Chamber Music as Practice Gadget

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Daniel Coyle has a nice post over on the blog associated with his book The Talent Code about practice gadgets. These are cheap and simple tools and tricks that make whatever skill you are practising harder in quite specific ways so that you have to do your thing better. He gives the example of a neighbour who practises basketball wearing goggles with the lower half blacked out so he can’t see his feet. CPE Bach recommended practising the keyboard in the dark for the same kinds of reasons.

The gadgets he liked the best are the ones that people jerry-rig themselves. It’s clearly the cheapness he likes in part – you don’t have to make anybody else rich to excel at your thing – but it’s also the self-generated quality. Part of the magic of a gadget is that you thought of it yourself. And if you get the idea from someone else, it’s a better dynamic when you appropriate the idea than when somebody tells you to use it.

Now, it occurred to me the other day when I was coaching a quartet, than for people involved in ensemble musicianship, doing some one-a-part music is the ultimate gadget. It is to singing in a choir or playing in a band or orchestra what playing futsal is to soccer. It is a pared down version of the same thing, but it brings out the specific skills you need for performing in an ensemble in a purer form.

At the most abstract level, the challenge for ensemble musicianship is the balance of awareness/attention between self and other. In order to hold your own part and not wander off onto what someone else is doing, you need to have a clear conception of what you’re doing and the focus to stick to it. In order for the music to come together as a whole, you need an awareness what everyone else is doing and how the parts fit together to make the whole. Singing at the same time is not the same as actually singing together.

This balance of skills is needed in any ensemble, but they are needed in a more intense, focused form where there is only one person on each part. The most obvious point is that there’s nobody else to lean on for your own part. Even people who don’t think of themselves as ‘leaners’ get the benefit of other performers keeping them on track in larger ensembles. Moments of doubt or hesitation are smoothed over by others’ confidence; incipient mistakes get nipped in the bud as you hear the difference between what you are doing and your part-mates. Even if you’re not relying very much on these stabilisers, you notice when they disappear.

A less obvious point is that where you have company on your own part, you don’t have so much need to keep the whole texture of the music in your head. It’s tempting to see the music from the view of your part, and experience the other parts as background music rather than something for which you also have some responsibility. When the only company you have in the music are people on other parts, you suddenly find you have to pay a lot more attention to how you all fit together.

And this isn’t just in the dimension of time – significant though rhythm and synchronisation are. It’s also in the dimension of sound/resonance/timbre.

Blend is important in larger ensembles of course, but the process by which an individual contributes to it is much less demanding than in small groups. When there’s an over-arching body of sound enveloping the whole group, slotting into step is a matter of coordinating to something that already exists. In chamber ensembles, you have to create the corporate sound and coordinate to it at the same time.

There’s a real sense of magic when you start to conjure up something between you that wouldn’t exist if any single one of you were missing. It’s like keeping a top spinning, or walking a tight-rope – it pulls you into the moment as you keep it alive, keep it spinning between you. You can’t just lapse into autopilot, or it falls apart again.

This is why (a) some people find the prospect of working in smaller groups daunting, and (b) when people have got a taste for it, they find it addictive. (It possible that the people who were initially the most daunted end up being the most dedicated – there’s nothing like conquering a fear to stir up enthusiasm.) Things that are more dangerous can be more fun – chamber music works as a rehearsal gadget because it is the extreme form of ensemble musicianship.

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