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The Time for Chamber Music Is Now!

Mike Lawson • String Section • July 31, 2020

With COVID-19 throwing havoc into school schedules, even if we are back, we may not have orchestra class as we know it. If we are lucky, we might get a say in how our smaller groups are put together, but in most cases that will be decided for us. What are we going to do if one of our small groups ends up with seven violins, two violas and a bass in our high school groups?

As orchestra teachers, we are used to dealing with unbalanced instrumentation at lower levels, and there are many options with flexible scoring. However, most of those options disappear at about level 2.5. This is a wonderful time to focus on chamber music; students will become more independent players and there are leadership opportunities for those who wouldn’t usually be in those roles.

Depending on the groups you are given, you can stick to the more traditional chamber groups of quartets and quintets, or if all of your violas end up in one group, you can break out the viola trios and quartets (Latham has an awesome arrangement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 available for viola quartet). Have some students who are reluctant to play in a small group? Get them started with something easy with flexible scoring. Have six advanced players that need a challenge? Break out the Brahms or Dvorak string sextets. I think you will find you will have great student engagement, particularly if you allow the students some say in the organization of these groups.

Students will be just as excited to get back to playing as we are, but you will have better buy-in and engagement if you allow the students to have some say in their learning. I do not recommend letting them choose everything. You could in small groups put it to a student vote: they either get to choose their group members, or they get to choose the music they play. Different class groups might choose differently. This enables you to have some control over the programming, particularly if an unusual instrument grouping forms.

I have a few publishers I like for string ensembles. First is Latham Music Ltd. Their string ensemble catalog spans groups from beginners to professionals. I particularly like the Six Intermediate String Trios book, and there is an excellent Bass Trio book.

Many of the Latham trio titles include options for viola/cello on the same part, or viola/second violin on the same part, so they can easily be played by different instrumentation, or if you have an odd player out that needs a little support you can add them as a fourth member to the “trio.” Latham Music has music for all instruments up to quartets of the same instrument and includes some holiday albums.

A second publisher I like for small string ensembles are the Percy Hall arrangements, available through Ludwig Masters. There is a wide variety of pieces here, everything from classical to folk tunes. Many of the quintets are playable as quartets, and most (if not all) of the trios are flexible with instrumentation. I particularly love the Appalachian Tidbits and the Spiritual Snippets for violin trio (with a cello part included, or give your violist the violin three part for a treble clef reading exercise). With the quartets and quintets the Early American Suite is a winner, and Fiddle-A-Jig is a wonderful exercise in 6/8 time.

A third publisher of string chamber music I like is Medici Music Press. Their entire mission is chamber music for high school students. While some of their titles do not offer the flexible scoring options that others do, they often are available in multiple versions. There are compilations of multiple pieces, which means if you are looking for more trios for that violin, viola, cello trio that has formed, there are some excellent options here. There is also a harder-to-find, wide selection of all viola or all cello trios and quartets.

End up with some duets? Beautiful Music for Two (arr. Applebaum) has been around forever but is still important in school chamber music. Beautiful Music for Two is compatible between any two string instruments. There is also Chamber Music for Two (arr. Applebaum). These books are compatible for two string instruments. If you need something more challenging, Telemann’s Six Canonic Sonatas are available for all instruments, and can be paired up based on your needs. Latham and Medici also offer many options here, in many instrumentations and levels.

Does splitting your already small group into a smaller group take a little extra effort and work? It does. However, it can be rewarding for both you and the students, because you are meeting more individual needs with students wherever they are at when we return. These small groups are also great, because you can easily have in-class performances which the other students can critique, and you can film to distribute to families, especially if traditional concerts have to be postponed or cancelled. As for the example of seven violins, two violas and one bass I gave at the beginning, I would let them choose music, and organize them into groups of a viola/bass duet, two violins, one viola trio, a violin trio and a violin duet. Keeping things fresh, while still having students learn is the key, scales and etudes in distance learning can only take you so far; we as teachers and the students need repertoire to stay engaged.

Lesley Schultz teaches orchestra and secondary general music at Princeton City Schools (Cincinnati, OH). She earned her Bachelor of Music Education from West Virginia University and her Master’s of Music Education from Ohio University. Lesley is a Level 2 Google Certified Educator. Lesley performs with several regional symphonies on viola. She is a member of TI:ME and serves as OMEA Conference Liaison for OMEA and on the conference committee for TI:ME.

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