Chamber music

When talking to music students concerned about career options I often draw their attention to chamber music. In light of the current climate of the classical music market--orchestras shortening seasons, cutting pay and benefits, or outright closing their doors and universities walking away from full-time teaching positions--smaller ensembles may once again become a viable alternative for performers, management, and audiences alike.

I regularly tell my students that their future careers will increasingly have to be created from scratch rather than depend on the aging downtown institutions and their yesteryear formulas for success. And what better way to organize one's musical life the day after graduating from a music performance program than to call up a few like-minded colleagues and forming a chamber group? For string players, such a venture can lead to actually making a modest living. For wind and brass musicians, this approach can put one into a holding pattern in which the fresh graduate is able to continue honing his or her skills and growing artistically via performing at a high level, while awaiting a more sustainable opportunity to present itself.

It is increasingly questionable whether the gamut of degree offerings on the menu at most universities meets the demands of today’s job market. In terms of post-secondary music programs, the question regarding the true value of a degree in music performance should also be pressing on those in decision-making roles (enrollment rosters at less reputable schools show that this question certainly weighs on the minds of prospective students and their parents). While a degree in music education has traditionally served as a relatively safe pursuit, programs in music therapy and music technology have also been catching traction in recent years. Time will tell whether these programs can serve as a viable alternative to a degree in music performance.

But what about chamber music? It appears that several institutions have in fact shown a strong commitment to the genre. The M-Prize Chamber Arts Competition at the University of Michigan offered a staggering $100K award to the winning ensemble, but sadly, it ceased operations after just three years. While the general idea behind the competition was perhaps a bit extravagant and alas proved impossible to sustain, the seriousness of approach that it exemplified (however briefly) was undeniable. On a smaller but still significant scale, many university programs provide substantial scholarships to some students in exchange for playing in a chamber group while obtaining a graduate degree. Other institutions offer degrees in chamber music, which are specifically tailored to students interested in this corner of the music performance field. A number of schools also host so-called ensembles in residence. Sadly, such groups are often limited to string quartets, but as long as the ensemble in residence derives from the school’s core faculty--which then makes the group accessible to, and familiar with, the students that it is supposed to serve--such ensembles can have a meaningful impact on the life of students.

Despite the lackadaisical approach to chamber music that is still practiced by many a university music program, it is heartwarming that the students themselves are increasingly showing an understanding of--and commitment to--the genre’s value. A case in point is that in my first semester as interim director of chamber music at the Meadows School I oversaw two dozen groups give in excess of 50 unique performances and engage in the world-premieres of 3 small scale works. All of this incredibly fruitful activity occurred in a span of just four short months and more remarkable activity followed. While these results required significant organizational efforts on my part as the program's director, they were in fact the fruits of the hard work carried out by the students themselves who were obviously thirsty for an outlet to collaborate (i.e. rehearse, rehearse, rehearse) and shine (i.e. perform).

There are numerous examples of graduates taking matters into their own hands and looking for success in the chamber music field, even if that wasn't their original career goal. Without a doubt, the personal satisfaction and artistic fulfillment which come from performing chamber music at a high level are second to none. If such a pursuit can lead to making a living as a musician, it's a win-win indeed.