Chamber music, because of the small ensembles that play it and the intimate nature of the venues in which it is played, sometimes is called “the music of friends.” At Skyline High, that couldn’t be more true.
Somewhere between the quasi-anonymity of playing in the Skyline orchestra and the sheer individuality of solo performances lies chamber music, which is played by a group of between two and six musicians. It enables the young chamber musicians at Skyline to express themselves in a unique medium while at the same time forming bonds.
“I really love chamber music,” said Zoe Rettell, a 17-year-old senior who plays bass in a quintet that also includes a cello, viola and two violins. “It’s hard to meet everyone in the entire orchestra, so it gives you a chance to really become friends with the other people in your group. And, the music is really unique.
“There’s nowhere to hide in chamber music. It’s not quite a solo performance, but you really are responsible for your part because you’re the only one playing that part. You really have to know your music.”
Every one of the 86 students in Skyline Orchestra class spends 30 minutes out of one class period per week broken off in their chamber groups. The groups are self-selected and self-managed, which — according to Orchestra Director Andrea Cowper – is one of the important aspects of the experience.
“They decide who to work with, organize practice time, find music, and each group has a manager,” Cowper said. “It really offers different roles for them, they’re more in charge of themselves – musically and otherwise – than in the orchestra setting.”
Each chamber group selects music, rehearses and then performs once per trimester somewhere in the Ann Arbor community. Groups have performed at venues as varied as a kindergarten class to retirement facilities, Curriculum Night, or as background music at the Ann Arbor Public Schools Art Fair.
Rather than the community coming to watch them perform in the orchestra, chamber musicians take their music to the community.
“That’s one of the best parts of chamber music, is the ability to go out and perform for people,” said Pavani Anand, a 14-year-old freshman who has been playing the cello since she was 6. “People don’t realize how beautiful chamber music is. It’s our chance to spread the word.”
Of course, performing in the community rather than a scheduled concert in an auditorium can present interesting circumstances.
“One time, we played after a magician,” Rettell said. “That was a tough act to follow.”
Anand’s quartet, which is managed by sophomore Julie Zhoo and includes two violins, one viola and one cello, has played at Pattengill Elementary’s PTO meeting, and Anand made a special connection when the group played at Brookhaven Manor retirement community.
“One of the staff members told me about a woman who was a holocaust survivor who had PTSD,” Anand said. “She said that my playing helped her sleep. That was really satisfying.”
Cowper, as instructor, draws satisfaction from the chamber-music format and its inclusion in Skyline’s curriculum. Chamber music formerly was an extracurricular club called Blue Spotlight, but it has been rolled into the curriculum so more students could participate.
“It was a popular club, we’d have 20-25 involved, but high school kids are busy and it was difficult for them to find time for rehearsal,” Cowper said. “Now, all students in orchestra classes participate and rehearsal time is worked into class time.
“It’s a good experience for them, and it works out well this way. It’s nice to see the students functioning in different roles, to see them improve, to talk through how to get better. That group interaction is important. It helps them accentuate their strengths as a musician.”
Chamber musicians don’t have the power in numbers that an orchestra possesses, but they have the “intertwining of the music that orchestras don’t have,” according to Anand.
“You have to look at each other more often, to play off of each other in chamber music, there is no conductor,” Anand said. “It’s between a solo, where you stand out, and an orchestra, where you blend in. With chamber music, you are doing both.”
Nerves, as with any performance, can play a part.
“There is more (nervousness) in chamber music than orchestra,” said Rettell. “It’s just you and a few of your friends out there.
“But that’s the great part of it. You are relying on your friends.”