“You are the first violinist, you must lead,” were the only instructions I received when I was thrust into my first chamber group at the age of fifteen. As I sat down on the hard plastic chair and picked up my music—Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 7—I attempted to muster the mindset of a leader. Confidence was the first attribute that came to my mind. Given each musician’s exposure that is inherent in chamber work, the vulnerability of playing in such a
small group was intimidating to me, but I tried to compensate through playing loudly and masking my own insecurity with bravado. No one modeled first chair behavior for me or provided mentorship regarding my role; I was completely on my own. And so went my first foray into chamber music armed only with my inexperience mitigated by my good intentions.
Two years later and feeling equally unprepared, I once again found myself in another chamber group as first violinist. My chambermates were likewise inexperienced regarding chamber leadership skills and during our first rehearsals they were oblivious to the importance of their individual contributions to the performance. It was with that group, as we sat shivering in the perpetually frigid auditorium that I learned the first crucial lesson of chamber playing: the performance is only as good as the sum of its individual parts. Every musician has a role to play be it melody, harmony, or rhythmic integrity and each of those roles are crucial to the music. In most classical ensembles, each instrument weaves in and out of these different roles with their brief shining interlude as the melody. At the time, I took this concept to mean that anyone carrying the melody was the leader at that moment. But that view was the consequence of relative inexperience. The truth is that each member must continually lead while they play. They must lead in whatever their role is so that there is complete balance between the parts. This does not mean that they must always be at the forefront of the ensemble; instead, like a true leader, they must know when it is their moment to shine and when they must hold back to provide the important foundation upon which the melody can glide. Such maturity can only come with experience and a willingness to understand one’s role at every point during the performance.
With that knowledge, our playing improved exponentially and so our performance was light years beyond my first attempt at chamber. However, there were still some key elements lacking. It is only now, years later after studying and playing in numerous chamber groups that I have been able to achieve a more complete understanding of what makes an ensemble truly great. Essentially, the key element is connection. Connection comes in many forms including movement, eye contact, breathing together, active listening, embodying the character of the music, and the choice of chambermates who share this level of comprehension and prioritize healthy personal and professional relationships. The more ways to develop a connection with your ensemble members, the better. Executed with artistic maturity, these components add up to the creation of a truly unified and masterful performance. Further, the longer the group plays together the more subtle are the cues that they give to each other. As an example, the Guaneri quartet developed cues that are so highly nuanced that they may not even be visible to the untrained eye. Compare these performances to what you generally see at summer music festivals at which the student chamber groups barely have enough time to competently learn their own parts before performing live. In this latter case, you will hear the sniffs, see the bowings, and watch the body language that collectively constitutes the conspicuous cues required to keep the group together during the performance.
There is one more element, however, which is too frequently overlooked. After the hard work and the time spent on listening, breathing, moving, and thinking as one cohesive unit, it is easy to forget the vital importance of having fun. We must reset our classical brains so that we can play for the delight of playing and take joy in sharing with our audience something that we ourselves adore. When musicians find ways to have fun and be humorous with their cohorts, their energy becomes infectious and they portray to their listeners their collective enjoyment of connecting to create a beautiful performance. Humor and joy bonds people together far better than any other technical facet of making music ever could. Once you understand your fellow players you don’t even have to think about any of the other aspects of connection; they will emerge organically as a consequence of the bond you share with your chambermates. This mentality is what moves professionals into the realm of masters. To be truly great, chamber musicians must transcend the notes on the page and reach further until they can develop humor and joy with each other. For me, successfully implementing this concept is the difference between mediocre performances and those which are truly sensational.
I have found that this mindset applies not only to music and working in chamber groups, but also to any group situation in life. Working with others requires building rapport, and humor is an incredibly effective way to do it. Life requires you to develop connections with others, but many people choose to be either a leader or a follower. I instead challenge you to be both. Know when it is your moment to shine and when you instead are providing the platform for others to shine. And most importantly, in everything you do, do it with joy, passion, and love because that is how you reach souls.