Book cover: The Chamber Musician in the Twenty-First Century
Open Access Edited Book

The Chamber Musician in the Twenty-First Century

Published: July 2022
Pages: 334
ISBN 978-3-03897-562-5 (hardback); ISBN 978-3-03897-563-2 (PDF)
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In recent research, there has been growing emphasis on the collaborative, social, and collective nature of musical behaviour and practices. Among the emerging hypotheses in this connection are the idea that listening to music is always listening together and being with the other; that music making is a matter of intercorporeality, mutuality, and emphatic attunement; and that creative agency in musical practices is fundamentally a distributed phenomenon. Chamber music provides an ideal context for the testing and actualization of these notions. This Special Issue on chamber music and the chamber musician aims to explore the psychological, social, cultural, historical, and artistic issues in the practice of classical chamber music in the twenty-first century. Contributions are invited on any of these aspects and issues involved in being a contemporary classical chamber musician. Authors are encouraged to contextualise their research by reference to the recent literature on collaborative musicking, and among the topics they may choose to address are the cultural and musical demands chamber musicians face and the implications of these demands for their artistic practice, the ways the twenty-first-century chamber musicians engage with historical practices, the newly emerging musical identities and artistic roles available to them, and expressivity in current chamber music practices.


artistic practice; creative agency; chamber music; collaborative musicking; distributed creativity; expressivity in performance; intercorporeality; music performance; performance practice


  • Introduction: Setting the Stage

     Ensemble performance research has emerged as a thriving area within music psychology and music performance studies over the last few decades. There are various scholarly and historical factors behind this development, including the growing interest in the social, collaborative, communicative, and collective nature of musical behaviour and practices, as well as the philosophical challenges posed by post-modern thinkers to the notion of the “autonomous individual” as the basis of moral and political value. In this introductory chapter, I discuss these and other factors that have motivated a surge in ensemble performance research recently, and explain why the term “chamber musician” rather than “ensemble musician” has been adopted for the title of this volume. I also discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the fundamental relationality and sociality of human existence, and the extent to which a music performer’s artistic being and becoming rely on other musicking individuals. In this connection, I emphasise the idea that all music making is an intersubjective and social experience. This introductory chapter also provides detailed summaries of the other contributions to the volume. One of the important themes that connect all the chapters is that 21st-century chamber musicians have various educational and professional concerns and needs that are different from those of their counterparts in previous eras. In addition, the authors share the belief that music educational programs can present chamber music making as a pathway to developing performing artists who will also be active in society and culture as ambassadors of positive change, promoting—through their artistic activities—inclusivity, diversity, and equality. As an edited collection, this volume makes an important contribution to the growing research literature on chamber music performance, which exists largely as individual journal articles.

  • Chambering Music

    Chamber music occupies a complicated position within twenty-first century society. Born out of a tradition of participatory domestic music making, the term now simultaneously refers to both an activity and a repertoire. However, there is little evidence that either of these maintain a similar cultural locus to chamber music’s origins. The modern activity of chamber music has been primarily professionalised and elite, with its repertoire as part of the established canon of Western Art Music. Within musicological writing, chamber music is regularly noted as being emblematic of an equal society and characterised by its intimacy. Paradoxically, this equality and intimacy is within a performative framework that is exclusionary: although chamber music is still hailed as an intimate art form, there are limits to its inclusivity. Whilst it may have been more accessible at its origins, it does not fulfil the same societal niche now. This chapter attempts to more objectively evaluate chamber music as a form of interpersonal musicking within the twenty-first century, prompting an exploration of how chamber music may be redefined to escape potential anachronism.

  • Encounters with Participatory Music

    Chamber music occupies a complicated position within 21st-century society. Borne out of a tradition of participatory domestic music making, the term now simultaneously refers to both an activity and a repertoire. However, there is little evidence that either of these maintains a similar cultural locus to chamber music’s origins. The modern activity of chamber music has been primarily professionalised and elite, with its repertoire as part of the established canon of western art music. Within musicological writing, chamber music is regularly noted as being emblematic of an equal society and characterised by its intimacy. Paradoxically, this equality and intimacy is within a performative framework that is exclusionary: although chamber music is still hailed as an intimate art form, there are limits to its inclusivity. Whilst it may have been more accessible at its origins, it does not fulfil the same societal niche now. This chapter attempts to evaluate chamber music as a form of interpersonal musicking within the 21st century, prompting an exploration of how chamber music may be redefined to escape potential anachronism.

  • Empowering the Portfolio Musician: Innovative Chamber Music Pedagogy for the 21st-Century Artist

    The portfolio musician is not a 21st-century concept. Any history of music reveals numerous performers whose careers entailed multiple and various musical sources of income. However, 21st-century musicians are profoundly cognizant of the role conservatories play in their careers. They see themselves as multifaceted, socially conscious individuals, rather than technicians on a singular path to artistic success. Confronted by an oversaturated market and the immediacy of income required to pay exorbitant student loans, sole employment in an established organisation is less viable—and less desirable.  Faced with these realities, 21st-century emerging professionals are prone to experiencing identity crises and often receive little assistance from their conservatory curriculums (SNAAP 2014). Calls are growing louder, however, for a radical rethinking of how musicians are educated in ways that are essential to 21st-century careers (Sarath et al., 2017). In this chapter, we amplify that call by investigating institutions that represent diverse approaches to chamber music education. We consider chamber music for its unique structure; most chamber music ensembles do not use a conductor and do not respond to an external artistic prompt. Consequently, chamber ensembles emphasize nonverbal, empathetic communication between musicians. They also operate on an increasingly independent basis; members occupy additional roles, serving as both business and artistic managers to successfully engage the public. Thus, chamber-music training provides a good case study for analyzing the changing social and economic landscape of the 21st-century music profession. Moreover, building on our analysis of educational modes used by institutions for training portfolio musicians, this research investigates what now constitutes chamber music. How does repertoire, personnel, venue, and listener–performer–composer agency define it? Additionally, how do or can conservatory curricula deliver such a new definition for their emerging professionals? This line of questioning serves the larger purpose of understanding the innovative role chamber music plays in contemporary collaborative music making and listening, responding to current hypotheses and discourses on the empathetic nature of music. We examine contemporary issues in chamber music pedagogy with a mixed-method approach. We survey faculty, students, and alumni of American and UK institutions to gather big data on the state of conservatory training. To nuance these data further, we conduct interviews with faculty, staff, and students in standout chamber music programs. Finally, we focus on innovative chamber music endeavors at our present institution, investigating the Chicago College of Performing Arts string chamber music program and the 1st-year professional training course.

  • Evolving, Surviving, and Thriving: Working as a Chamber Musician in the 21st Century

    Existing research into chamber musicians’ careers has offered insights into both musical and social aspects of these musicians’ work together. However, in addition to their tendency to focus solely on the experiences of string quartet musicians, these earlier studies document the experiences of chamber musicians of the late 20th century. With the rise of the internet and digital technologies, innovative approaches to audience development, and cuts to arts funding and education, much has changed for UK-based chamber musicians in the 21st century. This interview study with professional chamber musicians at different stages in their careers explores the challenges that these musicians face and the wide-ranging set of skills that they have developed in response. The vocational nature of this work is emphasised, and many of the financial, entrepreneurial, and logistical challenges are outlined. Various barriers in relation to equality, diversity, and inclusion are identified, and implications for higher music education and for the future of the profession are explored.

  • Transactional Culture of the Portfolio Career Chamber Musician: A Case Study

    The literature and case study data presented in this chapter explore the micro- (interpersonal) and macro-level (organisational/cultural) experiences between professional chamber musicians, the venues that engage them, and the audiences in attendance. They are explored in terms of a series of transactions—acts of giving and receiving and embracing the need to compromise. From this perspective, emergent themes include the delicate balancing of economic, esteem, and diversification values for both performers and venue in planning; music cohesion and interpersonal social interaction as important at all levels and across all stages of planning and executing performances; and considerations of the balance between familiar and novel encounters, informality, and experiences of social inclusion regarding interactions amongst performers and audience members. It is clear that both specific and subtle transactions shape the motivations, planning, and execution of ensemble performances. While stakeholders all inevitably have different and varied experiences, their transactions contribute to the virtuous cycle of the embedded environmental, social, cultural, material, and technological factors and the action afforded that constitutes chamber music performance. The “art of ensemble performance” seems to be a distributed process that is dependent on critical interdependent transactions amongst all stakeholders.

  • The Many Faces of the Freelance Performer of Contemporary Music in the 21st Century

    This chapter examines the many non-musical skills that are required of the freelancing contemporary music performer. Recent generations of musicians working in contemporary music are increasingly self-managing their work rather than having agents or management teams. These musicians now need to learn the skills of agents and managers as well as those of marketers, PR agents, lawyers, fundraisers, project managers, social media managers, and compositional coaches. The increasing use of digital technology in both their performances and their marketing also demands that new skills be acquired, from a wide knowledge of computing and audio-visual hardware to skills in programming, photography, and video editing. This chapter has two main parts. One is a case study of one of the author’s own touring projects, examining the many skills and costs required during the two years of commissioning and performing. The second is a survey of mid-career freelancing contemporary music performers—performing as soloists and chamber musicians—that sheds further light on the range of skills developed and utilised by contemporary music performers, their approach to self-training in these skills, the time and financial pressures of self-managed work, and some of the troubling discriminatory issues that they have faced as freelancers. Finally, a number of recommendations address these systemic issues, with the aim of creating a more sustainable, artistically vibrant, innovative, and diverse contemporary music culture.

  • Partnership in Piano Duet Playing

    This chapter discusses factors contributing to the development of partnership within the rehearsal process of a piano duet, explored previously in relation to empathy. A reflective–analytical approach was utilised in which the participant-researchers undertook reflective writing after each of eight rehearsals; this dialogic undertaking produced a substantial body of rich data. Further thematic analysis for this chapter revealed processes concerning individual qualities and joint possibilities; trajectories of foundational elements that underpin creative exploration and key issues relating to preparation; ensemble leadership; communication roles, modes, and strategies; shared creative musicianship; and possibility thinking. These are discussed in relation to the literature on partnership within other fields. The findings have implications for ensemble rehearsal and performance as well as for educators working with chamber musicians, in particular through the consideration of concerns relating to communication strategies, sharing and developing ideas, and issues of roles and responsibility. The role of the shared reflective writing in facilitating various aspects including longitudinal recall is also discussed in relation to its influence on the development of the partnership. These concerns are relevant to those involved in chamber music within non-formal contexts as well as musicians within formal and educational settings.

  • “Let’s Play!”: Professional Performers’ Perspectives on Play in Chamber Ensemble Rehearsal

    This chapter explores the phenomenon of play in the context of professional chamber ensemble rehearsal and argues that play lies at the heart of it. The account begins with an interrogation of the concept of play and a distinction is made between “playing music” (that is, how the term play is ordinarily used in making music) and “play” (that is, the social and cultural activity that manifests in many contexts). Characteristics of play are identified according to existing research conceptualisations. Within the domain of musicology, it is noted that previous studies on play and music performance focus on activity about scores and sounds. To date, there is a lack of insight into music performers’ understandings of play, as well as little emphasis on the way in which play is experienced among co-performers, such as in small ensembles. A novel empirical enquiry was undertaken to gather professional chamber performers’ perspectives on play through post-rehearsal reflections using video recall of live footage. The performers revealed nuanced understandings and experiences of play and highlighted “moments” of play as uniquely positive experiences. Play was vital in enabling the performers to “make the music their own”. These findings are cross-compared with existing research perspectives, and the implications for the performers and researchers are discussed.

  • A “Naked Violin” and a “Mechanical Rabbit”: Exploring Playing Relationships in Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello (1922)

    We are fortunate to have been left an unusual and very personal account of the players’ work with Ravel on this piece at the time of its creation. The ”naked violin” and ”mechanical rabbit” of the title are characterisations of the two instruments that appear in Hélène Jourdan-Morhange’s Ravel et nous (1945). (Jourdan-Morhange was one of Ravel’s most important collaborators in the 1920s.) Her description of the violin as “stripped of decent attire” suggests that this piece presents a peculiarly ”exposed” approach, and this chapter explores some of the ways in which the explication of the musical relationships embodied in this extraordinary piece of chamber music offer a particularly distinctive picture of the ways in which relationships between players in chamber music are also played out through the instruments. The chapter establishes the nature of some of the “games” in which players of this music engage, exploring in particular the roles of open strings and harmonics in shaping the interactions. In order to understand the implications of Jourdan-Morhange’s characterisations, some comparisons are drawn with Ravel’s other pieces from the surrounding decade.

  • Asynchronous Small Group Ensemble: An Exploration of Technology-Mediated Chamber Music Making in Higher Education

    The practice-led study discussed in this chapter explores the creative and pedagogical affordances of asynchronous small group ensembles in a higher education (HE) context, with a particular focus on four-hand duets. A qualitative multiple-case study design was adopted, which combined a range of auto-ethnographic and ethnographically informed data-construction strategies. Data were analysed through thematic analysis (TA). Within the limitations of this study, findings indicate that the “virtual ensemble model” proposed and discussed here is an artistically meaningful and pedagogically valuable form of chamber music: it affords unique opportunities for deep learning, joint creativity, and artistic fulfilment. Furthermore, it promotes the development of musical and technological literacies that can facilitate (student and professional) performers’ participation in online music communities and access to online collaborative music-making opportunities. Findings suggest that the inclusion of virtual performance in HE curricular activities can play an important role in enabling performance students to acquire the experience, skills, and mindset they need to embrace the evolving roles and identities of the 21st-century classical musician.

  • Amateur Chamber Music: Repertoire and Experience

    Although there are a growing number of studies in the literature about the participation of adult amateur musicians in classical music making, there is relatively little written about chamber music, particularly about the relationship between repertoire and experience for this group of musicians. This essay, which is theoretically underpinned by Robert Stebbins’ work on “serious leisure,” is based on 55 responses to a questionnaire I sent out in early 2020; most of the questions required answers in a free-form prose style. In addition, I solicited 15 lengthier responses (some written, some in-person interviews). The respondents fell into essentially equal groups: one of string and piano players, and one of those who played wind or brass instruments. Although there is some difference between the repertoire of the two groups, mainly concerning the smaller proportion of acknowledged 18th- and 19th-century masterpieces for winds and brass, attitudes toward the experience were much more similar than different between the groups. Four themes ran through the responses: (1) amateur chamber music is an intense, important, and generally happy experience for its participants; (2) respondents tend to think of works as “units of personal experience” rather than as elements of a free-standing repertoire; (3) the virtual sociability provided by chamber music playing is important to most of these musicians; and (4) respondents viewed music making as embedded in, and in many ways about, a series of nested and usually familiar communities.

Review Mode

Each chapter in this edited book has been reviewed by the editor as well as an external expert, who
also provided an overall review of the whole volume. The opinions expressed in the chapters do not
reflect the view of the publisher.

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