Giving credit for chamber music

4th March 2011 | Concerts, Daily Life, Musings | 2 comments

After coaching chamber music at various music colleges this week, I’m still baffled about how chamber music can attain its proper status in higher education. My visit often begins with students explaining that they have struggled to find time to rehearse together; this is the reason they are not properly prepared, etc. I’m warned that this or that participant will have to leave my class early because they are required at an orchestral rehearsal. And even though I have asked everyone to be present throughout the class to hear the others’ lessons and provide an audience for one another, it’s usually the case that each chamber group only arrives for their own lesson and departs immediately afterwards, apologising and explaining that they are required elsewhere.

Sometimes, when I comment on how difficult it seems to be for students to prepare properly, staff explain that chamber music is not a credit-bearing activity. Even if students get deeply involved in a string quartet or piano trio, this activity doesn’t always count towards their final mark. Chamber groups receive coaching, are given performance opportunities, and may go in for the occasional chamber music prize, but these are all voluntary activities – even if chamber music is their future career path. Undergraduates cannot major in chamber music, and it’s only in recent years that some colleges have offered it as ‘an elective’. How can students be expected to commit to the intensive work of chamber music if they’re given little or no official credit for doing so? Many of them do, of course, commit to it despite this lack of recognition, but they do so out of sheer devotion.

By contrast, students who play an orchestral instrument are required to take part in the college’s orchestral activities, even being asked to sign an agreement at the start of their course that they will make the college’s large ensemble activities a priority. If they miss orchestra rehearsals, there are penalties of various kinds. This seems to accord orchestral music a status not on offer to chamber music. Could it just be that the authorities realise students will never turn up regularly to orchestra rehearsals unless they are made to, whereas they will always find a way to play chamber music in their own free time, because they love it?

Some might argue that chamber music is best left out of the college ‘system’ and pursued only by those idealistic enough to find time for it. But I often feel that students sense chamber music is a side issue, not a central path, not something deeply valued by the college. Yet not only does chamber music contain some of the finest pieces of music ever written, it develops skills – listening skills, sensitivity, respect for others – which are profoundly valuable.


  1. Ursula Smith

    Dear Susan,
    Many Thanks for posting this blog. I have also experienced similar attitudes and conditions when going to coach at various institutions.
    I think the problem is that colleges are more interested in educating instrumentalists than in nuturing whole musicians.
    As you yourself point out, the skills which regular committed chamber music enhance, are essential to the formation of any musician. Ability to balance and read a score, understanding of structure, cooperation and communication. Most importantly,chamber music encourages one to make informed, independent decisions, something which is not possible in orchestral playing. Add to this, experiencing works by the same composer at different stages in his or her life. How on earth can chamber music NOT be a credit bearing subject?
    Thanks once again for drawing attention to these problems,
    Ursula Smith, cellist, Zehetmair Quartet

  2. Geraldine

    I had never thought about this issue before, and it clearly is an issue! I wonder why full credits can’t be given to chamber group. It also seems like a good way to deal with the problem of students being too busy to meet, would be to have their practice time scheduled by the university as if it were a class.
    As for the master classes, I take it as poor preparation from the teachers, because I remember because strictly told to go and stay at masterclasses by my own teachers, and there was no going around there without major explaining to do later!


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