Chamber Music Workshop 2014

The Rubens Quartet presented a new kind of chamber music workshop in the spring of 2014, in collaboration with the Stichting La Pellegrina. The goal of this workshop was not only to help the participating groups reach a better understanding of the work they are playing (through attention to intonation, ensemble playing, bowing etc), but also to provide instruction in more general methods and techniques for being able to play better together. The workshop was a great success and we intend to organize many more in the future. 

Below is the method which we developed for the occasion, based on our years of experience working with chamber music groups of all levels: amateur, student and professional. Please feel free to use it as a reference for your own chamber music adventures!

Rubens Quartet Chamber Music Method

We musicians are faced with a wonderful but especially challenging task: we bring music to life, music which is often so ingeniously composed that we mere mortals are almost guaranteed to fall short of the 'definitive' version. On the other hand: the music actually only exists when it is heard, so our role as performers and interpreters is crucial to the equation. Performing chamber music demands a certain level of instrumental command, and teamwork on the highest level. One must create a unit from a combination of individual voices, so that the result is greater than the sum of the individual parts. This is possible on various levels, from beginner to professional. In this way of working, the first priority is not the end result, but rather the fascinating, challenging and sometimes also confrontational journey towards that end. The most beautiful thing about music making is that you’re never finished; it can always be better! We wish you a lot of pleasure and inspiration during the musical journey that you will make together.

How to begin?

The score, which is in fact the testament of the composer, is always the most reliable reference. It gives us much information about the intentions of the composer, but often also triggers more questions than answers. The score partially shows us the way, but inevitably you need to add a little bit of yourself. So how do you bring the notes on the page to life?
Below is a practical method of how to begin the process of interpretation.

Imagine that you hear the notes:
- horizontally (melodically),
- vertically (harmonically), and
- spacially (sound production)

One could compare this approach to the three dimensions in which we live (length, width and depth). What does this piece of art say to me? How do I identify with it?

Use simple words to define the characters and find the mood of the piece; this is based on the overall impression that the piece makes on the listener. Point out the non-negotiable (albeit subjective) aspects of interpretation; reading the score carelessly can lead to musical misunderstandings that are difficult to unlearn later. Therefore we recommend that you use an Urtext edition (Henle, Bärenreiter or Peters Urtext) rather than a version that has already been interpreted by another musician.

One can approach a work from several different angles. It is important to work from big to small, just as a sculptor would begin by first creating a basic form and then sculpting all the fine details around it. In this way you can become familiar with the available options of interpretation when learning a composition for the first time.

Structure – basic forms, bar groups, phrasing

Understanding the specific structure of any given work is one of the first and most important ways of getting to know the music. The basic forms of music are defined as sonata-allegro form, rondo and theme with variations. One of the first steps when studying a new work is determining the form: one could compare it with studying a map before visiting a city with which you are not familiar. Make a "blueprint" of the structure for yourself and make sure that everyone in the group is aware of the specific landmarks, such as the recapitulation, development, second theme, etc.
It becomes even more interesting when you begin to recognize the individual properties that differentiate one sonata form from another. This triggers more questions:

- Why does this phrase have an uneven number of bars (as opposed to four or eight)?
- Why is this coda disproportionately long? etc…

Determine for yourself which bars belong together, and if these bar groups are consistent or irregular. Special traits or exceptions to the expected structure are often the key to interpretation. Often the surprises make the difference between a good composition and an ingenious one: the icing on the cake!

Defining the basic structure and bar groups will lead you to the next step: identifying the main themes and dividing these themes into phrases. What are the high and low points of the phrase; what is the direction? A typical phrase leads up to a specific moment of tension, after which the tension is released. Direction within the tempo and dynamic markings are the most important tools for making the phrasing audible.

Intonation and sound - the string quartet as one instrument

The blessing AND the curse of the string quartet as a genre is the ability to reach an incredibly high level of homogenity, both in sound and in intonation. Working on intonation and blending requires immense concentration and regular attention; we recommend therefore to do this type of work often and in small amounts.
Intonation is much more than simply placing your fingers in the right place. It is also a question of blending sounds and pitch simultaneously; this is a form of hearing and listening which has very much to do with your imagination of sound itself. Playing well in tune is strongly connected to sound production and balance. Therefore it is important when working on intonation to not only concentrate on the placement of your left hand on the strings, but also on the speed, contact point and pressure of the bow.

Looking under the microscope, this is what needs to be done:

• pre-hearing by understanding the (harmonic) context, translated physically in
• muscle memory: train yourself to feel where the note is
• the action of placing the finger in the right place, in relation to what the others do
• small adjustments after the fact, in pitch, volume and sound color

Tune carefully! A string quartet usually tunes its open strings very tightly, so that all tonalities can sound more or less in tune. Compare the G strings with one another, and for the viola and cello also check the C strings. Ensembles with piano should tune tempered (slightly looser fifths), in order to be in tune with the piano.

As quartet players we differentiate between vertical and horizontal intonation, as in tuning chords (harmony, vertical) and melody (horizontal). Below are some tips for both methods. In practice, there are also moments where you need to combine both methods of tuning.

Vertical intonation – In general we hear chords from the bottom up; often the cello part is the root (bass note). The skeleton of most chords is a triad or seventh chord. Start by making sure that  the perfect intervals  (5ths, 4ths and octaves) are tuned well before adding extra notes, like the 3rd or 7th. The perfect intervals allow less room for pitch flexibility than for example a 7th, so tuning notes in the right order is crucial. The major 3rd is a very important interval, because in a chord it needs to be tuned slightly lower than it would be when played as a single note in a scale.

Horizontal intonation - When playing a melodic line, you need to be aware of how your notes relate to the underlying notes and chords in the music. In a slow solo line accompanied by long notes, every note needs to be in tune with the harmony (an example of vertical intonation). But when the melody is faster, our ears demand a more melodic intonation, with expressive appoggiaturas (i.e. low flats and high sharps); this way of playing may not always sound in tune harmonically. A melodic line in unison with several instruments without harmony should therefore also be tuned horizontally rather than vertically.

More tips on intonation:

• Practice first without vibrato, and later with a narrow vibrato which matches that of your colleagues. A wide vibrato will stick out of the texture and is therefore not recommended for blending
• Always stay alert of the sound production : speed of the bow, contact point and dynamics
• Don't forget to keep breathing and make a healthy sound!
• Tuning unison/octave passages usually works best when the lowest voice leads; all other voices blend into the sound of that instrument. In this case, the balance will NOT be evenly distributed!
• Practice slow scales as a group: in unison or in thirds (two begin, and the other two begin two notes later), four beats per note
• Practice difficult passages using a pedal point (either a person or tuner) as a harmonic reference
• Improvise together in the key of the piece you are playing, as a warmup exercise. Alternate playing solo and accompaniment (i.e. tonic and dominant)

The word balance has already been mentioned above, in relation to sound and intonation. To make a piece of music sound convincing, a certain hierarchy is required; in other words, the important things always need to be heard. Do you choose a homogenous instrument with 16 strings, or for four individual voices? Which voice is the most important?
These are questions that you constantly need to be asking yourselves. Experiment with balance in different ways: not only dynamically (solo voice louder than accompaniment) but also through vibrato (solo voice wider/slower, accompaniment narrower/faster). The greatest composers often write four voices that are brimming with richness already on their own, which makes it challenging to decide what is most important and/or interesting. Sometimes it's helpful to label each voice with a specific character, while at the same time choosing to have one of those voices leading dynamically.

Ensemble – breathing, movement and leadership

Playing together begins with breathing together. Therefore it is crucial to have a mutual musical vision: an interpretation which all members of the group can stand behind. Beware, this can lead to long discussions without guaranteed result! Even ideas that aren't yours, or even those which go against your musical instinct, must be given a fair try. This is the only way to reach a true musical unity.

Playing together also has a physical aspect: who determines when and how we begin? There are countless ways to give a cue, dependant on the music itself: the style, the tempo, the articulation, the texture, etc. Everyone in the group needs to be able to give cues, not only the (first) violinist! Therefore, body language is crucial. Often it is most effective if the cue is given by the person who has the most important part at that moment, but that is not the only way: an accompanying voice that has pizzicato, for example, can very easily show the group when to play. Another example is an accompanying voice which plays a lot of fast notes in succession.

In a good chamber ensemble, no single person is the leader; rather, everyone leads! Nothing is more deadly in a quartet than a “concertmaster” with three obedient followers. The difference in activity between the players works precisely against the unity that you are trying to achieve. Everyone should lead, but not necessarily at the same time. Chamber music is a kind of relay race, wherein the leadership alternates at lightning speed between all the players.

Below are some exercises which can help you learn to bring, feel and lead together:

• Work both individually and as a group with the metronome. But don't treat it as a dry exercise! The biggest challenge is to stay expressive within the beat.
Human metronome: one player claps while the others play, or subdivides the rhythm with the bow. This method is more communicative than playing with the metronome, and very handy in music with a lot of tempo changes.
• Sing the passage instead of playing. It's not important to sing in tune; this exercise is about learning to feel the rhythm and direction of the music as a group.
• Create a situation in which one person leads the ensemble for a certain number of bars. Play the same passage four times in a row, alternating leadership, so that everyone has the chance to express the music in his/her individual way.  This is useful not only for the person leading, but also for the others, and gives a new perspective to the score. Beware: music should never sound the same, so allowing the space for spontaneity should be a high priority!
• Practice with your backs facing each other and/or with your eyes closed. Good chamber musicians listen with their ears, and react instinctively to body language. Sometimes it can help to "switch off" the visual communication, which can sometimes be superficial; cutting off one sense can help to heighten another.
• When (i.e.) the first violin plays freely in his/her melody, making it difficult for the others to adjust as a unit: imagine that the cello plays along with the first violin, and the middle voices are accompanying the cello, not the violin. This can be a more effective way to play together.

Teamwork – if things start to get unpleasant…

Playing chamber music can sometimes be confronting. You can get to know not only your colleagues but also yourself better, and that is not always comfortable! Below are a few tips which can be useful, also outside of music making.

Always stay open for criticism from your colleagues. Constructive comments are a wonderful way to help one improve, and if the atmosphere is healthy, you can even encourage one another to criticize. It can also happen that you think you are open to comments but are still giving off the impression that you are not interested in changing. Try to stay aware! Give comments in a way that makes your colleagues feel appreciated and comfortable, and therefore are actually inspired to honor your request (“I think you're playing a little too slow there” instead of  "You're always too late!” or even worse: “Do you guys also think that he/she is too late?”). Be professional and avoid getting personal! Frustrations can arise if people feel that they are being attacked personally, and this can damage the atmosphere in the rehearsal.

Really listen to each other, even if you think you already know what your colleague is about say, and even if you happen to have brilliant idea at that moment. Try out every idea that is brought into the rehearsal, even if you completely disagree. An uninspired attempt is doomed to fail, so make sure to embrace even the ideas that are not your own. Who knows, you might be pleasantly surprised and learn something new!

Chamber music is, as you already know, a very unique form of collaboration. Every player, regardless of the level of playing, brings specific qualities, but also imperfection to the ensemble. The real art is learning to accept and embrace contributions from all members of the group, and allowing those contributions to shape your collective interpretation.

Coda – some thoughts about the technique of rehearsing

• a well-known method of practicing, when first learning a new (fast) piece, both individually and in a group, is gradually building up tempo. Sometimes it is also interesting to play a slow piece too fast, as an exercise in phrasing and for being more aware of the harmonic progressions in the music
• practice in smaller groups (alternating 2-3 different people) while the person not playing gives feedback. Sitting within the ensemble makes it almost impossible to hear a realistic balance. Actually you should have your ears somewhere in the hall while the rest of your body is playing onstage! This exercise trains the skill of having a objective ear.
• make sound and/or video recordings of your group, and listen back together. Just as in the previous exercise, this one is especially useful for hearing the total result objectively. It can also help prevent unnecessary discussions and disagreements during the rehearsals!