Chamber Music

Chamber music is the foundation on which all other types of music-making are built. Why is this ?

In chamber music, we have our own voice for which we are uniquely responsible, but at the same time, we are part of a conversation, in which we are participating, usually as a more-or-less equal protagonist with the other players.

This is very different from Orchestral Playing. In an orchestra, we are normally playing in unison with the other players of the section. The conversations in which we are participating (the music) are much less intimate than the chamber music ones: there are many more participants, many of them have extremely loud voices, and the whole conversation is controlled by an all-powerful puppet-master with a magic wand. In an orchestral string section each cellist is a tiny cog in an enormous machine and, as individuals, we are noticed exclusively when we malfunction. This role can be quite dehumanising.

“Solo” playing takes us to the other extreme. Here, our role is one of almost permanent protagonism. We are the “star” and “the others” are there principally to serve us: preparing our path, then accompanying, carrying, pampering, and decorating us. It is not surprising that “stars” of all types – movie, rock, sports etc – often have the same problems of narcissism and egocentrism with their corresponding constant need for attention and their frequent inability to listen. The role of “star” (or soloist) often leads to personal and social problems.

We can play a revealing psychological game that looks at different roles in a musical or non-musical communication: three people sit together in a circle. One is the “protagonist” – the “talker”, the “doer”. This person directs their communication (preferably an important, emotionally-charged personal story) exclusively towards another who is the receiver, who listens attentively and responsively. The third person is the observer. In this game, we take turns occupying different roles and notice how we behave and how we feel in each role.

In chamber music, much more than in solo playing, we alternate constantly between the different roles of protagonist, accompanist and attentive observer. Unlike in orchestral playing, we can also influence the flow and dynamics of the conversation. All this is very healthy both musically and psychologically. We are neither the isolated “star” of solo playing, nor the tiny depersonalised ant in the busy hive of orchestral playing. A major survey of American worker satisfaction showed that quartet players were among the most satisfied of all professions, while the satisfaction level of symphony orchestra musicians rated somewhere between prison guards and rubbish collectors!


We can study any language (musical or spoken) in an academic/intellectual way (with books, scores etc), but no amount of study can replace the benefits (and pleasure) of actually using the language in real-life situations. In the same way that “conversation” is one of the most pleasant and efficient ways to learn a foreign language, playing chamber music is one of the most pleasant and efficient ways to learn to understand the musical language (and thus develop musicality).

It is very easy, when studying a foreign language, to learn loads of grammar and vocabulary but still have enormous difficulties maintaining a conversation and understanding what other people are saying. This is usually simply a question of lack of experience (or opportunity) and is easy to resolve. The same phenomenon can occur with musicians when we don’t play enough with others: we are concentrating exclusively on ourselves and are not used to listening  to what the other people are saying (playing). Playing chamber music is simultaneously the ultimate learning experience for acquiring fluency in the musical language, and the ultimate test of our musical (and instrumental) knowledge and understanding.


Imagine a student of a foreign language, locked alone in a room for hours and hours, trying to learn and memorise a long complex monologue that they will need to pronounce alone in front of a large audience of strangers. No matter how beautiful the monologue, is this not a recipe with all the ingredients necessary for a psychological disaster?  But this is what we musicians often do!!

Chamber music brings us to the opposite extreme. Imagine now being locked in the same room, but this time with several friends, working together on a joint project. This is a recipe for emotional health, satisfaction, and happiness, and an excellent remedy for Stagefright: now we are playing with others, not for them. And the fact that chamber music is normally more a vehicle for intimate expression rather than a  showcase of technical virtuosity means that the communication of shared emotions is now at the forefront of our priorities. Being a perfect parrot is not only unnecessary, it’s totally unwanted. This is healthy!

The conversational give and take, the necessary attention to what others are doing, the alternating roles, the permanent state of flux and flexibility, the absolute respect for each individual voice, the absence of a permanent hierarchy of authority etc all combine to make chamber music the ultimate cure for musical autism.


Pianists love the magnificent sound of their wonderful grand-pianos, with good reason. Putting down its lid is like imposing a maximum speed of 60 km/h on a Ferrari, so it is understandable that pianists don’t really like doing it. Unfortunately, we cellists don’t have a “grand-cello” and our instrument – very little changed over the centuries compared to the piano – is vastly overwhelmed by the volume of the unrestrained grand piano. We wouldn’t race a horse-and-cart against a totally modernised antique car, but when we play with a grand piano this is effectively what we are doing. When Cecilia Bartoli sings a recital, the piano lid is down. By covering the piano, her voice is uncovered and the public (and Cecilia) are able to enjoy every note.

Unlike Bartoli, Stephen Isserlis, that most sensitive of cellists, prefers the David against Goliath version. This means that a lot of the beautiful things he does are submerged under a wave of piano sound, which is a huge shame. For most of us cellists, if we want to preserve an “authentic” instrumental balance (as imagined and heard by the composer) and thus avoid the need to force our sound, then either we put the piano lid down or we amplify somewhat our cello. In a larger hall, the cello-amplification option is probably the best, whereas in a smaller intimate setting, the downsizing of the piano sound (by lowering the lid) is probably the best option.