Excerpt from a master class by the American Horn Quartet
One of the most common questions the AHQ encounters from students around the world is “How do you make a great chamber ensemble?” Thus the idea for this particular master class was born. I did a rough draft sitting at the picnic table of my friend Prof. Bruce Richards (Liège Conservatory and Liège Philharmonic Orchestra) while his charming daughter showed me pictures of cute baby animals. Sadly, the wildlife didn’t make it into the presentation, but the quartet developed the outline into a class we’ve given many times over the past few years. We have here an excerpt from what we teach in this master class, as well as three videos: 1) a useful tuning exercise, 2) some Brahms, and 3) a bonus feature for IHS members only where Geof, Charlie, Kerry, and I discuss how we are choosing the repertoire for our final concert at the International Horn Symposium in Los Angeles this coming August.
Over the years, we have often been asked how to put together a chamber music ensemble, how to choose members and repertoire, what kinds of technical/artistic considerations come into play, and even how to get along with one another. In this feature, we address two important aspects of ensemble building: 1) balance and ensemble sound, and 2) effective rehearsal techniques and etiquette. This is not intended to be a thorough treatise on these topics, rather more of an exploration with a few ideas for you to try out.
Balance and Ensemble Sound
Everyone comes to a chamber music setting with his or her own individual concept of sound. This, of course, will change according to the repertoire – for instance, you wouldn’t play Mozart or Schubert with the same large, saturated orchestral sonority necessary for Mahler or Strauss. By the same token, you’ll need a different modulation of tone for woodwind quintet, horn quartet, trio with violin and piano, chamber orchestra, etc. It is a good idea to attend as many live performances as you can to experience the horn in every imaginable setting. When you find yourself in a chamber music ensemble, you’ll have people coming together with different aesthetics and histories, often with very different instruments. The challenge of developing a group sound will be somewhat greater in, say, a brass quintet, than in a quartet of four horns. There are many ways to do this. (In our master class, we address issues such as matching articulation, pulse, rhythm, note lengths, visual contact vs. aural information, knowledge of styles, exaggerating musical elements, among others.) Great intonation goes a long way towards the development of a beautiful ensemble sound. Never compromise on this! We’ve got an exercise that works well for groups to “find” each other, intonation-wise, at the beginning of rehearsal.
Once you are on the same page with your intonation, imagine that your group sound is a column of vibration in the middle of the group. A good way to set this up is by playing Bach chorales together. Listen carefully for any voices that stick out, and build your chords from the bass up. Have a friend or coach listen from the outside to help you hear when the resonance and balance are just right. If you listen well, you’ll hear the moment when it clicks into place. It’s actually very exciting when this happens – everyone will feel a difference, and it will be so much easier to play with the support of the right sound! This will be your group’s signature and base line sonority. You will, of course, deviate from this balance when the music dictates that certain voices come out of the mix. Sometimes, especially in the case of transcriptions, your ensemble sound will want to reflect the original composition. The AHQ plays a lot of Bach, and for certain pieces, we do our best to imitate a full pipe organ or keyboard. Here is a YouTube clip of the AHQ from a couple years ago, playing the choral piece “Im Herbst” by Brahms, using the sound of a choir as our template: https://youtu.be/3OrSLcM5gYE Another exercise you can use to develop a group mind is to turn your chairs around and face outward. You’ll have to listen carefully to each other, to your breathing, to your attacks, to the shapes (and crucially, the ends) of phrases. This is simple to do and surprisingly effective.
Effective Rehearsal Techniques and Etiquette
As you are first getting together with a group of friends or other students to form a chamber ensemble, we highly recommend you discuss your goals together right off the bat. Do you want to meet on Saturday mornings, play quartets for fun, and then go for lunch together afterwards? Is there a competition you’d like to enter? Do you have the goal of forming a full-time ensemble? Many groups fail because not all the members are of like mind. So, to avoid disappointment and resentment, make sure you all know what you’d like your group to accomplish. This is equally true for choosing repertoire. The AHQ is in the process of putting together our final concert in Los Angeles in August – here’s how we decide what to play for this occasion:
Other advice: Prepare your individual parts in advance. Don’t waste everyone else’s time in the ensemble by practicing your parts in front of them, unless you are doing a reading session, of course! While preparing a piece, divide up and practice in sub-groups. In a brass quintet, for example, have a rehearsal for the low brass in one room and the trumpets in another, to work out passages you have together (then change it up and send a trumpet in with the horn and trombone, etc.) It’s another timesaving technique and a way to get to know the other parts rapidly. BE TACTFUL. It’s really important to be kind and diplomatic in rehearsals, even when you don’t want to, or you know the other guy is playing it wrong. Instead of saying, “Hey, you’re always flat on that passage, moron!” try “Do you mind if we tune these bars?” Also, if other issues come up, such as one member always showing up late, don’t let it fester – say something – but do it in a constructive way. This extends to musical interpretation – always be willing to try out each other’s suggestions. You never know! I can’t tell you how many times we have taken turns in the quartet saying, “Let’s just try it my way,” and then ended up changing something. Use a metronome. A lot. You never outgrow the need for a metronome. The same goes for a tuner. These days, a smart phone can multitask during rehearsal. Record yourselves, often – it’s worth investing in a decent microphone and speakers. Recordings don’t lie. Recordings are also one of the most diplomatic ways to settle disputes about tempo, intonation, and just about any other aspect of playing. Organize your rehearsal time intelligently – don’t get bogged down on one section when you have three pieces to get through. At first, if this doesn’t come naturally, draft a rehearsal plan for the amount of time you have leading up to a concert or contest. Play to your individual strengths in an ensemble – find out who is good at hustling gigs, who can keep the books, who can take care of finding music and rehearsal space, booking flights and rental cars for tours, all of the myriad tasks involved in running an ensemble. Write details in your music – especially who’s going to lead the entrance of different sections, cues from other parts to help you fit in, tempi, fingerings or other intonation indicators, and any other details that help your performance. Once I was giving a class in Scotland, and I asked the student to write in a fingering to help her on a tricky passage. She looked shocked and told me, “But that would be cheating!” It’s not cheating. It’s good musicianship. Besides, the audience doesn’t really care if you use 3rd valve or switch three notes with the 2nd horn – they want to hear a beautiful, engaging performance.
These are just a few of the factors that can help your ensemble to form, survive, and thrive. Chamber music can be one of the great joys of your musical life. It certainly has been for us over the years!