(Chamber) music is the cure!


Have you all read about how abysmal young peoples' social skills are these days? Of course, it's the pandemic's fault...but also screen time and helicopter parenting and everything else that was already working to make kids overly cautious and self-isolating before the pandemic. And we all have our anecdotes to back up our whining. I once had a student tell me that they joined Instagram their senior year of high school in order to follow her prospective schools to see "what it was like to be there". This from a child who lived 2 hours from the school she eventually chose. Then my other students within hearing distance nodded in assent. And I, crusty old Gen-Xer that I am, wondered why they hell they didn't just drive down and hang out for the day? But that would have required overcoming shyness to speak to strangers, and I see now that this is an anxiety-inducing prospect. (PS, it was anxiety-inducing for us shy kids in the 90s, too; we just didn't have a choice.) I love this student dearly, by the way, and she strikes me as being a lot better at interacting with her peers than some of my others. But I guess the struggle is real, and near-universal. 

Here's the thing: my students, and probably yours, too, are kind, thoughtful, open-minded people with enough intelligence to muddle through some basic rules of decorum and a strong desire to be liked and likeable. They have an amazing amount of "facts" memorized, and all As on their report cards too! They just don't practice doing the social thing in front of actual warm bodies very much. Or at least not without a parent or teacher to smooth over the initial awkwardness. 

My friends: chamber music. I know, it's a heavy lift even for the most capable musicians, and that might not describe a lot of your younger students. I'm not talking about whipping out Barber's Summer Music with your freshmen. But putting some friends together, dumping a pile of easy(ish) music at their feet, and giving them a low-risk performance to work towards will do wonders for their confidence and ownership of their education, not to mention allowing them to practice communicating their ideas, making compromises, and working on a team towards a common goal. They should be doing this in band and orchestra, but I think it's easier for them to get away with just staring at the conductor's baton and letting that person do all the thinking (and they will if they have to, because they'll get fired if the ensemble regularly sounds terrible). There's no boss in chamber music, so they have to do the work--listening, thinking critically, applying knowledge, and LOOKING OTHER PEOPLE IN THE EYES--together. 

You should get them started, because you may have to point out all of the things to start: listen, adjust, match, you know the list. Group people together and give them music that's pretty easy for every single one of them. Run them through some slow, thoughtful warm-up exercises that are part tone, part intonation to get them in the habit of paying attention to their sounds and each others'. Guide them gently towards choosing the final repertoire list (or piece) and a venue for a fun, relaxed performance. I do not recommend a concert hall for this, but some sort of "musical wallpaper" gig at a coffee shop in town, the library, a nursing home, etc. Check in every couple or few weeks, depending on your schedule, and gently guide them back towards the path if they've somehow managed to make Mozart sound Schoenbergian. And then let them loose in the wild. Oh, chat with them about a marketing plan too; they will love making a graphic, sharing it on their socials, and perhaps livestreaming the event. That adds to the sense of ownership, too.

My students just performed an hour and a half set of holiday music for expandable flute quartet/quintet at the Wyoming Union a few days ago, and it was great! They all showed up looking serious in their lil' Christmas sweaters and festive lights, their music was in order, their friends stopped by to gawk at regular intervals, and they truly sounded quite good. Was the music mostly sight-readable by the majority of the group? Yes, it absolutely was. But in the handful of rehearsals they managed to schedule (no small feat with eight busy people), they managed to focus on beautiful sound, phrasing, matching pitch and articulation, and balance instead of fretting about playing wrong notes. I walked over to the Union with some of them, and I hung out afterwards as they were packing up, and you know what? They have clearly gotten to know each other, more comfortably, than last semester's studio. 

The best part is that I did almost nothing.  I prodded them in the direction of wanting to take on this little fun project, and they did the rest. One of the leaders in the studio conducted while playing. I just sat back and took some blurry, poorly lit proud momma photos for the 'gram (is that still what the young people say?). I dare you to try it: let your students be in charge of a small thing, learn how to work together, how to make musical decisions, how to market that small thing, and feel the pride of execution. And if a few notes fall by the wayside? We have a saying in my studio: "no kitten is gonna die". 😉