This semester is the most academically rewarding semester I’ve had at the University of Texas. I am taking Orchestration with composer Dr. Donald Grantham, Supervised Teaching and Learning (a graduate level class) with Dr. Duke and Dr. Scott, Peacemaking Rhetoric with peace researcher Dr. Rascha Diab, and the intensive Brahms chamber music seminar with the Miro Quartet. Admittedly, this course load is making it difficult to execute my graduate school plan, but the enrichment I have experienced as experts from vastly different disciplines teach me what they know is worth it.
Last Friday my quintet, the LeWitt Quintet, performed the Brahms String Quintet in F Major, Op. 88 as part of the culminating Brahms seminar concert. The concert included six full length works by Brahms and was an incredible demonstration of the work done by six groups and their coaches over the course of the semester.
I remember feeling utterly exhausted but in the joyful kind of way. I am grateful for the instruction offered by the Miro Quartet in our four masterclasses and bi-weekly coachings that prepared us for a quality performance.
Though I am currently taking a pedagogy course with Dr. Duke and Scott, it is in lessons and classes with the Miro Quartet that I learned strategies for coaching a chamber group well. Miro has a set of well defined principles and processes that make the teaching of chamber music possible.
The following are three fundamental principles of chamber music coaching as I learned from the Miro Quartet.
1. Leadership comes from the bottom. The responsibility of leading entrances, tempo, phrasing, dynamics, energy, and sound quality goes to the lowest voice of the group playing. Contrary to the idea that the melody (usually the first violinist) is running the show, ensemble is in many ways much simpler when the lowest voice leads. Establish the lowest voice, often with the fewest notes, as the container for the group sound. This will create a safe, reliable, artistic musical bed on which the middle voices and melody can easily relax on. Don’t overload the melody line with the responsibility of managing intonation, tempo, and phrasing all while executing the most difficult passage and trying to make beautiful music. Instead, have them float over the top of a well led bass line.
2. Establish a group pulse by speaking. The finesse of a chamber group is often evident in the blend of the members’ sound. Tone quality, rhythm, and articulation are not just complimentary but identical. One way to cultivate this blend is to make sure players are listening to the group sound and engaging in a group pulse, not merely focused on their own sound. Professor Largess would have us put down our instruments and speak, clap and conduct our own parts. Using this method, especially when music is new, allows musicians to establish internally the musical ideas of a work without complicating the music with technical considerations. While speaking you can organize leadership, determine articulations, practice natural phrasing, and simplify passages by latching onto musical gestures. Before complicating already difficult passages by attempting them on our instruments, the speaking allowed us to look up and forced us to engage with each other. The pulse, the swing, the energy we felt was unified. Through speaking we became one ensemble, not five individuals playing at the same time.
3. Make musical decisions by (1) studying the intent of the composer, (2) naming character traits of the music, (3) determining the technique applied to create that character. Professor Largess had a very clear routine for unifying the group’s approach to interpretation. He would encourage us to make intelligent observations on the composers markings and implied indications to identify the raw musical material we were working with. Then he would have us list character words we thought related the the passage. He was careful not to let us use words like “airy, brushy, narrow, slow,” as these are all descriptions of technical adjustments. Instead he encouraged provocative and emotionally charged words such as “ecstasy, dread, euphoria, whimsy, clumsy, weary.” Once the words were agreed upon by the group, the next step (and arguably the most important) is translating the character into technical instructions. How would one emulate the character of dread? What kind of bow weight, speed, contact point and vibrato width, speed will establish that feeling? What string should the passage be played on? How can we voice the parts of the passage to feature and support the dread in one voice?
It is worth mention on the subjective nature of music interpretation that these decisions aren’t definitive. This process helps a group of five move toward a unified musical presentation, but often there will be a snag in that two of the ensemble members will disagree about the character of a passage, or even the composer’s intentions. One strategy that worked for us is executing both ideas as a group to the best of our ability. It is easier to make a decision after enacting all of the ideas on the table.
All three of these coaching techniques were easily replicated in the practice room. They organized our group and enabled us to make progress on many of Brahms’ difficult passages. You can easily apply these techniques to any ensemble work — sectionals, chamber orchestras, orchestra rehearsals and group classes.
You can find a performance of the first movement of Brahms String Quintet in F Major — the result of our semester of hard work applying the Miro chamber coaching principles — below.