Why Chamber Music should NOT be like a pick-up game of BBALL

BBALL=BASKETBALL


You all know about Kit’s illustrious, semi-professional career as an all-star basketball player…but let me humbly tell you about mine:

 
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Growing up, I learned bball with my dad in the barn and played in leagues throughout elementary and middle school. I ultimately stopped after starting high school, simply to dedicate all my time to practicing the piano. Even though I stopped playing in school, my dad, brother, and I would still play pick-up games at the park. It became our Wednesday evening routine and was always a lot of fun. While usually 3 on 3, it was quick-paced, casual, and provided plenty of surprises to navigate between the opposing players (usually also playing for fun), each other (even though we’re family—we weren’t practicing beforehand), and simply the limitations of playing 3 on 3. I fondly remember playing bball, and am always happy to see people shooting hoops.

I think about those days when observing our work today in chamber music. What are the differences between a casual pick-up game versus watching professional teams play against each other? How is the game different? How is the experience different for the fans?

[Let me know what you think in the comments!]


How does this relate to chamber music? Do you notice a difference between hearing a piano trio by an established trio versus 3 soloists that came together for a single performance? Do you notice a difference in energy between that established trio versus the 3 soloists?

 
Jupiter Trio - A huge inspiration from my undergrad!

Jupiter Trio - A huge inspiration from my undergrad!

 

Well, I certainly do with the duo.

Being a violin and piano duo, you will find very FEW examples of an established duo that primarily operates and functions as such. It’s always surprising to us, because violin and piano repertoire is quite demanding and the best musical solutions are rarely obvious within the first (several) rehearsals, nor do they necessarily fall within the assumed roles of the two instruments (uh, I’ll get into that in a future blog). Furthermore, the duo has suffered quite a bit of stereotypes and today has little infrastructure and support within the larger chamber music industry (i.e. solo and accompanist labels, most chamber competitions, festivals, and scholarships do not accept duos).

Excluding the string quartet (which has had its own process of establishing itself), the majority of chamber music presentations program soloists to come together for a single “pick-up game” performance. They usually have a few rehearsals before the concert, might know each other cordially from a previous engagement, and their performance follows a polite and generic protocol for balance and style, all with note accuracy being the primary goal.


Wait, what’s wrong with that, you ask?

Let me go back to BBALL. Rules like “traveling” and “double dribbling” are all regulations that the players try to follow complete with referees monitoring for violation. After years of playing and training, every player will instinctively avoid these at all costs. However, these extremely accomplished athletes inevitably get called for these violations while pursuing a much greater goal. They quickly shrug it off, and the game continues.

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Think about it.

Would you watch a game with the goal of tracking who “travels” or “double dribbles”? After seeing a game with MJ flying over the defense (that’s Michael Jordan, kiddos), is your primary concern to tally if he “traveled” or not? Do you care?

F*** NO

Furthermore, the parameters of having and working within a team makes moments like Air Jordan more meaningful. Team plays, defensive and offensive strategies, and the personalities of the players trademark the professional bball team….all undoubtedly huge incentives for fans to go see the game live.


Ok… so are there just not a lot of established chamber groups?

There are A TON of established chamber groups!

There are plenty of established piano trios, quartets, quintets, and of course yours truly in the duo field. The established ensemble has had to figure out not only how to work together but to survive together. Because the chamber ensemble is often self-run, most have developed their own identity of sound, personality, and style. Much like watching a bball team, the energy between players and the dialogue that comes through in the music is why chamber music is…well, chamber music.


Well then, what the…

With dropping ticket sales, dying donors, and at least a generation gap in audience engagement, classical music institutions and presenters seem to just double down on soloists and “stars”. Seasons promise to feature dazzling soloists and eccentric conductors, hoping that will somehow boost interest.

 
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They’re not alone. All of my bball references are almost 2 decades old. The NBA is completely guilty of hyper-focusing on “stars” inadvertently devaluing teamwork and the team dynamic.


uh-oh, here we go

Before the rabbit hole starts, I’ll make my message clear:

Support chamber music. Support chamber ensembles.

We’ll make you a fan, just like it’s 1992.