Answers to questions almost everyone asks about chamber music and CMNC's weekend workshops

What is Chamber Music?

It is music suitable for performance in a chamber, or room, as opposed to a large concert hall.  The term is usually applied to instrumental music, though it can equally apply to vocal.  It usually applies to music for three to ten players.  The critical idea is one person to a part.  In an orchestra there are generally at least several players per part.  The instruments can be any mix you like, with or without piano. There is no conductor.

Some common types are:  string quartets (two violins, viola and cello), piano trios (violin, cello and piano), and woodwind quintets (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon).  Sonatas for two instruments (for example, violin and piano, or clarinet and piano) are a kind of cousin, since they involve one instrument per part and a collaborative performance. Works involving one or more instruments and a vocal line, like German "lieder" fall in the same category.    To FAQ menu

Is Jazz a kind of chamber music?

Yes, if it involves one instrument per part.  People usually think of chamber music as "classical" music: baroque, classical, romantic, or modern.  However, a jazz group is really just playing a different genre of music.  Some modern composers, like Claude Bolling, mix classical and jazz idioms in their chamber music.    To FAQ menu

In what ways is piano chamber music different?

A piano uses a "tempered" scale.  That is, the intervals between notes in an octave are divided up slightly differently than they are for a stringed instrument, which uses "perfect" fifths.  This means that string players have to make slight adjustments in the pitches of their notes to match the piano's harmony.  Cellos and violas, especially, have to tune their lower two strings slightly higher than for playing in a string quartet.   Woodwind instruments generally use a tempered scale, so they don't have this problem.

The sheer volume of sound generated by a modern grand piano can easily overpower other instruments.  Therefore, pianists playing with strings or woodwinds have to learn to be moderate in their volume and must pedal sparingly. There is a popular myth that keeping the piano's lid down cuts its volume.  This is false.  Playing with the piano lid down doesn't help with achieving a good balance between instruments.  It merely makes the piano sound muddy.  Pianists take note -- you have to learn how blend with other instruments.     To FAQ menu

Which Composers Wrote Chamber Music?

Almost all of the classical composers wrote chamber music and played it.  Indeed, many of them reserved their finest efforts for their chamber music.  Some examples are Beethoven's string quartets, piano trios by Brahms and Schubert, and Mozart's inspired quintet for piano and woodwinds. Then, there are contemporary works like the the two fine pieces for woodwind quintet and piano by composers Francis Poulenc and Gordon Jacob.      To FAQ menu

If there's no conductor, how do you stay together?

It's tricky.  The musicians have to establish a common rhythm that each feels.  Entrances are cued by one of the performers, often (but not always) the first violin. Chamber musicians don't "follow" someone else, except on an entrance cue.  They simply play together, and each has to anticipate when the next beat is coming.  Sometimes a particular part has a very regular rhythm which everyone else comes to depend on.

Playing together means that if you miss a note, you can't stop and fix it.  The rhythm comes first!
Each musician has to listen and pay careful attention to what each of the others is doing.  You cannot just bury your nose in your part and play away as if you were the only one in the world! This is often a problem for pianists who are new to chamber music.  Practicing with a metronome is good advice for everyone, but it's particularly important for a new pianist whose entire career to that point has generally been playing solo.      To FAQ menu

Who Plays Chamber Music?

All kinds of people play chamber music.  Some are amateur musicians.  Others include the top concert professionals in the world.  Some are elderly, others are young.  They play because the music is beautiful, and because making music together with other people is one of the most rewarding experiences anyone can have.  People simply get together to play, they don't have to be rehearsing for a concert..  They don't need a large hall to rehearse and perform in.  They can simply meet in someone's home.  Nor do they need an audience, though that is generally okay.  Often, they will play for a while, then take a break and have something to eat, talk, and just enjoy each others' company.  Then, they will resume playing -- often into the wee hours of the night.     To FAQ menu

How do I get started playing chamber music?

You need three things:

  • Technical skills.  Get them back by going through your exercise books. Take some lessons.
  • Sight reading skills.  Practice reading relatively easy parts without stopping -- try Baroque trio sonatas.
  • Knowledge of  the literature.  Start with Haydn and Mozart.  Get music from the library or buy it, and learn the parts to a half dozen pieces.  If you play the violin, start with the second violin part.

Please don't sign up for a workshop until you have these "under your belt".  However, do recruit some friends and start playing regularly at home.

If you are a pianist, it is particularly important that you work hard on learning the literature.  The piano parts in chamber music are often difficult to sight read. See Technical Tips for Piano Sightreading. If you are really serious about playing chamber music, buy the music, work on it, put in fingerings, and learn it ahead of time.  Then get together with your string and woodwind friends and play it. Remember that the rhythm comes first.  Learn to use pianists "Rule No. 17.5 -- the judicious omission of un-necessary notes."

Effective workshop participation requires a reasonable level of technical competence and previous familiarity with chamber music. High technical proficiency can compensate to some extent for lack of chamber music experience, but sight-reading skill is essential.

See also Gaining Chamber Music Experience

  • True beginners are not likely to be adequately prepared for the experience of playing at the workshop.
  • If you are a beginner, we encourage you to form chamber groups at home in order to gain self-confidence and some familiarity with the literature before applying to play at an organized workshop.
  • CMNC members receive a directory of all members, which will help you in forming groups for this purpose.
  • CMNClist is another good way to find fellow players.
  • CMNC also recommends the chamber music classes for adults at the Crowden school
    To FAQ menu

What happens at a CMNC chamber music workshop?

After registration, refreshments, and a short orientation session, the Saturday assignments are posted and people go off to their rehearsal groups. One person in each group  has the responsibility for getting the assigned music from the library.  The group reads through the piece(s) and eventually chooses a movement to work on in detail.  The coach meets with the group and helps with the rehearsal.  Coaches generally have two groups, so you are on your own part of the time.  The groups continue to rehearse after lunch.

Our innovative workshop directors may create variations on the following patterns:

In mid-afternoon the four groups from two coaches assemble for a master class. Each group plays its selection and receives coaching suggestions from the other coach. Depending on the venue, the participants may instead be divided into two or more performance samplers.

Usually there is a short concert performed by coaches before supper. After a break and supper, it is time for freelancing. Those who have organized their own groups get their music from the library and head for the room they have reserved. Those who have no group organized, but still want to play in the evening, gather around the freelance sign-up sheet for assistance in putting together a freelance group. Freelancing ends when the library closes.

The Sunday schedule may be a little different. It may be coached, but there are no master classes. The morning session groups meet together and read through and/or work on their assignments. The afternoon session works the same way. If there is coaching, there will be one all-day session, and likely an optional performance after 4pm. The workshop ends Sunday afternoon.     To FAQ menu

How are people and music assigned to rehearsal groups?

CMNC tries to put people together who have approximately the same level of experience and technical and musical skills and then assign one or more pieces which require about this level.  Since there are as many as three assignments in a workshop, we try to assign different kinds of music, and different people to play with.  We do best when the workshop directors know you pretty well and know what your skill levels are. The job of being a workshop director is rotated among CMNC board members who are experienced chamber musicians.

If people ask on their workshop application to be assigned certain works, or indicate a preference for playing first or second violin, we try to be accommodating.  We can't always accommodate preferences, though, because of these other considerations. If a group really doesn't like their assignment, or it's too difficult, they can always go to the library and take out any other work with the same instrumentation that hasn't already been assigned.    To FAQ menu 

What clothes should I wear to a workshop?

Dress informally.  However, please note that rehearsal rooms are often chilly, so bring a sweater.    

Do I need to bring a music stand?

Yes, unless you are a pianist.  Although there are music stands in some of the rooms we use for rehearsals, that isn't always the case.      To FAQ menu

Can I bring my own music?

Yes, by all means. Although CMNC cannot guarantee that you will be assigned a group that would be the correct instrumentation for playing it, you can put your own group together in the evening and "freelance" using your own music.  CMNC has a library of 1000 scores you can check out for freelancing.  

You can also plan ahead and come in a preformed group -- which must bring its own music. Preformed: a chamber music group, trio or larger, formed by individuals outside of the workshop. For example, you and three friends have been playing together as a quartet and your group would like to attend the workshop to receive coaching.

Your preformed group decides on the piece, perhaps a movement or more, works on it prior to the workshop, and comes prepared to be coached, bringing your parts and a separate score for the coach. It will save time in your rehearsals and at the workshop to measure-number your parts and the score.     To FAQ menu

What is "Freelancing"?

Freelancing is:

  • signing up for a rehearsal room to be used at a particular time,
  • collecting a group of workshop participants who play the instruments you need
  • getting some music from CMNC's large library (or using music you brought with you) and
  • playing to your heart's content.

You pick the group and the music.  We usually provide time for freelancing after supper on Saturday night.  However, you are also free to freelance during meal hours if you want (be sure to eat very quickly!).  Freelancing requires some initiative on your part.  Don't wait for someone to come to you with a request that you join them.  Anyone is free to set up their own group and invite anyone they like.  Try to set up your Saturday evening freelance groups by NOON on Saturday.  Don't wait until the last minute.

There are some rules, however.  If you agree to be a part of a freelance group it is VERY BAD MANNERS to drop out because someone else invited you to play with them and you want to be a part of their group instead.  Don't even think of leaving a freelance group you have agreed to be a part of!  Take notes on what you have agreed to do and DON'T DOUBLE-SCHEDULE yourself for two groups simultaneously!      To FAQ menu

What clefs must a string player be able to read?

That depends on what instrument you play.  Violins only have to deal with treble.  An intermediate cello player should be able to read and play both bass and tenor clef, and being able to read treble clef is highly desirable.  An advanced cello player should be able to read and play from the bass, tenor, treble, and transposed treble clef (reading the treble clef and playing an octave down).  A viola player should be able to read and play from both the alto and treble clefs.     To FAQ menu

Are there additional questions we should be answering?

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created by: J.Sonquist 4/27/98
Updated 12-2012 and 5-2015