Editor’s Note: This story accompanies the story in this issue titled "Note to Self: Tuesday — Drop Briefcase, Make Music."
At its best, playing chamber music is a thrill. Joined with two, three, or four other instrumentalists, one feels in command of a magical slice of the universe. In an ensemble where the music flows, each participant has the sensation of being the engine that drives the piece. As a pianist, I have sometimes even been seduced into thinking that all those shapely sounds were my doing.
And then there is Marjorie Selden’s Adult Sightreading Chamber Music program at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. Here, the operative word is “sightreading.” Far from nurturing the tightly-knit ensembles that decide in advance what to play at the next session and allow time for the players to untangle the intricacies of their individual parts, Selden’s project is designed for those ready to live by their wits. One of its attractions for me is that you don’t have to practice, although the generalized mastery that comes from having effectively practiced in the past is an advantage.
Participants in the Westminster project find out with whom they will play only days before they get together. The pieces that the instrumentalists will perform remain a mystery until the group assembles, and someone looks inside the folders that Selden has prepared for the ensembles that she cobbles together.
Selden’s principal instrument is the viola. She teaches violin, in addition to viola, and is musically intimate with colleagues who play wind instruments or keyboard instruments. Before the Tuesday mornings when the groups meet, Selden draws on her native ingenuity to create a unique place for each participant. She finds an essential part for each of the surplus cellists. She substitutes a mandolin for a violin to give everyone an assignment. She tucks in a bassoon when required. She joins in on violin or viola to make things come out even, if need be, or she may recruit Westminster colleagues to participate, as needed. To supplement Westminster’s horde of chamber music she stalks the Internet, adding pieces with exotic instrumentation.
In a sense, the entire operation is a gamble. Commonly, an ensemble consists of a bunch of strangers with diverse musical backgrounds, confronting a piece that none of them has seen before. Occasionally, some of the players know the piece, but for most participants, most of the time, Selden’s choices present a new experience. For the ad-hoc ensembles, turning the marks on the page into music is normally a challenge.
The first task for each ensemble is to get the notes right, in other words, to play the pitches and rhythms notated in the score. Under the gun, inventive players sometimes substitute elegant shortcuts that veil the fact that they are not playing exactly what the score calls for. Skillful subterfuge of this sort keeps the ensemble on track. It grows, in classical music, from understanding the standard chord sequences in a key, from emphasizing the most important beats in a measure, and from developing a benign but energetic devil-may-care attitude.
However, things can go wrong. Composers ambush the players of their music. Unexpectedly, they change keys or rhythms before a player can notice the switch. Maintaining a steady tempo is not always easy; a sudden change from short to long note values may trick a player into overtaking others by entire measures. Sometimes, technical difficulties paralyze the player.
When players fail to stay together, they must find a new place to start in the middle of a section. Some editions of music are helpful and provide landmarks in the form of measure numbers or index letters. But sometimes everyone must divine a new starting point.
The piano part normally includes the entire score, while the music for other instruments contains only a single part. In the absence of landmarks, the pianist can suggest a new starting point singling out, for example, the spot where a flute trills while the cello sustains a long note. But the pianist must be tactful to avoid giving the impression of being bossy.
Social relations are a by-product of the three-hour sessions. Non-verbally, they are implied in a group who plays music together. Explicitly, they come from conversations with other participants. The Westminster project is a way to meet a lot of interesting people. Participants include serious adult students learning their way around an instrument for the first time; music professionals trying to develop a neglected specialty; trained musicians diverted into non-musical professions for economic reasons happily returning to their first love; caregivers for gravely ill people escaping from their arduous duties; and people with full-time jobs who create time to play chamber music because they simply can’t resist.
Marjorie Selden’s chamber music sightreading class makes you glad to be human. It is a vehicle for explorations, both musical and personal.