Every now and then we come across a musical initiative that aligns itself brilliantly with the values that we hold at Millers Music, creating spaces to bring like minded musicians together and celebrate a love for music in a variety of forms. Today we put our spotlight over the latest addition to the Cambridge Music Education Programme in the Cambridge Chamber Academy, a programme primarily designed for young musicians to play and perform together and learn the fantastic skill of chamber music.
We sat down with Director of the Cambridge Chamber Academy, Andrew Sion in order to understand what the Academy is all about and who it is perfect for.
What Is Chamber Music?
Chamber music is a unique style of music that is typically composed of a small group of instruments. It gets its title from tradition, in that it was mostly known as being a group of musicians that could fit in a palace chamber or a large room. Traditionally chamber music was music that was played in a room as opposed to a concert hall, but today it usually refers to instrumental music with one instrument to a part.
Whilst many of the better known works of the chamber music repertoire come from the Classical and Romantic periods, any style of music can be included in chamber music.The big difference however between chamber music and say orchestral music is that due to the smaller number of instrumentalists, it requires an immense amount of listening and collaboration to play as a unified ensemble
What Is The Cambridge Chamber Academy?
Speaking to Andrew, we asked him to explain a little more about the origins of the Cambridge Chamber Academy and why it came into being:
“It all happened because of my son. We moved to the UK over from Canada, where he was playing piano at a relatively high level and was in a fantastic chamber quartet in Vancouver. Being such a musical city, we were expecting to find something similar in Cambridge, but when we moved over here, there was nothing similar.
Both of us were a bit disappointed and whilst there are orchestras and a handful of other courses around, the level was not the same as what we had in Canada.
I started talking to his piano teacher Patrick Hemmerlé and we said to ourselves, ‘Maybe he’s not the only kid like this. We should put something together and see if anyone else feels like this’ and Patrick just said “Yes! We have to do this!”
We started out with just a few students and it has grown organically since then. The parents have all been so supportive and are really glad that we were doing this. We’re not trying to step on the toes of existing organisations . We just believe we fill a niche area in the local musical environment where talented young musicians can expand their skills.”
One of the driving factors behind the Cambridge Chamber Academy is the notion of creating a supportive environment that is safe for experimentation and creativity. There is no judgement or competitive nature behind the music, instead, it is all about working together with your ensemble to develop your musicality.
“One of the big problems for young musicians in the Cambridge area is that, very generally speaking, as soon as you hit grade 8, everything seems to dry up when in reality, this should be the start of the next phase of your musical journey as you now have the technical level to grow musically .
This is why chamber music is particularly interesting as you develop skills you don’t develop in solo playing. This is something we see whereby we get these solo performers who can play, but lack the skills to be able to actively listen and play as part of a ensemble.
Think about it, when you are doing grades and exams, you are always by yourself and it is a very solitary experience. In chamber music, you not only have to be good at your instrument but also understand how it works as part of a group. At the most basic level if you can’t count your part, the the entire ensemble falls apart. And unlike an orchestra however, because there are only 4 or 5 of you playing, you can’t hide in the background.
But the real hard part for many students to understand is that playing as part of an ensemble is not just about your part, you need to listen outside of your own instrument and hear what other people are playing and how you fit into it.
One analogy we like to use is to think about a sport such as football: You might be the world's best goalkeeper or striker, but if you've never played as part of a team, you’re missing the whole point.”
When it comes to approach, one of the reasons we are so supportive of Cambridge Chamber Academy is because of their unique take on tutorial teaching and how students can progress their playing, even when playing as part of a ensemble. Andrew then went onto explain the course structure and how it all works.
“We ask all new applicants to firstly do a solo audition. From there we are able to assign you to an ensemble of players who are of similar ability and level. We do this because we want people to play together as long as possible and make sure that everyone is enjoying who and what standard they are playing to. We have some ensembles who have been playing together regularly for two years now and with that, there is a large social aspect to consider too as it gives players the chance to make new and like minded friends.
What then happens is each session, we give groups 1 hour of independent rehearaltime to learn how to rehearse by themselves like professionals do for one hour of coaching from a tutor.
It is so important to us that we have different tutors who specialise in different instruments and approaches come in each week. For example if you have a tutor who is a violinist, then they will focus more on the violinist and whilst they will be able to go through some really great and technical things for violin playing, it is hard for them to offer the same level of advice to the pianist. The following week we may then have a piano tutor come in who will do the same for the pianist. It’s really interesting because our students often say that if they kept the same tutor each time, then at least two instruments of their ensembles would suffer.
We also do some side by side playing with the tutors to allow students to learn from examples. In this sense they are more mentors than teachers. A lot of them have said that they learn things that can not be taught by just being told what to do and how to do it. Experiencing the nuances in play up close is the best way to learn those skills.”
The academy also places a large emphasis on performance as after all, why learn these wonderful skills if you can’t showcase them to the community? At the end of the term, each ensemble performs what they have been working on all term in rehearsals. There are days when students come together and celebrate their work together and feel part of a community.
“Performing is really important for our students, it teaches them how to overcome nerves and develop performance skills. We don’t care if people make mistakes when they perform as it’s not about being perfect. The point of playing is about getting performance experience, which is so valuable for young musicians. As well as the ensemble performances, we also have a solo recital in the middle of the term where everybody plays their own instrument solo.
Does the Cambridge Chamber Academy sound like something you might be interested in or that you might like your children to try? The academy is currently accepting applications right now! To learn more about what courses are currently running as well as further information about what to expect, visit: https://cambridgechamberacademy.org/home and fill in their contact us form to begin the application process.