Chamber music provides enormous benefits for horn players. I have recently discovered this truth from participating in a brass quintet at the university level. Benefits include flexibility in playing that carries over into playing in larger ensembles, social networking, career and business experience, financial management, physical and mental endurance, and fun.
Chamber music is a form of musical communication for smaller ensembles in an intimate setting. Ideally, chamber music is enjoyed in a room that holds fewer than 50 listeners, all of whom are seated relatively close to the performers.
Hornists are fortunate to have several standard chamber works that include our instrument and ask for us to respond to a variety of musical styles. Horn players with chamber music backgrounds must be flexible when playing with different instruments in a small setting and can transfer that flexibility to a larger ensemble. When performing Mahler symphonies, for example, most of the passages for horn (as well as other instruments) are in chamber music settings. With no conductor, chamber musicians rely on their ears to make split-second decisions on subtle sonic cues. That ability transferred to a large ensemble helps those musicians rely on more than the conductor’s motions for ensemble timing. And because the horn is a member of both the brass and woodwind quintet, hornists learn to work with the timbres of each section in a chamber music setting and can transfer that skill to the orchestra.
Perhaps the most under-recognized benefit from playing in a chamber group is the wonderful experience gained through social networking. The ability for a chamber music group to network among potential employers and present a professional image is vital to the success of the group. The rule that the more people who know you, the more likely you are to get called for a performing engagement is true for all musicians. Managers who need a chamber music group for an engagement won’t call you if they don’t know you – getting a job for your group does not happen with fliers and emails alone. Most of the calls ensembles receive come from people who personally know members of the group. People hire people, not names or ads.
Chamber music performances will lead you to new acquaintances, chance meetings, and, ultimately, potential clients. The ability to learn how to represent yourself and your colleagues professionally is an extremely vital tool in the professional music world.
Managing a chamber group can teach members how to evaluate career risks and moves. Group members can and should take part in publicizing concerts, gathering an audience, and booking engagements. Members then gain experience writing contracts and what it means to follow through with them in an efficient and professional manner. Learning how to schedule adequate rehearsal time around the schedules of busy members is also valuable. Learning how to manage the income from playing engagements and the costs of managing the group (i.e., food expenses, travel, and publicity costs) is a tool that professionals should have.
Beyond good business and social skills, playing in chamber groups has physical benefits – the very nature of chamber music is demanding for all the instruments involved. In chamber ensembles, where each voice is important and heard, you cannot duck out or let your assistant help you rest your embouchure. Daily practice in a chamber music group, especially if the repertoire is technically demanding or virtuosic, can increase your physical and mental stamina. This type of endurance training will help you pace yourself throughout the performance day. Your individual limitations will be better defined and can then be expanded through reinforcement, awareness, and practice. When students are preparing for a solo recital, which is one of their most taxing events, the added endurance created from playing in a chamber ensemble will be a great aid in helping to be physically prepared for the recital.
Above all, chamber music is great fun! There is nothing quite like spending a couple of hours playing chamber music with your friends. It is a joy unlike either playing in a symphony orchestra or performing a solo. Chamber music is a unique art and many musicians have come to find it the pinnacle of their performing careers.
The benefits from participating in chamber music, especially during the training years, are many. It is clear that chamber music plays a major role in helping the hornist fill a career toolbox to be used for working in the profession.
John-Morgan Bush is in his final year of undergraduate studies at the University of Kentucky where he is a student of David G. Elliott, majoring in horn performance and music education. He is the principal horn of the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra and Wind Ensemble. He has performed with the Lexington Philharmonic and was the 2008 principal horn of the Kentucky Music Educators Association Intercollegiate Wind Ensemble. He helped found the Thoroughbred Brass Quintet which recently won second prize at the 2008 International Brass Chamber Music Competition.