In 2015 we decided to found Ensemble Goldentree, a chamber ensemble that specialises in performing music for mixed ensemble and voice. In our case, it began with a focus on repertoire that included horn and soprano. This may seem like an odd niche, but there is a pretty simple explanation for the choice. Alison is a soprano. Tim is a horn player. And we were dating.
We are now in our third year of playing together (and our seventh year of…’dating’ - is it dating anymore at this stage?). Along the way we have learned a lot of valuable lessons about chamber music, project management and relationships. We’re probably not qualified to be giving advice on at least two of those things - but below we’ve shared some of the lessons we thought were the most important for our own personal development.
1. Leave the personal stuff outside the rehearsal room
Making or listening to music can be a very personal and subjective experience. It's okay to disagree on interpretation and expression, but it can be all too easy to make it personal when the disagreement is with someone you know well. Even when you mean well, often your friendly advice or criticism can be interpreted as an attack by someone who thought you were ‘on their side’.
For us, chamber music is a collaborative exercise and it's important to have contrasting and competing ideas in the rehearsal process. That is how a unique sound is forged! However, these ideas need to be developed and encouraged in a safe environment where every member can trust that their input is valued. This means putting your ego aside and remembering to show your colleagues a little bit trust yourself. This segues nicely to our next observation...
2. Communication is the key
It's often not enough to just ‘mean well’. Your colleagues cannot read your mind and your words and actions are important. If you say that you love someone's idea, but then proceed to completely dismantle it, they will notice - especially if they know you well! It is always best to be honest, concise and clear in your communication.
This is especially important in a chamber music rehearsals where this is almost always no conductor. Without a clear leader, the rehearsal can feel like a competition instead of a collaboration. We’ve found it really helpful to nominate a leader. This person’s role is not to act as an executive, but as a facilitator for discussion. Imagine them as the ‘talking ball’ that you used to throw around in primary school when it was your turn to talk. They need to be able to move the rehearsal along and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to speak...or just...be quiet for a moment.
Body language is also very important, particularly when working with people who are close to you. We spend so much time around one another that it has become second nature for us to pick up on each other’s subtle actions in rehearsal. This can help to preempt potential arguments, but can also serve up some hot humble soup if your words don’t match what your hands and eyes are saying!
3. Accept that you will make mistakes
Working with each other we have learned that we need to accept that we will often be less than perfect in front of a person whose opinion we value highly. This can be easier in our personal life, where wearing pajamas all day or drying our underwear in the lounge-room is acceptable, than it is in rehearsal. However, getting caught up in the feeling that you need to play perfectly in front of your partner isn’t healthy or practical.
Learning this has helped us develop a greater acceptance for the rawness and imperfection that is part of the learning process in general. When you know that your mistakes are part of building a bigger musical picture, you take more risks and sometimes discover something profound in the music that you didn’t fully appreciate before...
4. Have fun and embrace vulnerability
We chose to do chamber music together because we enjoyed it! Ultimately, we want to continue enjoying it. Opening up your artistic self can leave you feeling unprotected, but we’ve found that by embracing the joy that music making brings to us we can allow ourselves to be more artistically vulnerable with each other from a position of mutual trust. On the days where the joy doesn’t come so easy, the addition of baked goods and some good-natured banter to the rehearsal room can really lift the mood.
In other industries, the emphasis on employees working conditions and mental health receives much more structured attention due to the existence of various awards and contracts. When you are in charge of your own projects, we’ve found it is important to remember to treat yourself and your colleagues with the same level of professional respect. Small gestures can go a long way to making the rehearsal room a happier and more productive space!
5. The skills are transferable!
If playing chamber music together for more than half of the time that we have been together has taught us one thing, it is that the skills we learn in the rehearsal room are transferable to our everyday lives. Patience, gratitude, collaboration and communication all play an important part in both chamber music making and maintaining a healthy relationship. For us, running projects together raises the stakes, but it also leads to higher rewards. It is important for us to understand that whatever we start together, we finish together.
Balance is our mantra. Music should never be ‘work’ - and neither should our relationship.
Ensemble Goldentree performs as part of the Friends of Music Series at St Georges' in Travancore on Sunday 28th May at 2pm. Tickets available here.