Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of Rider Magazine. Elaine Strauss, U.S. 1’s classical music writer and a member of the Adult Chamber Reading Ensemble at Westminster, adds her own impressions in the sidebar titled "Playing Music ‘By Your Wits.’"
It’s not hard to hear them. Their music filters out as the early morning sunlight streams through the windows of the Westminster Conservatory in Princeton.
Moving into the heart of the building, the music becomes a little louder. The sound of strings and woodwinds harmonizing together creates a peaceful pulse. Walk along the second floor and behind four closed doors, and as you might expect, you’ll find a quartet, or perhaps a quintet, of musicians.
But every other Tuesday, in Room 205, the 20 musicians you hear are not Westminster Choir College students, and they’re not rehearsing for a recital or concert. Cutting across generations, they range in age from 50 to 88; many are working professionals in fields as diverse as pharmaceutical research, manufacturing, law, insurance, computers, and retail. Some come from the greater Princeton community, while others travel great distances. They all are members of the Adult Chamber Reading Ensemble, which began last fall at Westminster Conservatory, the community music school of Westminster Choir College, under the direction of faculty member Marjorie Selden.
Inside Room 205, a flautist, a mandolin player, a cello player, and a pianist gather in a circle facing each other. Feet tap and fingers flourish as they touch strings, holes, and keys, conjuring the notes of a melody that gracefully wraps itself around the room.
In another room, a pianist keeps the tempo with one hand, as his other hand churns out strands of a Mozart piece, along with two violinists, a viola player, and a cello player.
Ensemble member Susan B. Smith played cello from the third through 10th grade, then gave it up for 37 years, and picked it up again a year ago. Today she is an attorney with a solo practice in Stockton. She earned her bachelors in English in 1976 from Stanford and her J.D. from the University of Santa Clara in 1980. Following a one-week summer camp at Westminster in July she joined the sight reading ensemble this fall.
Asked about her impressions so far, she writes in an E-mail: “First, the group is completely supportive and non-judgmental about my mistakes, which is very much appreciated, because I never mastered sight-reading as a kid, so I am approaching it with some difficulty. Second, it is fantastic to make music with others. It’s fun to work on pieces and even take lessons, but there is nothing like making music with others, playing the masters’ works and hearing the lovely (every once in a while) sounds of their brilliant composition coming out of our instruments. I needed something to help fill in the blanks as my kids have been leaving for college, and this is my ‘mid-life crisis’ solution — cheaper than a sports car! It’s a wonderful connection to happy memories of my childhood (my brother used to accompany me on the piano and he has passed away), and it’s a great escape from the pressures of work.”
Ensemble member Judy Guder, who plays piano, is a freelance German translator. The Princeton resident earned a bachelors in French from the University of California at Berkeley, and a masters in German from the University of Louisville.
One of the cellists works part-time as a senior principal statistician for a contract research organization (CRO) in Newtown, PA.
“We are here for the love and joy of music,” says Selden, who borrowed the idea from a friend, who started a similar program in Philadelphia. “A lot of people use the time to hone their sight-reading skills.”
But it’s not your typical music lesson. Selden neither teaches, nor conducts. Instead, she assigns individuals to different groups with a stack of music to sight read at each meeting. Then from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. — aside from a coffee and cake break at 11 a.m. — the ensembles gather in different rooms to read and play music together.
If you thought a three-hour sight-reading session was challenging enough, consider the fact that the ensembles are composed of people with various playing abilities.
Take, for instance, Martin Stepper of Yardley, PA. Stepper, who teaches piano, earned a masters in composition at Philadelphia’s renowned Curtis Institute of Music in 1973, following a bachelors of music in composition form Syracuse in 1970. He retired from Johnson & Johnson in 2004 after 27 years in the information systems field. “‘Serious’ music was always my passion,” he writes in an E-mail. “The IT systems work was a stable interesting way to make a decent living while pursuing music. Chamber music playing is one of the most intimately emotionally satisfying activities you can have with other intelligent human beings.”
Another ensemble member, pianist Elaine Strauss (classical music writer for U.S. 1), has been playing the piano since she was eight years old. Strauss says she also played the cello for awhile, but prefers the piano. “You can’t play the wrong note or pluck the wrong string,” Strauss says. “And with the piano it’s not your responsibility if it’s out of tune.”
And Selden’s 83-year-old father, Victor Kuras, the mandolin player, calls himself a beginner, even though he’s been playing since he was 27. Kuras, who is a retired teacher from Brooklyn Tech, belongs to a group of mandolin and mandola players who play at a nursing home on Long Island.
With a range of playing abilities and musical backgrounds, it might seem surprising that the ensembles are able to play together. And there are no egos.
Because there were no auditions for the program, it took Selden about three sessions to get a feel for how all the individuals played. She bases the groups partly from the music she has available. She says the group includes five beginners — musicians who struggle to play. “I can’t always have those same five people playing together. I have to mix it up.”
But Selden says the range of abilities helps all levels playing together. “Everyone has to be patient. We are here for the love and joy of music and everybody else.”
Stepper, who also joined to play chamber music, says it can be frustrating at times, but adds, “We’re very forgiving of each other.”
The types of personalities in the program help, too, says Kuras. In Room 205, the ensemble stops periodically when they lose the tempo or miss a repeat in the music. They work together to figure out what went wrong. Before a piece, the ensemble discusses the music, the tempo, and how the music should sound. For example, during a Hungarian piece, the group stops a couple of times to figure out the tempo. Carolyn Barnshaw, a retired librarian from Princeton Public Library, demonstrates on her flute how the piece should sound. Then everyone begins to play.
“I think we should play it a little faster,” says Strauss, sitting on the piano bench. “Could we try it from the beginning a little faster?” She begins to play and the others start to play the piece.
Strauss, who joined the program so she could play chamber music, says she’s not often challenged by the music, but that’s OK. “It’s just so pleasing to play with different people,” she says. “The different levels don’t matter.”
Adult Chamber Reading Ensemble, every other Tuesday, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Westminster Conservatory, Walnut Lane. New members are always welcomed to join the For more information, call Marjorie Selden at 609-921-7104.