber musicians was immediately apparent. I have successfully used these exercises on other occasions, most recently with students at the 2015 Wintergreen Music Festival.

It Takes Two to Tango
I use Argentine tango, an improvised social dance, as a pedagogical tool. Its technical intricacies are more difficult to access than the movement improvisation described above, but tango highlights an inner, physically-driven impulse shared between the dancers and an all-important constant feedback loop. Together, the dancers interpret the music, an activity surprisingly akin to playing chamber music. This past semester I offered two tango workshops to my string seminar class with the help of Robert Grady, a Boston-based painter and tango buddy.

“It was a very interesting experience finding out how many things tango and playing have in common… the agility of movements, the sensuality and communication between two people without the use of words should all be involved in the act of playing.”

“It was very interesting to see how both leading and following require equal engagement, and that different aspects make each of them difficult…. For me, it was that leading required me to be decisive, and that following meant never disengaging from the leader. I also love that the follower can resist a lead, so they actually have quite a lot of control over the situation.”

Tango partners have clear roles of leader and follower. In spite of the implications of the words, each of these roles is active. Every “lead” is only an invitation, and following is far from passive. Dancers must be deeply aware of their partners – where they are in space (their physical center or axis) and the way they move. The quality of each step (its direction, size, speed, and energy) is contained in the intention of the leader. This intention is communicated through the core connection. There is a sequence of sensations inherent in each step- basic connection, compression, release, and return to connection. Taking time to explore connection, to “listen” to your partner, without the worry of playing an instrument can have huge impact on chamber musicians. The similarity between tango and chamber music lies in establishing strong lines of communication. As in the improvisation session, students take turns leading and following. We begin with partners standing face-to-face, about one foot apart, hands raised, palms outward. I ask them to just barely touch each other, so that the sensation is only skin deep. Then they progressively sink their awareness into their partner’s hands, then arms, and finally try to imagine an encircling embrace with an awareness of the floor down through their partner’s spine and legs. With this, they automatically put more and more weight into the contact. Once they “feel the floor,” they are asked to release most of that weight (returning to about the hand depth of pressure), while trying to retain the heightened awareness of their partner. Then they take turns increasing and matching pressure in the hands.

“It is another way (perhaps for some, an even more direct way) to work on the communication, connection, synchronicity, and conveying intent in chamber music.”

Next they try leading simple changes of weight. (In tango, one’s weight is rarely on both feet.) When that feels clear, they attempt to lead a step forward (for the leader) or to the side. It can be easier to begin side-by-side with elbows linked and both dancers walking forward, before moving to a practice frame, with the follower placing hands on the front of the leader’s shoulders. The lead comes from the core (not the hands or feet), and the follower will get a very clear message this way. (It is crucial the follower receives the lead, and the leader feels the follower accept it. If not, the leader is in danger of stepping on their partner.) They continue exploring the difference between weight changes and a step, playing with sending the lead into the follower’s free leg. In all these exercises, awareness of one’s partner (where they are in space and how they convey their intentions, respond to a lead, control their own axis, etc.) is the main objective.

“… It was just like playing chamber music; you have to open your senses, listen to music to follow the groove, feel the weight of your body and find the balance not only in your body but between you and your partner. Really communicate with your partner….”

We explore the limits of resistance, from nonexistent, with the follower anticipating every move (almost running away from the leader), to extreme, where the follower becomes an immovable object. Obviously, somewhere in the middle, creating an elastic, responsive connection, is the most rewarding.

“It seems that so much of the collaboration in tango is equivalent to collaboration in chamber music, just realized in a different form. In order to move with your partner, you have to establish this kind of connection with them, and then convey your intent so that everything that you do is completely together. This is something I already understood conceptually for chamber music, but the tango experience provided extremely clear and tangible feedback when any part of these steps succeeded or failed. That sense of connection from the class is hard to forget.”

The affinity between the tango and chamber music is so strong, I have found that an element of the dance’s physicality can easily be applied directly to ensemble playing. I stand two members of the group back-to-back, touching so they literally feel each other’s movements while playing. The awareness gained through this physical contact produces spectacular, and almost instantaneous results. Fuzzy ensemble becomes razor sharp. Each player is physically invested in the connection, gains a visceral understanding of what it means to invite their colleague to join their flow, and feels what that joining means.

And In the End…
Ultimately, it is the joy of connection, the exhilaration of merging with your fellow ensemble members, and the joint effort that produces beautiful sounds, that makes chamber music an experience like no other. Creating opportunities to isolate that aspect of ensemble playing allows students to discover, explore, and refine their capacities to communicate. It will help them become more sensitive chamber musicians; to perceive, experience and respond to one another; and also to develop more confidence and groundedness.

Originally appeared in American String Teacher, November 2015