The Art Of Ensemble


I woke up this morning and noticed a dusting of snow on the grass. In response to this offense the trees seemed to be tossing leaves to the ground in a swirl of defiance. Protesting winter's early visit. We had to feed the stove big chunks of maple instead of poplar to keep the wood floor warm under our feet while making breakfast.

I put a whole chicken into a pot to roast the day away and made a pumpkin pie for dessert. It is fall in Vermont.

The younger students are back onto their weekly schedules both in school and for private lessons. It is not just math skills that gathered dust over the summer. We revisit our bow grips and climb down the scale to begin the climb back up.

They gradually remember my teaching subtleties - when my eyes drift over to an elbow that is cowering too close to their side- out it pops as if by magic. The quick turn of my head to catch a wayward pinkie having British tea brings it back in line avoiding a scribble in the notebook that will indicate the need for a week of bow-skill work.

At the end of each session we play duets. It is the cake of the lesson. Students get to pick their duet (something they have not played before) and their part, (top or bottom). It offers the opportunity for each student to be in charge of at least one part of the hour and that is important. There are laughter and mistakes but there is also growth. I liken it to adding chopped broccoli to spaghetti sauce, my kids never knew and yet they got the value of the vegetable. Amidst the laughter the student learns to sight-read - an invaluable tool in their cello drawer.

As the music programs in many schools falter and even stop, it becomes important that the private teacher offer some kind of ensemble opportunity to their students. Perhaps there is a youth orchestra in the area that can help with those skills. But, for some, for different reasons, that may not be feasible, and for many early-learning adults it is not possible.

Paul and I have run an ensemble (known simply as “ensemble”) for many years. It began life as a way to give students the chance to learn how to play as part of a group, how to work under a conductor, and what it means to be part of a musical community.

We decided on music and there were normally four levels of parts matching skills. We, (and when I say “we” I mean Paul) transposed various instrument parts into cello parts. It was the ideal orchestra to our minds- all low strings- all the time! We met bi-weekly in the basement of a local church and through cold Vermont winters the lights of that church would blaze out over the snow and the sound of music and chatting would fill that basement.

As word spread of ensemble more people asked if they could join us and before long we were dealing with a small chamber orchestra by adding violins and basses. At one point we had five basses lined up, backs to the windows.

Each session opened with music and closed with cookies. They performed at every recital and could hear as well as feel the results of their new experience. It was exciting to watch students begin in the fourth cello part, mainly half and whole notes, and each successive year move up through the ranks- a shy smile on their face on their first day of being with a new section. One year our oldest student was an eighty-six year old Japanese man and the youngest was an eight-year-old little girl and they sat side by side. Kazuhiko spoke very little English but, fortunately, the language spoken was music and it was enough. 

This year our schedules have not allowed us to run a full-on ensemble and it is a disappointment - both to them and to us. However, Sunday evening we will be holding a Renaissance Night as a collaboration between our two studios and our friend Margaret Gilmore's studio. They are from the Upper Valley so we will meet in the middle at a church in Randolph, Vermont. There will be players of different abilities and each will have their own part. There will be a potluck dinner and pie, always pie. This time the lights will blaze out over colored leaves and retreating snow and there will be the sounds of chatting and of music filling another basement hall. And it will be a chance for us all, teachers included, to remember that an important part of learning music is remembering to “play” together.