Even in high school, I was always involved in small groups that performed without a conductor. I played in several brass quintets which had some occasional gigs and always participated in a huge variety of groups during Solo & Ensemble contest (sometimes up to 10 a year!) By far my favorite was the jazz combo that I started with as a freshman and continued throughout high school. While my band director was by no means a jazz specialist, he stepped in just enough to get us started and handled the logistics for us to perform at festivals and competitions. Everything else was left to us to do ourselves, and it was the best possible thing that could have happened. By my upperclass years, our combo had solidified into a terrific group of musicians who all knew each other very well. We would rehearse several times a week, record all of our rehearsals and listen back to them together, hustle for gigs around town, and even recorded an album my senior year. This being the days before CD burners were lightning fast and came included with every computer, I remember the all-nighter that we pulled to get ready for the album release---one person burning discs, one printing cover art, one stuffing jewel cases, and my job---trying my best to stick the label on the disc without screwing it up and costing us money! In any case, we did manage to sell a few hundred copies, mostly to friends and family (Thanks Mom!)
I'm not writing just to tell stories! Part of the mission of the Mirari Brass is to encourage students to become involved in chamber music wherever we end up touring. It's an invaluable part of the musical experience, and one that is so often underused, especially in high schools. Band director friends, I promise that if you get your students involved in chamber music, it will make your band better! Students that spend time playing in small groups learn skills such as:
- Leadership: Every voice is equally important, and everyone has a chance to play the melody. You have to take responsibility for every aspect of your own part because there is nowhere to hide.
- Timing: So many young students that I listen to have a poor sense of rhythm and time. The absence of a conductor will force them to internalize the time and own the rhythm rather than following along behind it.
- Musicality: A group of around 3-6 players is the perfect size to work on sound, style, and musical choices--not so big that these aspects must be dictated from a leader, but not so small that one person has to be responsible for all of the musical ideas. Encourage your students to be creative in their musicality. Actually making musical decisions, whatever the result, is always better than no making decisions at all.
- Communication: The hardest thing many musicians learn how to do is to give constructive criticism to their friends--being honest without being a jerk! Most chamber groups make the most progress by often rehearsing by themselves, without a coach. Let your groups have some space to figure it out for themselves.
- Business: As musicians, we all have responsibility for learning how to market ourselves and our music. Let your groups go out and hunt for gigs, performances, and other playing opportunities. There are so many places for live music that we have yet to think of. Create them!