2012 Collegiate Writing Contest Runner-Up Essay

We can play together

Effective chamber music coaching for young musicians

by Jeongin Kim

            “The pianist in our group doesn’t listen to the strings!” “Her sound is too loud.” “The cellist in our group keeps missing his entrance. It’s killing our time!” Every ensemble musician has heard these comments, and they often arise from students having a lack of experience with chamber music. Although college music students show off their brilliant technique while playing solo, many of them have difficulty playing chamber music. Here are some guidelines for teachers to coach young chamber groups.

First coaching (Let’s get started!)

            During their first coaching, young students often try to play the piece as specific as possible. Teachers also expect their students to be prepared. However, this places far too much pressure on students who haven’t had much chamber rehearsal experience. When students and teachers strive for perfection on their first attempt, they lose the big picture of the piece. Moreover, students can get frustrated about their lack of progress and performance. For young musicians, the most important element of their first coaching is to open their heart to each other, get familiar with the composer, and be aware of information about the work they will play. Here are some suggestions on what to do at your first coaching session.

I. Who are you playing?

It's important that students have an understanding of the composer. Knowing a brief biography of the composer and the major historical events during the composer's time helps the student to understand the context of the work. Listening to various works of the composer is also helpful to understanding compositional style and characteristics. However, because young students tend to imitate, it's important for teachers to avoid letting students listen to the piece that they will play. 

II. Who’s coming in when?

When students have a grasp the above information, they are now ready to read the score together. I strongly recommend giving students a training session in score reading. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Students just need to talk about who is playing the melody and accompaniment, and when those roles are passed between instruments. It’s a very important activity to help summarize the piece.

III. You can play this!

Now, have your students run through the piece under tempo. It's important that your students not stop no matter what happens. Remember that the goal for the first coaching is to get a brief idea of the piece, and not focus on the details. 

Regular coaching (Let’s dig in!)

            Now, it’s time to get organized and dig into the piece. For regular coaching sessions, you need to spend a great amount of time getting the piece polished. Remember that this is chamber coaching, and not a private lesson. Spend your time wisely, and focus on getting the students to listen to each other. Remember that chamber music is not about a single instrument but music as a group.

I. Who’s doing what?

Inexperienced chamber musicians often forget their roles when playing together. Students are used to playing alone so it can be awkward for them to hear all the voices at the same time. One of your most important roles as a coach is to remind each student what his or her role is within the ensemble. Everyone can play a melody, but playing an accompaniment or adding harmonic support is equally important.

II. Are you together?

One of the main purposes of playing chamber music is to interpret the piece from various angles, and it's important to allow students to do that. Of course it’s important to be prepared as an individual, but in chamber music, students need to be aware that they are making music as a group. They need to unify their rhythm, articulation, intonation and breathing together.

III. Are you listening?

Young students with limited keyboard skills often have difficulty understanding and listening to how the harmonic language is written in different voices. This is understandable because most instruments have a mono musical line. Even piano students with superb keyboard skills can have a difficulty listening because they rarely have opportunities to play with others. Coaches need to remind students to listen to each other to achieve appropriate balance and blend among instruments. If there are more than three students in a group, it’s a good idea to pair them up to do section rehearsals.

IV. Everyone is a coach!

Sometimes students come to their coaching and spend the time complaining about their group. There are many reasons, but the two main complaints are that one person dominates whole group and that students are hurt by each other’s comments. Teachers need to educate students to give helpful comments each other so they can improve as a group. Remember to coach each other and don’t criticize. Students need to throw their egos out the window. 

Dress Rehearsal Coaching (Let’s have fun!)

            It's easy to turn your dress rehearsal into another coaching session. This can result in students getting frustrated and disappointed about their performance believing that they have not reached their teachers expectations. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a dress rehearsal as “ a full rehearsal in costume and with stage properties shortly before the first performance.” Dress rehearsal coaching should be a preparation for the actual performance. Students and teachers need to spend their time wrapping up the overarching ideas of the piece. They also need to be ready to share their work with the audience. Some will get nervous about the upcoming performance, and can easily loose the hard work they've done. During the dress rehearsal, teachers need to give encouragement, and lead students to open their heart to both the music and the audience. Here are some questions that coaches can use in a dress rehearsal.

I. How do you feel?

At this point, students have a lot of things on their minds. Teachers need to give simple bullet points of the work and have a conversation about their rehearsal experiences to ensure they've digested it well. This session allows students to get organized musically and gain rehearsal experience.

II. What do you want to convey?

As a musician, good communication is the key to having a successful performance. Young students may not understand what musical communication means, so it's important to sum up the emotion of the piece, so that students have a basic understanding of what they need to communicate.

III. Have fun!

The final statement, have fun. Encourage students to open their hearts and minds, and enjoy the moment!

In conclusion, chamber music is a vital learning experience for student musicians. Teachers need to be aware of the vitality of chamber music and be able to organize their coaching plans effectively. Communicating the emotion of a piece is the core aspect of chamber music, and the ultimate goal for any chamber group. As a teacher, it's your responsibility to show students how to communicate this with each other and with the audience. p

Jeongin Kim, a native of South Korea, is an active solo and chamber performer and pedagogue. She has earned collaborative piano fellowships at the Aspen Music Festival and School, Grandin Music Festival. Music 08, Kent Blossom Music Festival, and the CCM Spoleto Music Festival in Spoleto, Italy. She has served as a teaching assistant for the Secondary Piano and Piano Pedagogy Department at the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati (CCM), under the direction of Dr. Michelle Conda. Jeongin currently resides in Cincinnati, and is pursuing a doctoral degree in piano performance at CCM under the direction of Michael Chertock.