Knowing the Score:

How Coaches Approach A CMNC Day

In this series of articles, a number of our recent coaches responded to a series of questions from The Chamber Musician. TCM asked what they most enjoy about coaching adult amateurs and what they find most challenging, how they approach a one-day coaching situation, and what advice they could offer us to improve our chamber music experience. 

“Let Playing Be Play!”

by Ethan Filner

 I have coached countless young chamber music groups in summer music festivals and at all manner of schools over the years. But my participation as a coach at the Cal State Hayward CMNC workshop a few years after joining the Cypress String Quartet was my first experience working with adult amateurs. Simply put: I really enjoyed it!

As I guided the players through several hours of rehearsals in preparation for the masterclass performance at day's end, I found myself fascinated by the adults' interactions and general behaviour in this musical context: No matter what professional career they were pursuing or had spent a lifetime in, they each seemed to revert in character and attitude to the younger, “student” version of themselves when in the presence of their theoretically all-knowing coach.

How intimidated I expected to be, facing a trio of brilliant brain-surgeons who happened to also play stringed instruments! Here I was, not yet 30, thinking “These guys literally save lives ---- I just play music!"

But then I began to talk about the music, and they hung on every word. I asked a few probing questions about musical character, direction, articulation -- and suddenly the brilliant minds sitting before me became rapt children at story time. (Or whatever age they had been when they stopped studying music as kids before going on to med school -- I have often witnessed the sort of petty bickering and goofiness you'd expect from nervous teenagers on the first day of school.)

It was eye-opening, my little epiphany being that I, having studied and played music since the age of four, was as much a respectable expert in my field as any of these esteemed doctors were in theirs.


Thanks to my background in string quartet playing, I am perhaps more comfortable working with string groups than with winds or other mixed groups. But as soon as I write that, I object to the notion! -- No matter the instrumentation, music is music. Virtually any musical idea is readily translatable - transposable? - from string to wind, or brass, or even percussion language, and back again. Indeed, I usually speak in terms of “voice” and “breath,” and often conjure visualizations of different instruments or natural sounds the written notes might be echoing, or downright imitating.

As a chamber music coach, I'll touch on many different things, in roughly this order of priority: overall feeling of the piece, sound of the group, rhythm, and intonation (unless it's really bad!

In a situation where we have very limited time, I'll typically focus on helping the group explore the character(s) in and of the music. Then, come performance time they'll at least have a clear and unified idea of what they're shooting for, so that regardless what minor blips happen along the way, they have the larger picture in mind, and everybody in the room can feel that they're striving for something beyond the notes on the page.

Musical ideas of expression like character, mood, and feeling are closely connected to, and mutually impacted by practical issues like a group's sound, rhythm, and intonation, of course.  I have confronted an unfortunate plethora of situations in which one or another player in the group (young or old) has serious trouble with rhythm, and this necessitates extra time spent on, shall we say, rhythmic cleansing. As for intonation, it is sometimes clearly worth going over some spots carefully to check and try to fix particularly nasty intonation problems, ensuring the players understand, for instance, the different roles and responsibilities of perfect vs. imperfect intervals within the harmony. I do prefer, however - when possible - to make any comments on intonation as a part of more general advice about the group sound, in order to not get bogged down in a coaching as short as they often are. (Working with a younger student ensemble who may be rehearsing more regularly, with more hours to spare, and perhaps with loftier public performance career goals, is a different game entirely: good intonation is a critical, key ingredient for a successful presentation of any music, and time must be invested in learning how to manage intonation issues within a chamber group.)

It's important to be able to get through the piece you will be performing, so I like the groups to play through their assigned bit of music several times throughout the day. This helps to ensure the group's collective self-confidence when it comes time to perform in public.

I also encourage groups to be more and more creative as the musical character is developed. It's most interesting for the players if they each contribute as much as possible to the creation of a collective, group plan for the piece. I take the approach, “There is no Right or Wrong Answer - All ideas are Valid.”

What would I suggest to help your own chamber music experience? It's amazing what even only occasional practice with a tuner and/or metronome (depending on what you want to work on, rhythm or intonation) can do for your playing. Want to get better at reading so you don't get lost in a new piece? Sight read more! Go the library, visit and download a random piece for your instrument, and crash through it. Tomorrow, find another one! 

But above all, have fun! Have a good time. Be an explorer, an experimenter, a tourist, an adventurer - and enjoy the fact that you're not expecting to make a living off of your playing. Let playing be play!

(This post has been edited and updated; the original, published in 2005, is at