When I was working with Alexander Schneider as a member of the New World String Quartet, he offered us two important suggestions for keeping the peace in a chamber ensemble. Tip #1: Be on Time. Tip #2: Don’t play bridge together. We laughed, but he had gained this wisdom at a high cost—many arguments, hard feelings, and ensemble break-ups—and he wanted to pass it on to us to possibly save us grief in the future.
I started thinking about other hard-won bits of advice that I could offer to my students, and came up with a total of 28 ensemble savers that work well in life as well as chamber groups.
Ensemble Saver #1
Be on time to appointments! Nothing raises the temperature of an ensemble quicker than someone being late to a rehearsal. Arrive early to get in the mood for the day’s musical work. This allows for an unhurried personal warm-up, and lowers your own blood pressure, so that you’ll be ready to give and take in the most objective way when the rehearsal begins.
Ensemble Saver #2
When a suggestion is made, always play it first before discussing or arguing about it. Keep working on it until the person who made the suggestion is satisfied and can say, “yes, that’s the way I imagined it.” Then discuss, and accept or discard it. You may find that an idea you hold dear and are willing to defend passionately doesn’t work in actual practice. Long-winded and hurtful arguments can be avoided by playing ideas as soon as they are suggested.
Ensemble Saver #3
Encourage and respect each other’s ideas. Hurt feeling, lack of respect, suspicion, and pent-up anger are the carcinogens of ensembles. All ensembles have disagreements about every subject imaginable…tempos, intonation, repertoire, formal wear, publicity photos, rehearsal time, sock color…you name it. What you fight about is not as important as how you fight about it. Be polite with each other. Listen carefully to make sure you understand what the other person’s idea really is. Paraphrase what was just said to help eliminate misunderstandings. Don’t bring up old problems while discussing new ones.
Ensemble Saver #4
Avoid sarcasm or accusatory statement such as “you always” or “you never.” This stuff doesn’t work in other human relationships and it certainly will end in disaster in a chamber ensemble. I know a quartet that uses sarcasm so much that the members can never accept a compliment without first suspecting it’s some kind of insult. “That sounds really beautiful” actually means “You should work on that passage more.” As a result of this doublespeak, members are suspicious, resentful, and angry a lot of the time.
Ensemble Saver #5
Keep a sense of humor and have fun. There are many examples where a good laugh will relax a tense rehearsal. My quartet has in-house jokes that would mean little to an outsider. For us, however, they re-establish good feelings of belonging and remind everyone of shared good times. They are mini-vacations from the serious work at hand.
Once a fellow quartet member suggested I play a passage high on the C string—a very uncomfortable but stronger-sounding fingering. After I had played it successfully, he said, “You have no idea how powerful that sounds.” “Flattery will get you nowhere,” was my laughing response, but I later decided to keep the fingering. Since then, whenever someone wants to add weight to a suggestion, he adds “You have no idea how powerful that sounds.” It always gets a laugh and relaxes the mood.
Ensemble Saver #6
When you’re wrong, admit it. When you’re right, shut up. This is a quote from a marriage counselor, but it’s generally good advice for any close relationship. Playing “Gotcha” feels good for a moment, but usually creates hurt feelings that don’t easily go away.
Ensemble Saver #7
Solve personal problems in private and as soon as possible. It’s so important to leave private agendas and hurt feelings out of rehearsals. Again, find a relaxed time after rehearsal to sit down together and get misunderstandings out in the open.
Ensemble Saver #8
Think before blowing up. Count to 10. Words spoken in anger leave scars for years. Problems that seem monumental at the moment often dissolve with the passage of time and the changing of circumstances.
Ensemble Saver #9
Avoid “what if” arguments. “If we get the tour to Australia, are you willing to be away from your family for two weeks?” The argument that might ensue from this hypothetical question could break up the ensemble, even if an Australian tour never materializes. Discuss real problems, not possibilities. Cross bridges when they are actually reached.
Ensemble Saver #10
Know when to drop a subject. If two members are getting nowhere in a discussion and the frustration level is rising, someone should say, “Let’s come back to this at another time.” Let it go, even if you’re convinced you’re right. Everyone lives in his or her own reality, and that reality usually can’t be changed overnight.
Ensemble Saver #11
Pay debts promptly. Money is an emotional thing, especially for the lender. Debts tend to pile up while on tour, and it’s a good idea to settle them before people go their separate ways. On the other hand, let the little debts (like a $1.00) go.
Ensemble Saver #12
Be patient. Outside of money issues, “don’t sweat the small stuff.” If an idea you cherish is voted down, don’t quit the ensemble. Just put it aside and get on with the rest of the piece or program. Next month, someone else will come up with the exact same idea and will love their “new discovery.” You may not get credit for thinking of it first, but you’ll get your way (even if it took a year) and you kept the group functioning smoothly. For everything there is a season. This goes for repertoire as well. There are enough seasons in a career to play everyone’s favorite pieces.
Ensemble Saver #13
Don’t keep score. If someone has a lot of ideas enthusiastically accepted on one day, and your ideas are voted down, don’t hold it against that person. Tomorrow is another day. If someone is making a lot of suggestions for your solo (always a LITTLE irritating), don’t plan an ambush to get back at the suggester. Remain open—the turkey may have a good idea—but set a time limit (refer to Ensemble Saver #10). Everyone should have a chance to delve. No one should take over.
Ensemble Saver #14
“Love them for what they can do, don’t hate them for what they can’t do.” I don’t know who said this, but it makes sense to concentrate on the positive attributes of the members of your team.
Ensemble Saver #15
“Bloom where you’re planted.” Life almost always is not perfect. Neither are ensembles.
You might be tempted not to give 100% of your effort and artistry to the interpretation because one of the members isn’t your ideal performer. However, this approach guarantees failure. If you play your best, and participate with genuine, quality effort, the weak link almost certainly will be elevated to play beyond expectation.
Ensemble Saver #16
When you make a mistake, or the ensemble messes up, learn from it. Don’t get angry. Get better. If every rehearsal went perfectly, we wouldn’t be nearly as prepared for the concerts. You should keep learning even during a performance. If things go awry on stage, don’t be discouraged. Observe the mistake and look for solutions. Observe what worked under fire, and then try to remember the flow, the freedom, and focus on reproducing that.
Ensemble Saver #17
Don’t summarize colleagues in one sentence. I know a member of a famous string quartet who is very fond of doing this, but I find it a negative thing. Human beings and their actions and relationships are not tidy—not black and white. No one is always ‘wooden,’ ‘spikey,’ ‘hokey,’ ‘difficult,’ ‘a horrible person’ because of one day’s actions.
Ensemble Saver #18
Avoid hyperboles such as “the ensemble is way off,” or “the tempo needs to be 10 times faster,” or “no two measures in the whole piece have the same tempo.” This is very discouraging and counter productive. Avoid imitating other people’s playing in a grotesque parody to show them how far off they’re playing. “Let’s try the the movement with a metronome. The tempo seems unstable to me.” “The triplets seem too close together and the 16th comes too soon after the dotted 8th” are specific problems that can actually be solved together.”
Ensemble Saver #19
Suspect yourself. If a spot is out of tune, or the ensemble is off, look to your own part first before accusing another member of creating problems.
Ensemble Saver #20
Carry your load. Of course, you should carefully prepare your own part, and study the score to be able to participate fully in the group’s musical decisions. But also go out of your way to help in the group’s non-musical business. Someone needs to maintain the website, update the You tube channel, write emails, make contacts, follow through on leads, arrange coachings, make phone calls, write grants, stay in touch with the management, keep the financial books, make the travel arrangements, write program notes, and talk to the audience during concerts. Everyone has their area of strength and will be most comfortable doing what you do best. However, if one member ends up with too much of the work, that person will resent the “ivory tower” attitude of the others.
Ensemble Saver #21
Respect everyone’s need for space. A good colleague and a good friend are often two different animals. Don’t expect brother or sisterhood from your colleagues. Certainly don’t demand it. You will inevitably feel closer to some members than to others, but in such a pressure cooker, where you can’t scratch your nose without scrutiny, expect tensions sometimes, even with your best friend.
Ensemble Saver #22
Don’t get hooked! Obligatory reading for all ensemble players should be I’m OK, You’re OK by Thomas A Harris, and Games People Play by Eric Berne. If a tone of voice, manner of speaking, buzz word, or emotional trigger makes someone react to a statement like an outraged parent or a hurt child, the original problem is lost in a sea of negative memories, habits, and overpowering emotions. In transactional analysis this is called “Hooking the Child” or “Hooking the Parent.” Try to keep the “Adult” of all ensemble members in gear as much as possible for most effective problem solving.
Ensemble Saver #23
Set goals together. By establishing short-term and long-term goals together, everyone in the ensemble has a clear idea of where the group is headed. Then the members can work more effectively and won’t be disappointed by false expectations.
Ensemble Saver #24
Don’t discuss performance problems right after the concert or at the reception. Do it at a time when everyone has instruments in hand. It’s discouraging at best and infuriating at worst when someone says, “pass the dip, and by the way, you’re still really dragging the tempo in the Adagio.”
Ensemble Saver #25
Play for coaches. Attend concerts together on occasion. Listen to the same recordings and analyze performance tapes together. This builds up a storehouse of common experiences that will draw the group together.
Ensemble Saver #26
Schedule regular business meetings to solve non-musical problems outside of rehearsal time. This keeps the music making process and the nitty-gritty separate.
Ensemble Saver #27
Be a player! Bring your own wish list of musical ideas to the rehearsal. Any idea can be justified and convincingly argued—why not your own? You’ll be happier if you’re tending the “ensemble garden” along with everyone else. It’s a documented fact that the unhappiest people are those who feel they have no control over their lives or work. If you’re actively participating in the decision-making process of your group, you will feel like a valuable human being worthy of healthy self-respect…and you’ll find everyone else easier to get along with as well.
Ensemble Saver #28
A chamber ensemble can be all-consuming. For the good of the group and your own sanity, I strongly recommend developing your own friends and interest and your own musical experiences with other performers and teachers. If you feel like a unique person and musician, you’ll have more to offer your own ensemble’s work and interaction.
When your ensemble is all together, working creatively toward a common artistic goal, there is no more exciting life. When problems arise, try to keep that vision of all of you—talented and dedicated musicians making great art together, bringing to life some of the noblest achievements of the human race. Try to keep perspective about the little bumps in the road on the way to the top of the mountain. Patience is the most important tool, but a great deal of strength, forbearance, creative thought, courage, hard work, and perseverance are also required! Good luck!