Communal Tunes

Chamber music is a uniquely creative and communal form of classical music

Melissa C. Wong

Mather’s Chamber Music Program seeks to teach students the fundamentals of chamber music. As with all classical forms, part of this training is technical: a professional musician from the Boston area serves as a coach. However, Mather also offers teambuilding activities, largely geared at understanding musician body language, as a key part of learning the art of chamber music. How can group dynamics training improve the quality of music written hundreds of years ago?

For Na’Ama Lion, tutor and director of the Mather House Chamber Music Program, these unconventional forms of practice are necessary for the mutual dependence in chamber groups. “Sometimes groups will practice without music, using clapping exercises to practice taking turns to lead [the melody, as in performance],” she says. Some groups have gone as far as sitting in circles, facing away from each other, and practicing cues. “They can actually sense when each other is going to start [or respond to the cue].”

While orchestras and other large music groups enable individuals to be a part of a powerful, unified soundscape, in them only solos give individual musicians free reign of expression. Chamber music is a unique combination of both: it allows a musician to play with peers without sacrificing a personal interpretation of the piece. These aspects together create intimate dynamics of musical expression not possible in solos and large ensembles.


“It’s a beautiful thing,” says musician Daniel Stepner. “When four people come together because they’re inspired by a piece of music, even if there are differences in levels of accomplishment, there’s a special focus to it.” The disparate talents of each musician come together to create a variegated and interpretive whole.


Stepner is a world-renowned musician who has performed and recorded as concertmaster in a number of orchestras, such as the Boston Baroque, as well as in chamber music groups. Currently, he’s the first violinist of the Lydian String Quartet at Brandeis University and a preceptor in music at Harvard who teaches Music 187r: “Chamber Music Performance.” We’re talking in the office he shares with Dwight P. Robinson, Jr. Music Professor Robert D. Levin, surrounded by stacks of sheet music, a clock with a face adorned with musical notes, and a grand piano. Stepner’s white beard, friendly eyes, and round spectacles are unmistakably Santa-esque.

His passion for chamber music, which is for many the most democratic and inclusive form of classical music, fits well with his St. Nick appearance. “It’s a medium between playing as a soloist and a subordinate role in a large ensemble,” he says. The musician gets the best of a large group’s power and the creativity present in any solo.


Chamber music, a formally unique kind of classical music, was first popularized in the 1600s as a way for groups of 10 or fewer musicians to play together intimately. Groups can be composed of various different instruments but typically include piano, string instruments, flute, and bassoon. Common ensembles include string quartets (two violins, viola, and cello), piano trios, and instrumental duos.

The primary difference between chamber music and other classical forms is the lack of a conductor. Unlike the orchestral setup, in which a single person controls the group’s musical interpretation, chamber music groups are self-directed. They rely on each other’s understanding of the entire piece and on spontaneous coordination with other members.

Ryan A. Murphy ’14, who is enrolled in the Harvard/New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) Joint Program, tells me about the student experience of playing and training in chamber groups. His bright, blue eyes light up as he speaks.

“Chamber music is great because it requires active participation and collaboration between individual musicians in order to make successful performances and interpretations,” says Murphy. Active participation is not only facilitated but also necessitated by the lack of a conductor. Thus, the horizontal relationships intrinsic to chamber music are part of what Murphy appreciates about the form.

This difference also makes chamber music risky. “With that many people, something might go wrong,” he says. “There is just so much diversity in individual interpretation.” Individual interpretation has to be coordinated to create a coherent overall sound. In ensembles, members need to stay synchronized with each other; the larger the ensemble, the more difficult it is to play cohesively.


Cohesion comes easily with a conductor. And in large ensembles, like orchestras, the conductor is necessary to unite many diverse timbres into a single voice. “The intimate collaboration [experienced in chamber music] is impossible between individuals in a full-sized orchestra, which is why the conductor is there: to keep everyone together and provide them with musical direction,” Murphy says.