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.


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?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

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