Apologies to Clausewitz — chamber music is the continuation of war by other means

The correct quote is “War is the continuation of diplomacy by other means”, but humans can screw up anything — even something as great as amateurs getting together to play chamber music.  This was brought to mind by an awful experience playing Brahms Trio in B major ( Opus 8 ) for piano, violin and cello.  The pianists among you know how difficult this work is technically, particularly the last movement which is fast, fast, fast, particularly for the left hand (the weak link for most pianists).  I’d never played with the violinist before (who was quite good), but it seemed to be a series of control gambits and oneupmanship.  I started the last movement at a pace I thought I could get through without major disaster, when the violinist announced that she didn’t think she could play it that slowly.   Yes, there really are people like that.  Fortunately, where I live there are plenty of people who are excellent musicians who are fun to play with.

A few random thoughts about amateur music-making  in no particular order.

I’m a retired neurologist and I’ve seen a lot of people kid themselves about how well they were thinking.  Also there’s the supposed loss of 10,000 neurons a day (a neurological urban myth, as no one has ever counted them).  Figure it out.  There are over 1 billion of them at least (the later the estimate, the larger the number).  There are 60 x 60 x 24 x 365 = 31,536,000 seconds in a year.  Preparing whole brain slides of sufficient clarity to visualize neurons is state of the art — although one of the founders of MicroSoft is trying.

So when I retired I was concerned that with my aged brain, I’d never get any better.  This isn’t true, at least for technique, as I’m able to play things with relative ease that were pretty much beyond me when I started it (Beethoven piano violin sonatas for example). Hopefully, this has improved my musicality.  It is a great thing to look at a passage and think how you want to play it instead how can you play it.   So if you’re in the midst of life, with spouse, kids, mortgage, career etc. etc. and there aren’t enough hours in the day to play let alone practice, take heart — when you retire you can pick it up where you left off and actually get better.

There is a huge difference between amateurs and professionals.  This was brought home at a chamber music festival for amateurs.  One of the coaches talked about effective practicing techniques.  She said she was tired of waiting until the fourth hour of practice to sound good on the violin.  I’ve never practiced 4 hours in a row in my life.  So in addition to having more talent than amateurs (they are self-selected after all), they work harder.  A fellow amateur said — an amateur practices until they can play it right, a professional practices until they can’t play it wrong.

Luysii’s first law of amateur musicianship:  there is always someone better than you and there is always someone worse.

Corollary: be nice to those worse than you so someone better will be nice to you.

Along these lines, amateur musicians instinctively know where they stand in the pecking order of musicality and talent.  It really doesn’t matter if the musician is out of shape, the musicality shows through.  One of the Jazz bandleaders (I think it was Artie Shaw) had people trying out just play scales.  It was enough for him.  Age makes no difference to the determination of who is better.

Most pianists don’t play a lot of pianos, unless they’re buying one.  I recently had occasion to play a brand new Yamaha 7 foot grand — so new the felt hammers didn’t have string indentations.  It was very good, at least as good as a Steinway (the new ones anyway).  Don’t dismiss Yamahas when looking.

Don’t be afraid to ask someone a lot better to play with you.  One violinist I play with is a conservatory graduate.  I think she’s slumming, but this has now gone on for several years, so she must be getting something out of it.  Needless to say, I practice hard whatever we’re going to play before she comes over.  A friend thought it might be that conservatory types learn how to be soloists or orchestra members and actually don’t get exposed to chamber music.

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