Chamber music, or simply music with only one person to a part, is one of the best ways to develop musical independence. This is especially true for someone like myself playing an instrument like the tuba. While there were certainly difficult parts that I encountered in the Wind Ensemble and the Symphony Orchestra at Northwestern, as a tuba player the most challenging parts I played were in chamber settings.
The first time I heard the Empire Brass Quintet in 1988, the tuba playing of Sam Pilafian changed my life. At the time, I did not realize that my instrument was capable of doing what I saw him accomplish right before my very eyes. I wanted to play in a brass quintet starting that very night! My freshman year, fresh off of four straight summers of working with Sam at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, my friends and I formed a brass quintet. We really had a great time musically and socially.
You learn pretty quickly that over half the battle of having a chamber group, especially one just getting started, is balancing five schedules and five personalities. Our group played for the better part of our freshman year and then eventually disbanded when it became too difficult to coordinate. I can’t speak for the other four guys but I really wish that we had stuck it out and kept playing. I learned A TON from playing with those guys who all had different strengths and different weaknesses than me. Ultimately, we were too young to keep the thing going and left on good terms but I think we all left a lot of learning on the table by cutting our experience short.
I also played in a tuba quartet my sophomore year with three of my best friends. This group was formed for the purpose of competing in the tuba quartet competition at the International Tuba and Euphonium Conference that was being hosted at Northwestern. I would highly encourage any collegiate chamber groups to find a competition to enter because it was a great source of focus. It is a lot easier to add an extra rehearsal in any given week to everyone’s busy schedule when you have a specific goal and deadline in mind. Unlike the University of Arizona’s tuba quartet at this year’s ITEC, we weren’t able to win the competition on “home turf” but it was a great learning and bonding experience for the four of us.
I also wish that we had kept that group going for a longer period of time. At that point in my life, I took being in situations like that quartet where I was learning so much and being challenged so much for granted. Sadly, even if you go on to a career performing in music many people will tell you that there are some very famous jobs out there that won’t really, truly challenge you all that often. You will never be at a point in your life where it is easier to arrange playing chamber music than your time in college.
Finally, keep in mind that simply playing duets is a form of chamber music too. I learned more than I could get into in a single blog post from playing duets regularly with Andy Bove of the Extension Ensemble. The shame is that I didn’t take the obvious opportunity to ask flutists, violinists, percussionists, and singers to join me for some duets. All you need is the music, the ability to play in all clefs, and to start knocking on practice room doors. To match the ease of a good violinist in a technical duet on the trombone or tuba is an learning experience worth thousands of words.
If you can find the time and the energy to organize a chamber group, it will pay dividends in your playing like you wouldn’t believe and college is time to take advantage of all the musicians in your immediate vicinity.