Thoughts about learning chamber music

As someone who has been playing the piano since the age of 8, I have studied many types of music and worked on a wide range of repertoire. However, for the last eight years or so, much of my time has been devoted to chamber music. When I first went to Summertrios, a chamber music workshop for adult amateurs, I had no idea how challenging and rewarding this could be!


During the years since that first summer, I have had the opportunity to play with people of different levels, on many different pieces. Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert - all of these masters produced works of breathtaking beauty. Composers of more recent vintage, such as Ravel, Shostakovich and Bartok, continued to add to the chamber music repertoire. Modern gems like Paul Schoenfield's "Cafe Music" and Piazzolla's "Four Seasons Tangoes" are now part of the repertoire, which is growing all the time.


As I worked with other musicians, some at the professional level at Summertrios and some at near-professional level in informal groups, I realized that there was much to learn beyond the technical difficulties of the piano score. In chamber music, the piano part is often the part with the most notes and also the part that keeps the ensemble going, as the other instruments trade off parts. Being sensitive to the interplay between the different instruments goes beyond the solo pianist's already difficult job of interpretion and accuracy.


One thing that has been crucial has been the help of coaches and piano teachers who are well-versed in chamber music. Workshop weeks or weekends at Summertrios and Garth Newel Music Center have been tremendously helpful in bringing my playing along to a higher level; sometimes it only takes a few minutes of demonstration from a coach to make clear to me something I've struggled with for months.


I have been lucky to have an excellent teacher for many years, working mainly on solo and two-piano repertoire. Now I have the benefit of another teacher who is a chamber music professional as well as a solo artist. My years of attending chamber music workshops have shown me that you can't have too many wonderful teacher/musicians!


The last few months of music lessons from my chamber music teacher have been extremely helpful because she has recorded and performed most of the repertoire that I am trying to learn. After getting my fingers around a piece and hopefully having the chance to play it with violinist, cellist, etc., I can go to Julie for insight and polishing. Maybe I had most of the notes right in the Brahms Sonata, but she knows how to bring out the phrasing, even singing the violin part as I play. She knows that at a certain part the violin may have difficulty singing out as well as I might think, so she cautions me to play that part like "carpet" softly underpinning the violin melody. Then at the next part, I can sing out over the strings - but not too much because the piano is a "beast" compared to the violin - and we can bring the music to life for the audience in the loveliest way possible. To be coached by someone who consistently plays in ensembles around the world, playing the music that I love the most, is a joy that I never imagined when I searched on the internet 8 years ago for "amateur piano collaboration" and found Summertrios!


I know that many of the wonderful pianists in GMG do not have experience with collaborative playing. I encourage you to seek out opportunities for this, once we are able to gather together again to make music.

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