Merry Peckham: On Rehearsing, Performing, and Growing as a Musician (And Person!) in Chamber Music

It could just be my imagination, but I feel like I have this hazy recollection of my teacher asking me if I’d like to play in a quartet, and being decidedly unenthused about the idea. I mean, I was probably 10, I don’t think I’d ever really listened to any chamber music at that point, and my part definitely didn’t seem nearly as cool or exciting as whatever concerto I had my eye on.

Of course, despite those initial reservations, some of the most profound and enduring lessons I’ve learned about both music and life, some of my most cherished memories, and some of my most enduring friendships (including podcast guests, and oh right, my wife!), all came in the context of my chamber music experiences.

I know the circumstances of the last 18 months has made it difficult to have “normal” chamber music experiences, but now that we’re starting to reengage in live quartet, trio, and other small ensemble rehearsals, I thought it might be an interesting time to chat with someone who has spent decades immersed in chamber music, not only as a performer, but teacher and mentor as well.

I was curious to see what sorts of things we could be doing in rehearsals, or in our own individual preparation, to make the most of our time together, and grow not only as musicians, but as people too. Because while I did say some of my most cherished moments in music came in chamber music – some of my most oh-so-close-to-hulking-out-and-smashing-everything moments in life occurred in chamber music too. 😅

I first crossed paths with today’s guest when I was maybe 11, when she and her quartet colleagues visited Columbus, OH to do some coachings, and I was having one of my very first quartet experiences. Much has transpired in the 20 years 30 years 35 years (OMG!) since, but she remains as thoughtful and enthusiastic as I remembered her being then. =)

Meet Merry Peckham

Merry Peckham is currently Chair of Chamber Music at The New England Conservatory of Music, and Associate Director for the Perlman Music Program. She is also a founding member of the Cavani Quartet, with whom she played for 30+ years, and also hosted Offbeat, on WCLV 104.9 (Cleveland) for over a decade.

  • 2:51 – How, much like a family, the way a group’s members interact with one another can change over time, and how “what may work for the first concert may not work for the 100th concert.”
  • 9:26 – Merry mentions Ted Lasso! And makes a very cool observation about the difference between one’s role as a coach and one’s role as a teacher.
  • 10:30 – Merry’s “linear” vs. “organic” approach in coaching.
  • 13:15 – A general formula for how to approach the first rehearsal of a piece.
  • 14:33 – Have you ever gotten into a disagreement with someone in your ensemble? If so, this one phenomenon could be why. =)
  • 17:37 – What it really means, on a practical level, to listen in a chamber music context.
  • 21:14 – Merry’s basic score study principles.
  • 23:46 – Why Merry went from being a hard-core play-off-of-the-score-at-all-times person, to playing from the part instead (though this doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone).
  • 25:20 – Are you a looker? Or a non-looker?
  • 31:03 – Merry talks a bit about recording, and we wonder about whether recording is maybe not as necessary on a day-to-day basis as when you are working on solo repertoire.
  • 36:54 – I ask Merry about imposter syndrome, and feeling like the weak link in the context of an ensemble.
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Noa
So looking back, it’s a little embarrassing for me to admit that I probably spent the first 20 years or so of my violin life and no real understanding of how to practice. I was only at the end of like my master’s program that things suddenly started to click, and I began to understand what it is that I should be thinking about, or listening for or doing in the practice room. I wasn’t just by playing things over and over hoping things would be more in tune with a pretty sound, but actually had ideas and so forth. Similarly, looking back at my chamber music experiences, I had a lot of great experiences going all the way back to like 12 or 13. But even here, I don’t think there was ever any real plan and our rehearsals we just played through things to make sure we were together, played in tune and essentially just kind of winging it. And so given that schools are now returning to in person learning to degree and chamber music is now becoming more possible, seemed like maybe this would be kind of like a nice reset time where be an opportunity to establish a new habits or introduce some new strategies or best practices for getting more out of chamber music rehearsals and even socially, like learning how to relearn how to work together, cooperatively. And so I thought of you and experience, obviously not just 30 plus years with the Cavani Quartet, but also coaching and mentoring young chamber musicians for I’m assuming at least that long. I guess what I’m curious about is what is it that experienced chamber music groups seem to do in rehearsals? Or how they approach rehearsals that make for an effective rehearsal that maybe less experienced chamber musicians don’t yet know to do?

Merry
It’s a great question. I think like, all families, all chamber groups are different, and they figure out a way to function. I think that the group dynamic within long formed, existing genre ensemble can resemble a lot of the things that a family dynamic might have that kind of group dynamic, but probably none of the advantages. But I think every group that is successful, that stays together that manages to exist for a long time, has their own way of doing things.

Merry
I think that one thing is once you start playing concerts consistently, is the concert goal is quite a motivation for the group, in terms of how are we going to be prepared and organize ourselves to really be ready for that particular date. I think that a lot of times, newly formed groups and you know, you’re talking about when you were a teenager playing chamber music, I think that it’s very similar. I mean, when you’re first trying to play chamber music together, say you are 13 or 12, and you start to play with other wonderfully developed young instrumentalists, but who’ve not played with others with one to a part and no conductor before, I think that what your plan was sounded pretty good, you know, play it through, try to get it together and be in tune. And that can do do pretty well, in the rehearsal process. I think that as I’m guiding an ensemble of that age, and in fact, any new ensemble, I’m helping any new ensemble try to figure out ways how to make sure everyone has a voice in the process.

Merry
I don’t know if you found this to be true in your experience, Noa, but I certainly have that every time you sit down to play with a new group, if you do have a performance goal, there are certain people that are just inclined to help take the reins or be more vocal about getting things going than others. And I think that I found over time, depending on what group I’m playing in, or what group I’m working with, or coaching. Sometimes you learn how to go with those tendencies. But other times, you really need to help the group give everyone the same amount of time to share ideas and to try different things. So I know as a mentor or guide for a newly formed ensemble, I’ll even give them guidelines for their first three rehearsals or something after we’ve met. And, frankly, it was something that I have found worked really well in groups that I played with for years and years. I was in a string quartet for almost 30, was it 33 years, or was it 32, almost 33 years. And then I was also in a piano trio for over a decade. And I think over time, we just found that sometimes we just have to set the timer. You know, of course, a professional ensemble will map out its goals and different groups have different ways of doing it. It may fall on the shoulders of one person who just is so inclined to look at what you have coming up and figure out how much rehearsal time you’re going to need for which movement of what piece in order to really feel like you’ll be as prepared as possible for that performance goal.

Merry
And then of course, there’s preparations for different goals, you know, now that we’ve been recording ourselves maybe a little more than we ever have before, everybody’s learning how to prepare for recordings in different ways, I think and that may be one of the silver linings for me of the pandemic is just how much it did help students recording themselves. In one way, it helped them to understand what they sound like when they’re recorded. And then it helped them to understand how to prepare for that, because that’s what it’s going to sound like it’s not the same as in person. But with chamber groups, I think it’s developing that dynamic and you want to decide, are you going to try to be a democracy? Or are you going to have designated people or a person who maybe guides the group more, and that dynamic can change. And that can also lead to changes over time. Sometimes, what may work for the first concert may not work for the 100th concert. So it’s always changing. And I think we as players, we as teachers, being a chamber musician is a lifelong endeavor. We’re always learning it takes time to learn how to listen and react in different situations with different people we’re playing with or with different music we’re playing.

Noa
It sounds like there isn’t a single only way for this to work just like family dynamics, like you said, different and can change, you know, as the children get older, or the parents get older, or conflicts arise, and so forth. Yeah, like the rules can change, the interactions can change. Part of what I was doing, before we talked was to look at what research had been done on quartet rehearsals and quartets, and so forth. And there’s not actually a ton for obvious reasons. It’s tough to study and time consuming. But one of the things I found was interesting, because it looked at three rehearsals, and I wasn’t able to find out what professional quartet it was…

Merry
Yes, I think I know the article you’re talking about. Yeah.

Noa
…And what I found interesting is, is it did seem relatively democratic, but like you were saying, things would change in different roles with change across rehearsals, even within rehearsals. But at the end of the day, everyone did have a voice in their process. And so it wasn’t just like one person leading it, the entirety of the time across all three rehearsals, and so forth. I am curious how you facilitate that, both within the group, but also maybe as the coach of a group if you observe something like that. So maybe it’s two different questions?

Merry
Maybe it is, I mean, I’ve always really been intrigued by the dynamic of a group. I think, as a child, even though I played tennis, I wanted to play team sports more, I thought that was more fun. And I always played doubles when I was on a tennis team. And you know, I wasn’t that good, but I was loud. So that was part of the benefits of having me on the team, I suppose. Anyhow, I’m always intrigued by what it is that motivates the team, how you can inspire one another, how sometimes you can give one another boost, how many times you give each other a reality check.

Merry
I don’t know if you’re familiar with this series, it’s on Apple TV right now called Ted Lasso. I’m really enjoying watching that, because it sort of is a study on group dynamic, and how this coach of this team, even though he doesn’t really know much about the sport, which they’re playing, is still trying to bring out the best in the personalities of the team members. And I feel a lot of kin… at least I try to do that, I think, in my own work. Maybe sometimes one of the greatest differences between being a coach and a teacher say is that you might be as a coach igniting things that people already know. And as a teacher, you’re probably sharing information that people don’t know. So when it comes to like building a dynamic within a group, you’re kind of assessing each situation, and you only know what you see and hear in your session with the group. I’ve never had the good fortune to observe groups rehearsing. But I’m sure I’d find it fascinating and probably mostly appalling.

Merry
Sometimes the way I work with groups depends on what I’m getting from them. But I call some of my work more linear approach to coaching where I’m really looking at the piece or the work that is being performed, and maybe making sure that we’re going through all the issues that are in the score, and you know, because we both know that it’s very different inside the group than it is outside of the group. And so maybe the coach’s greatest contribution is helping with balance and clarity of articulation. And so when I when I meet with a group, I will sometimes be really going through the score. Making sure we’ve talked about the stroke is like this. This dynamic is different in this register or in this specific moment or harmonic indication than anyplace else.

Merry
And then I do what I call a more organic type of coaching. And that is where I’m trying to find ways to maximize the listening and communication amongst the players. And it’s often for me tricky to know which way to go first, some groups is very obvious, they need to really be more aware of one another perhaps. And maybe the best way to do that is to give them some exercise to enhance their communication, and progressive listening or proactive listening, I should say. And then other times, it’s really, we need to just cover this because in this particular work, this is so much a part of the musical language, and we’re missing that component pretty consistently. So let’s go through and find all the places we need to modify that.

Merry
I wonder too, if coming back from not having been able to make music in person together for so long, will make us more cognizant of that, and maybe more sensitive to being with others. I do think that, that people won’t dismiss confrontation or problems as quickly, they’ll try to solve them more, that’s been my experience. In the last three months as in, I actually did coach in person throughout the pandemic, because where I was working had a very strict protocol, and it worked, it was for a limited number of students. And then of this over the summer, where I was at the festivals I were working, they were creating bubbles or rooms, at two festivals, and so we were able to do that. And but it was very interesting to observe these groups who are come back from not having been able to play with others for for like a year or so their lives, and especially these teenagers, and what it meant to them and, and they put a lot of importance into it. And it’s hard to know, of course, if that was just the particular students we had this summer, if it was because of what they just been through.

Merry
But you know, as we come back, I think, if I give a group of an initial coaching, I probably I’m going to ask them afterwards to organize their first rehearsal. And I’ll say, first thing I want you to do is I want you to tune this way. And I’ll tell them how I want them to tune and I usually coaching groups that are playing repertoire written between, you know, 1750, and the present day. So if it’s an all string group, I’ll probably ask them to do some sort of tempered tuning. And if it’s a group with piano, then they should, of course, base their tuning on the piano. I haven’t done a lot of wind coaching lately, but I do some, I would do the same with a wind ensemble as well.

Merry
At any rate, so so first thing you do is you tune and then you put and you try to play as much as you can. I’d say if you can play through a movement together, I would do it. And then I would get out your iPhone, your iPad, whatever timekeeping device you might have, and set it for anywhere from five to seven minutes and have each individual member run the rehearsal for those five to seven minutes. And part of the reason I like to do that is a to make sure that everybody is feeling like they have a moment where they can take care of things that they’re concerned about, and take responsibility for that and have a voice.

Merry
Other times it’s also because I’m not sure if everybody perceived, what went on in our coaching in the same way, you know. So some people may feel like, well, Merry said, we got to go faster. And someone said, nope, Merry said, we got to go slower. After having been, especially in a quartet with the same people for so long, I know that perception can sometimes be an illusion. So it’s good to clarify that. I don’t know if you find that to be true in your playing and performance of chamber music, but it’s always good to make sure that it’s clarified because a lot of times misunderstandings and frustrations are just miscommunication. So if people are going back to the source, which can be the score, or recording yourself and listening for things that we know the recordings pick up well, perhaps pacing, maybe some timing, you’re not going to hear balance, and sometimes not even intonation or tone very well. But you can hear that other stuff that can help take some of the guessing out of it. And then we can see if our perceptions are aligned in alignment at all.

Noa
I’m just smiling because I remember one of the most vigorous disagreements I remember having in college was essentially about what I and one of the other members of the group thought our coach had said. And it was like he’s had pretty much the opposite. And the other two were just trying to stay on the sidelines away from this. So yeah. You mentioned something about practice listening that I wanted to follow up on. Because it seems to remind me of something I think you said in another interview about how one of the great learning benefits of being more involved in chamber music is how it puts you in a position of needing to cultivate your ears and to listen in different ways than you might if you’re only focused on solo repertoire, for instance, and, and I wondered if that proactive listening that you started talking about was related to that, and what that would look like and what that means exactly.

Merry
Absolutely. I think that this is an advent really of professional and consistently supported chamber music performance practice. And probably starting with the Schuppanzigh Quartet, which is probably one of the first so called ensembles, and residents, actually, players hired to play together and realize great quartets, mostly Beethoven’s is that you do have to have these goals of how you’re going to get it together. And the idea of, of what happened before that is that chamber music was a social activity, it was very spontaneous in the moment. I’ve read about the wonderful parties, you know, that were just basically, in place of today’s friends getting together to watch some Netflix, you know, everybody got together, and almost everybody played something. And they started producing miniature scores, if you will, of quartets, for example, for the people who were at the party to follow along, it wasn’t for people to study the score, and be prepared for the rehearsal that didn’t really start for until like the early 19th century.

Merry
But with the standards of the high level of ensemble playing, that is expected today’s norms, you are expected to know the score, that’s a part of your preparation. I think some people do more, some do less. But I think it’s very helpful about how you’re listening around yourself. And sometimes I feel if you know, to whom in your ensemble, you want to send your energy, and of specifically or particularly poignant way. And if you know, from whom you want to receive as much energy or information as possible, that can be very helpful in helping a group pull together and really feel connected. So if you know in advance, I’m holding a long note here. And while I’m holding that this is happening, what in my priority should I be most obsessed with, which part should I try to enhance the most, and you making those kinds of decisions, and when you go to play that long pedal, and it might be a sustained pedal, or it might be a bunch of little subdivided notes on a pedal that are very energized. If you’re listening in advance to another part with the same kind of intensity, you listen to yourself, when you’re practicing by yourself, it’s really something, you know, you get outside of yourself in a very intense way. I think that’s kind of the goal.

Merry
And that’s also why I feel it’s a lifelong work in progress, because some of my chamber music heroes, you know, are folks who probably were great at it when they were youngsters. But as they’ve gotten older and older and older, and kept doing it quite a lot, they’re just so good at really listening to what’s going on around them, and still playing magnificently, you know, bringing their their best to their part and what they’re giving. So there’s a lot of ways that you can do it and how you prepare. I mean, I have basic things I think one should do to prepare to be able to listen that way, a little more proactively. I also feel that you can push yourself to do that when you’re not in a rehearsal. This past summer, I read chamber music with different people. I mean, that was a lot of time music that I’ve played quite a lot, frankly, but playing it with different people, and even while we’re just playing and it’s so spontaneous, challenging yourself to try to listen to another part or voice with similar intensity as you’re listening to what you’re doing. It’s really quite something to do that in that spontaneous way. A lot of happy accidents, I approve of happy accidents.

Noa
You said something about perhaps preparation outside of rehearse, or maybe I misheard, but it seemed like you were going to be saying something about the need to do some level of preparation outside of rehearsal so that in rehearsal, you can listen in a way that’s going to be most conducive to actually playing with each other in a collaborative way. What’s I mean, are there certain things that you would recommend or sort of like, must do’s before first rehearsal?

Merry
Yeah, you know, I mean, I again, with the same way that I don’t mean to be a control freak, I’m just really trying to help groups discover their dynamics. So when I say this is what you’re gonna do the next rehearsal, you’re going to tune, you’re going to tune this way, you’re going to play through your movement, then you’re each going to control the rehearsal for a set amount of time. And then at the end, you’ll play it through again, and maybe hit on some more spots that you all have in common, or some things that never were resolved. I would say and in addition to that, your individual preparation and like you do this, this and this, I do have some basic score study, things that I like people to do. You know, as the very basic thing is go through and know every place you have the same rhythm as another voice, go through the music and know every place that nobody plays. Grand pauses are sometimes the hardest things to get together and to come off of. And then also to write rhythmic cues into your part, really figure out what you should be listening for, if you have a melody, should you be listening down to the lowest pitch? Or should you be listening to the smallest subdivision? If you have a pedal? What do you think you should be listening for there, write some of that or indicate some of that into your part. And of course, these days, so many people play off of iPads, or some sort of tablet, where they’ll off usually play off of a score. And then it’s even prioritizing on that I know for myself, when I play off of a score, sometimes I don’t feel like I listen in the moment the same way I do if I’m not looking at everything, because sometimes I feel like I’m hearing what I see, instead of hearing what’s actually happening. So I do think, you know, even highlighting the iPads and with the similar sort of things, what’s the smallest subdivision, who has the same rhythm as me, where are we all not playing, you know, just circle that rest and make sure that we all are aware that we have to behave a certain way when we stop so that we can be together when we start again. So that kind of individual preparation, and then maybe the same way that one would talk to one student, if there’s a passage, particular difficulty, technically and apart. And if it is something where you’re working with some like, an all bowed instrument, ensemble, and you know, it’s a particularly difficult bow technique, you can have everybody work on it in a similar way, you know, maybe practicing and rhythms or the way they practice with the metronome, or how they are going to strategize fingerings or bowings, throughout that passage, that kind of thing. If the individual does a little bit of that, and if it’s a little bit unified, then when they come together, I think it is a little bit easier to let things fall into place.

Noa
I’m actually kind of fascinated by what you said about when you’re looking at the score, you might be hearing what you’re seeing as opposed to what’s actually happening. That actually seems like it might be a really profound observation, and I’m not quite sure what to ask about it or what to do with it, but, but I wonder if you could say more about it.

Merry
Well, did you work much with Bob Mann at Juilliard?

Noa
I didn’t, no.

Merry
Okay, well, I never went to Juilliard. But I, my quartet played for him and off, off and on. And he was such a huge influence on so many musicians in the 20th century, and 21st century. And I remember when my quartet was maybe just a few years old, somehow, he’d said something about playing off the score as much as possible. So I became obsessed with playing off the score. And I, back then, of course, since I’m 5000 years old, there weren’t computers yet, or things like that, so it really became about how do I photocopy the smallest score possible and highlight my line. Fortunately, I had really great eyes back then. And I could play off of a score. And I’m also slightly allergic to page turns. So I’d have like this big, massive trifold on my music stand, you know, with a whole movement of a Beethoven quartet or something. And I really believed in it. I played that’s all I would do. I did it for three seasons. And then it was somewhere in the end of the third season, I think that we were playing, playing something sort of complex, you know, with a lot of polyphony. I think it was either Bartok or Beethoven. Oh, who knows, I can’t remember exactly. But I realized that I wasn’t really hearing what was happening in the room. I was really imagining, based on what I was looking at. So I just as an experiment, got out the part. And I felt, I don’t know, I felt like I was much more present in what was happening right in then and there. And I don’t think that’s true for everyone, but it was for me.

Merry
I also, I think different people have different comfort levels with how much they engage visually with the people they’re collaborating with. For me, the more up I am, and open across from whom I’m playing, with whom I’m playing, I feel I listen better too. I don’t think that’s true of everyone. I have certainly played with amazing collaborators and chamber music players who don’t look up much but I can tell her hearing so much more than I am and adjusting brilliantly so that we all sound wonderful. Sometimes I think that’s an interesting thing to try to identify, that attribute. Who like me is a looker who isn’t, you know who is more, they could be distracted by too much visual stimulant across from their ensemble and they might be able to listen more sensitively, and astutely, if they’re not. And sometimes, you can unlock a student’s superpower that way. Because if you, if you discover a) that it’s helpful for them to have the score, and that they’re much more generative in what they do with their energy as a contributing player, that’s great. And if you also notice that they are like I was where I’m distracted by the score, then you know, you need to get your part out and you know, write some good cues in so you don’t get lost and you have a little bit more detail on your roadmap there. Yeah, so different people, different personalities. And then of course, maybe you may feel this is the way you are, when you’re playing collaborative one to a part without conductor music. And then you play with somebody else, and you’re not that same person, your role your personality seems to take on something else. So that’s kind of, I think, one of the great challenges and what makes it so fascinating and fun. And it’s a very fulfilling thing to do. I think orchestral players can have that too, if you’re at a very high level, because there’s so many things going on, but just a different sort of set of ensemble responsibilities, you know, you’re not playing without a conductor, usually. And for a string players, certainly we usually have many people playing the same part, and that is another challenge, playing together with others in a section.

Noa
Maybe this is not an important question. But I am curious how you discovered that you weren’t actually listening in as engaged away as you thought you might be. Wouldn’t happen to do with recording yourself, and maybe you’re not playing the way you think you’re playing. I’m just curious how that might have come.

Merry
I think it was a combination. I think you’re right, I think it was a combination with that point, three years in, for me would have been around ’87, ’88. I think we were just starting to do recordings, because we certainly didn’t record ourselves often as part of our process, which I think now, for example, that’s part of the curriculum where I teach now I’m actually requiring the groups even though they’re now all in person to have a recorded component, because it just felt they played so much. They got prepared in such a much more polished way quicker. So I think it did have something to do with that, Noa, I think you’re right. I also feel like I think it was a mentor, who was in the audience. In fact, it might have been a member of the Juilliard Quartet. I’m not sure I’m guessing it was either Earl Carlyss or, or Mr. Mann, you know, saying something, like, be sure that you’re hearing that. And I like what I’m hearing all of it. And then I just realized I wasn’t really hearing what was really happening. So I’m not sure if it was just the one, I think it was a combination of that feedback from an observation from a live performance as well as the fact that we were recording in a very serious way. A lot of people listening and producing and tweaking mics makes you nervous. You know,

Noa
I wonder if you can say more about recording now cuz I was curious, you know, yeah, there it is recording fit into, like, I have a concept now more clearly, of how recording ought to fit into like an individual practice session in preparation for performances. But yeah, how does that fit into an ensemble setting?

Merry
I think we had, of course, in different chamber music curriculum, we did different things. But I know that there were several festivals and music schools that had students that were unable to be in a place where they could meet in person to play together. So they started adopting, recording in layers, which is, you know, more like the way a popular music group would record. So we had to start thinking it all became about synchronization, you know, are we lining up? Are we together. And then that didn’t always have very much to do with what each player was actually doing, as it did about how we were recording ourselves, and how we were able to use different apps and technology. So one thing that I think everybody learned is it helps to have certain gear to really get the quality that’s sounding more like it does in person you can’t totally replicated ever, but you want to get something better than just the iPhone, although iPhones pretty good. And then I think accepting that there’s a way you’re going to get it to sound the way you want it like it’s beautifully as you’d like it to sound may have as much to do with where you put the mic. And what your surroundings are, what your acoustic is, as of course it does, then the the level of preparation and your performance level.

Merry
So what’s wonderful about playing chamber music is that you have a built in buddy coach system. So we’re all listening to one another where we’ll stop or listen to somebody else play, we might make a suggestion. That can be really, really wonderfully helpful. You always have a teacher, you always have somebody really listening and caring about what we’re all doing together. But when you’re putting it onto a recording, it’s just a different thing. So you have to learn to use that medium. In a live performance in a chamber music room that you’re performing in, say you have a string quartet, and that and the room makes it a quintet. And then also, you could add in the the idea of the audience, the chemistry of playing for someone enhancing or elevating the emotions and the senses of those that are performing, there’s a responsiveness to that, too. So that’s very different than just, I’m going to sit down, and you know, I remembered, in the first professional recording session that I had in a string quartet. We each had our own mic, then there were like, probably another four, or five or six mics throughout the room to get the resonance of the room. And they were just trying to find ways to replicate what they liked about the acoustic of the room in their recording, where if you’re recording to make a layered, edited recording, as they do in pop music, you’re just going to mix that all in later. You’re going to balance it later, you’re going to give it a different sound or structure of brightness. But you have to replicate the same kind of dull, clean, clear recording file, if you will. I’m thinking about like, 1987, 88, when I was starting to record and then really the, they were just every now and then like we were doing a piece on this, this person’s album or and then on that person’s and then I think it was really in 1989, 1990, that we started making commercial quartet recordings, which is, of course, at the very end of that kind of recording industry. You know, and then you go to a session and you play probably a movement through four or five times, and then you do spots for the producer feels you’ve missed. And yeah, just just a different experience this recording thing, but now I feel like we’ve been recording ourselves a lot, we have to record ourselves for everything we do, we did. So now that we’re coming back in person, I feel like we have some new skill sets. And that can be help us as we’re listening and perceiving what our part is in the chamber ensemble, how it goes together,

Noa
There was one thing you said that kind of made my ears perk up. Because I know one of the challenges when you’re practicing or doing a run through or playing by yourself is because you know what you want to do, what you hear tends to reflect what you think you’re doing. Whereas in reality, it may not. Right? You listen back to the recording, it’s like, oh, I didn’t do nearly as much of that particular swell or that articulation as I thought I was. And teachers can kind of identify that for you, and the recording certainly can. But you know, because you have this sort of buddy or coach or collaborative system around you have other listeners, who you’re playing also affects and we’re listening to you in a different way than you might be to yourself. I wonder if like, I mean, does that mean that maybe recording oneself as a part of practice and a rehearsal or an ensemble is maybe not quite as necessary as it might be in an individual situation because you have those other listeners?

Merry
I wonder if it might not too, and something about what you just said, made me think back to why I decided for myself to stop playing just from the score. Something that you just said about you know, by yourselves, you’re kind of planning out, you kind of know what you want to do, and you just assume that you’re doing it and then you listen back and you realize, oh, I wasn’t doing that nearly as much as I thought, right? The only thing is I say with with not doing it and recording is that if you’re preparing for a recording, you’d better record the group and see if the group is doing what you think. If you’re preparing for a live concert, probably you want to play for someone whose ears you really trust in the space where you’re going to perform to listen for things like balance especially and contrast you know is it we feel like we’re making it night and day and they’re just feeling No, it’s just a different hue of a dark blue. I think you should be going from like dark blue to light, light, light, light light, robin eggs shell blue or something you know, and or from dark blue to brilliant gold. And so there’s different ways of approaching that. That’s also a good way to unify rehearsal goals. And it may be the people, the interesting thing though, in the again in a group dynamic, which is why it’s so fascinating, I think is that different people may have different priorities.

Merry
I also just want to say one thing that I’ve always found to be sort of interesting and like maybe 1000s of concerts that were played in my time and and I did play in one group with the same four people for 20, over 20 years, 22 years with the same people and I feel like I could count on both hands, the number of times, we all felt the same way about a performance. You know, someone would walk up the stairs, like, That felt great. And then somebody else might agree with him. And then there’d be one person who wouldn’t say anything. And then later on, you talk to that person up, like, I felt like, That was terrible. Or everybody, three people say, it was so bad, and somebody else, like, I thought that was pretty good. You know, it just never, ever felt like we were unanimou, very rarely. So this idea of perception, you know, it’s it’s a, it’s a tricky thing. If you make a recording, you have that, to listen back to. And maybe your perception of what happened is, is not similar. But maybe it is. But that’s the thing about music, it’s, you kind of can tell, by the way people might react to when they’ve heard you and experienced you’re playing. That’s usually a pretty good indicator, but not always, you know.

Noa
And I wish there was a really elegant transition to this question about group dynamics. But it’s, and maybe it’s not one that happens, I don’t know, this sort of, like confession time, I guess. But one of the things that I remember experiencing, and some of my groups was feeling like the others in the group were just so much better than I was, and having insecurities about not belonging, because I wasn’t as good of a player or didn’t have as good an idea or understanding of what we should be doing, you know, being more inclined to, like, continually defer and not suggest things or not ask for things or, or even just kind of feel the ongoing insecurity of needing to, like, prove that I belong, and so forth. Is that something that you run into with some student groups or that happens?

Merry
It definitely does, I think, and different people respond to, I don’t know, if they’re, it’s an insecurity or just not feeling confident in different ways, some people, maybe they will decide that they’ll be quiet and they’ll just and other people will become maybe more defensive or aggravated in different ways. And that’s I do think why it’s important to try to figure out how to, what is it that’s going to create the dynamic where people feel the connectivity, and they feel valid, or validated in what they’re doing. I mean, I, of course, we can’t, we can’t really grow as a group without feeling vulnerable. And we have to try different things. But I think that’s part of what coaching is about, too, you want to make sure that you’re not just breaking down the group, but that you really know how to help the group build up and peak. And you know, something, that’s something that I sure know changes with each circumstance. Maybe it’s also why maybe with some of your groups, you stayed together longer than others, maybe you had a connection was one other player, where you felt okay about what you were doing, or that you sense that you both enjoyed one another. And that could be enough to want to explore more music together. I think sometimes with some groups, they stay together for a long time, because they’re, they have other things that are saying you’re successful, even if they may not feel that, you know, it may just be that, well, they’re getting asked to play a lot of concerts there. There’s a financial gain, and then then you have everybody’s family’s has a financial gain from your investment in that institution. So maybe that helps you to overcome your own insecurities, or fears about not feeling like you’re good enough. It’s a tricky thing.

Merry
In general, though, I think different people respond to that differently. I do feel like chamber music is a unique opportunity for us to, to maybe help one another with that. I do think it’s good to, to understand that if you want to build trust within a group, perhaps you want to have diplomacy that doesn’t feel fake or false. But you also want to feel like there’s an acceptance of what is working. If somebody says, you know, this was okay, but this was terrible. Or, I really loved how we were doing that, but then then what happened? You know, I don’t think it’s always just like, well, this was terrible. Usually there’s something that’s working. I teach a string chamber pedagogy class up here at the New England Conservatory. And one of the initial exercises is how can you make a quick 61 second comment that can build trust and make a difference. So front ending with what works is usually the hardest thing for every student to do. We’re just used to listening critically, and we want people to listen critically, we want to have something that we but it’s so interesting how like what might just be, you know, it’s pretty clear that you guys are really listening and playing really well together. I just think that right here needs to be softer. And I think this is how you can do it. I have found that for me teaching the class and talking about things like this with colleagues like we’re discussing right now, I feel like that helps me when I go to play chamber music. For me now an ideal situation would be one where by the time we get to the performance, maybe it’s not going to be the greatest and all interpretation of all time, but that we all feel like that we know what we want to try to say, for the most part, and that we know how to do it together. And that we try to figure out how to present that in such a way that we really feel like we’re able to do that. And for some that may be just a seriousness, for others it may feel like a joy, but I’ve really enjoyed over the summer when I did collaborate and prepare for concerts with people, that was one thing I was really enjoying about that process again.

Notes

More Merry

In addition to Merry’s CelloChat about practice fun and games (here), I think you’ll also enjoy this Living the Classical Life interview: Chamber music was like a narcotic for me. – Merry Peckham

And if you’re a violinist, violist, cellist, or pianist interested in studying chamber music with Merry (and other terrific musicians) this coming summer, you can learn more about chamber music at the Perlman Music Program here: PMP Chamber Music Workshop

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

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Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

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