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Chamber Music: What is it and why does it matter?

Throughout the course of our musical journey, there inevitably comes a phase where progressing students (or their parents) ask, "should I take chamber music?". Many wonder, is it just a miniature version of orchestra class? Is it redundant? Is it basically the same as when I play a duet with my teacher or sibling or friend? What's the point of it?

Chamber music was initially created in the 18th century and intended for a small group of performers who could fit into a large room or a palace chamber. Here at VYCo, we just had our own mini chamber music class last week, and though it's understandably a niche section of music, every student who participates inevitably finds it a whole new experience or aspect of music that indescribably differs from all the regular other playing they do.

The key difference is that, while there are the multiple sections and components like orchestras have, each section only has one performer, so it's more like a group of cohesive soloists. The stability and thorough knowledge of one's part is critical, but so is the familiarity of the other part(s), and the adapted skill to utilize body language to communicate, in addition to having your own section nailed down. On top of that, there is the required stylizing of the music to match the historical context, just like any music. Plus, there is stage presence, and, the crucial fact that, if any one part miscalculates a rhythm or beat, the entire piece could fall down like dominoes among all parts. Unlike in an orchestra, there is no possibility of another person playing the same part, so you can listen and latch on to the next note, or fade your volume away until you locate your spot, or any room to camouflage your confusion. Every. Layer. Must. Be. Familiar.

Students who first begin the experience of chamber music usually start off with songs that have similar sounding parts among all the players (called homophony), like when everybody sings the same song together. Once that's achieved, students can try staggering the song with different starting times in canon form, like songs such as Row, Row, Row Your Boat, where it sounds like the music is hopping from person to person. From there, once students have gained the confidence in holding their own melody without influence from other parts, students can progress through the chamber works of more simple classical era chamber pieces while implementing more complicated cues and body language, and stylistic ideas.

The familiarity with the experience of chamber music not only helps to improve musical abilities, but is also an excellent method for young students to practice critical thinking skills, communication methods, implementing constructive feedback, and gaining experience multitasking many facets and tasks at once. Not least of all, it's a wonderful way to add variety and motivation to further musical education, especially since individual practice time by nature requires some isolation, it's a wonderful way to incorporate social skills with music as well.

Be sure to ask your teacher in your cello lessons, etc, for suggestions on how to add chamber music to your student's musical curriculum, and chances are you'd be surprised by the impact of this routine in your child's schedule!

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