The Violin Channel member Annie Jones, from Canada was keen to know: ‘What are some tips in improving your ensemble playing?’
We threw Annie’s question over to American concert violinist, Francesca dePasquale:
The opportunity to collaborate with other musicians is one of the true joys of music making. Whether it’s working one on one as a duo or performing as a larger ensemble, the communicative skills required for chamber music translate into all areas of musicianship—as a soloist, it’s absolutely vital to respond to the conductor and orchestra with this sensitivity, and orchestral players rely on chamber music communication and listening between various sections of the group.
An understanding at all times of voicing throughout the work, as well as how everything fits together, is incredibly important. This influences how the group sound and phrasing will function. Taking the time to really study the score prior to any rehearsal will not only save time, but also deepen the process. In preparation for the violin and piano works on my new debut album, I frequently practiced off of the score to visualize how both parts fit together and influence one another at any given moment.
It goes without saying that having a strong rhythmic backbone in any ensemble is key, but it can be easy to forget how much comes from this other than simply playing together. Though musicians often turn to color and rubato first for expression, more often than not the musical character will stem first from the rhythm. Rather than feeling constraining, a strong sense of group rhythm and pulse actually allows for greater spontaneity in performance.
My piano trio frequently uses the technique of expressive counting—by counting any of the given subdivisions in our parts within a phrase verbally, and as expressively as possible, we are able to experience the rhythmic intention of a phrase as a group without the influence of our instruments. Though it may seem counterintuitive, removing the association of our instruments clarifies the rhythmic intention beyond any accidental instrumental influences that may unknowingly affect the character.
Body language is essential for great ensemble playing. This can range from truly subtle to a huge cue, or simply mean embodying the musical character. One of the works on my new debut album, Bartók Rhapsody no. 1 for violin and piano, required the use of body language between myself and pianist Meng-Chieh Liu to navigate its difficult and sudden tempo changes, especially in the beginning of our rehearsal process.
The greatest musical impact an ensemble can achieve is through a total group commitment to musical characters, colors, sound, and phrasing. At any given moment, the entire group should be striving for the same musical goal, and this is one of the fun parts of the rehearsal process—hearing how someone else influences a phrase with his or her sound, perhaps in a different way than how you initially heard it, and responding to that. This can be as natural as playing and simply feeling it together, or it can open the table for discussion.
“Live, Breathe, and Die” is a technique from the Cavani String Quartet that my piano trio frequently uses. It allows for group experimentation in supporting each member of the ensemble and discovering different musical ideas. Each person in the group takes a turn as the inspirer for a phrase in the piece, while the rest of the group lives, breathes, and dies for the inspirer’s tempo, timing, sound, articulation, breath, and character. After each member of the group has a turn as the inspirer, one final round is played in which each musician contributes equally before discussing. It’s amazing how much this exercise improves communication within an ensemble before a discussion even takes place. Of course, it’s also vital to verbally discuss different ideas and opinions, and respecting the different thoughts amongst the ensemble with a willingness to try is key.
Violinist Francesca dePasquale is a former 1st prize winner at the Irving M Klein International String Competition - and is a recent recipient of a prestigious Leonore Annenberg Fellowship Fund for the Performing and Visual Arts career grant. She currently teaches on faculty at the Rutgers University Mason Gross School of the Arts - and serves as a Teaching Assistant to both Itzhak Perlman and Catherine Cho at The Juilliard School.
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