Playing for the Fun of It

Chamber-music groups offer a growing band of amateurs a chance to make music, friends

Like so many of his generation, William Selden, retired president of Anderson-Little, took up the violin in grade school. He played all through high school, eventually switching to viola to find more chamber-music opportunities, but gave up playing shortly thereafter. "Why? College, career, women," he laughs.

And for the next two decades, he let his musical skills languish. But his deep love of classical music continued unabated, and somewhere in his mid-30s, he turned to his wife one night and wondered, "Do you think I could ever play the violin again?" She suggested he borrow one to find out, and within three months, Mr. Selden was hooked again.

His busy schedule involved leaving his house for work before 7 in the morning and getting home after 7 at night. But after dinner with his wife, Selden picked up his instrument and put in two hours of practice. "I did that at least five times a week," Selden says. "My theory is that everybody makes room for what's important.... For me, that was my escape. It requires 100 percent of your attention, and it takes you away from your cares and worries."

Selden began organizing small groups of like-minded players to read through chamber music at least once a week. On his travels, he consulted a directory put out by a service organization called Amateur Chamber Music Players (ACMP) and found compatriots to make music with all over the world. "It's an opportunity to meet wonderful people, and it's an open door whenever you travel," Selden says. "It has been an important influence on my life."

Selden is not that unusual. Chamber music on the amateur level has been a vital component in the lives of a growing band of enthusiasts who find all sorts of ways to accommodate their musical passion. In an age in which music in public schools has been sadly deteriorating and orchestras around the country bemoan the lack of new audiences, this flurry of enthusiasm for classical music is a beacon of hope for the future.

For many, ACMP has been the single most valuable source of information and inspiration in keeping chamber music alive at the amateur level, a salvation for thousands of musicians looking for soul mates. The nonprofit group's primary mission is to nurture chamber music just "for the love of it," and its most crucial contribution has been the publication of a directory of players around the country (and internationally as well) looking for chamber-music opportunities. To date, the organization has some 4,200 members from 58 countries (though the vast majority are North Americans).

Amateur players on the rise

According to Daniel Nimetz, executive director of ACMP, the interest in chamber music on the amateur level is increasing. "From the perspective of our organization, it's absolutely growing. We've had consistent growth over the past three years that I've been here, and there is a sense that the members are getting younger and younger - students, young professionals. We also see a lot of older people coming back to instruments they've let sleep in closets for years and years."

Mr. Nimetz believes that a large part of the allure of chamber music is social - the opportunity to make music with others. "It's not a gratifying experience to play solo all the time," he says. "And with orchestral playing, it's easy to get lost in the back of the second violins and not feel very important. With one on a part in chamber music, you know you're really responsible for the music."

For thousands of aspiring musicians, chamber music is a primary creative and expressive force. It crosses all boundaries of age, ethnicity, income, and social background, and enthusiasts repeatedly cite the longevity of the genre's appeal - you can start as a child and play throughout your life. For the young, chamber music is a vital aspect of musical training, a way of putting into practice the skills developed through lessons and individual practicing.

"It reinforces all the skills they acquire," says Robert Capanna, head of Philadelphia's Settlement Music School, the largest community music school in the country. "Playing in tune, playing together - small ensemble work reveals all. Just studying the instrument is kind of silly. The point is wanting to play music with others. That's when it all becomes meaningful."

For adults, chamber music provides a meaningful mode of personal expression. Cellist Ernst Keller, who grew up in Germany playing string quartets with his family, says, "There is no nicer, better way to communicate with other people than with music."

And for the retired, amateur chamber-music playing can be a lifeline out of an isolated existence, a meaningful and rewarding source of social activity. Many chamber programs through community schools, such as Settlement's "Sixty Plus and Minus," are geared specifically to older players, providing them with a regular opportunity to connect with others.

That need to make music with others was the basis for the foundation of ACMP, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It was started by Leonard Strauss, an American business executive prone to a good deal of traveling. A violinist, Strauss became so frustrated with his solitary musical activities in lonely hotel rooms that he organized an informal association of friends to help form a network of people interested in playing string quartets, whether at home or on the road. Helen Rice, an amateur violinist who long had harbored a similar dream, took up the mantle and became the group's first secretary and guiding light until her death in 1980.

The group's profile changed dramatically in 1992, when astronomer and amateur violist Clinton B. Ford bequeathed $6 million to the organization, and the ACMP Foundation was established as a resource to support workshops and a variety of chamber-music projects for people of diverse backgrounds and abilities.

Nurturing lifelong music-lovers

Funding from the foundation supports chamber-music opportunities for chamber musicians of all ages, often through workshop venues and community-based music schools. With the deterioration of music programs in public schools, much of the weight of music education has fallen to these community schools, and ACMP's funding for projects at dozens of schools around the country may go far toward making chamber music a lifelong passion for a growing segment of the population.

Each spring, ACMP helps sponsor a series of "play-ins" around the country. These musical gatherings, typically a Sunday afternoon event followed by a potluck supper, offer the opportunity for instrumentalists and singers of any level in a given area to meet one another and read music. "The ideal is not to prepare a concert but to read music just for fun," explains Martha Jaffe, who helped organize the most recent New England play-in at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., on March 16.

On a more strenuous level, there are over 230 workshops and camps in more than 130 North American locations during the summer that provide a more intensive experience. (The February edition of the publication "Music for the Love of It," available at (510) 654-9134, is the source for workshop information.) There are other workshops throughout the year as well, and each is different. But all offer the experience of playing a variety of chamber music with a variety of musicians, and most welcome players of all levels.

"At these workshops, you play all day and all night long," says Kansas City violinist Dorothy Thomas, who spent last summer traveling a circuit of workshops in pursuit of her enthusiasm. "I generally don't get much sleep at all, I'm having too much fun. That's what chamber music does for me. I think everybody in the world should be playing chamber music. We would have world peace."

Perhaps the most prestigious of the workshops is the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's annual weekend-long workshops for advanced amateur musicians (the third workshop is set for April 4-5). Conceived by Selden, who sits on the boards of both ACMP and the Chamber Music Society, the workshops feature a stellar roster of coaches to preside over master classes, rehearsals, sight-reading sessions, and seminars.

High-level enthusiasm at workshops

Nimetz, a clarinetist himself, participated in the first of the Lincoln Center workshops and found it very rewarding. "There's a mixed technical ability," he admits, "but the enthusiasm is all on the highest level.... The coaches are all at the top of their field, and they've repeatedly remarked how much pleasure they get from working with amateurs."

Other venues also have taken up the chamber musician's cause. In Indiana, the Fischoff Chamber Music Association sponsors not only educational programs and performances but a prestigious national chamber-music competition for student and young-professional ensembles. In New York, the 92nd Street Y has more than 120 participants grouped into 35 ensembles in the largest amateur chamber-music program in the city. The American Recorder Society Inc., which numbers more than 3,400 members, currently is sponsoring its fifth-annual "Play the Recorder Month" with performances and workshops everywhere from schools to shopping malls. And all around the country, numerous colleges and other organizations hold regular workshops that welcome both student and amateur adult participation in the study and appreciation of chamber music.

Mr. Capanna says, "I'm a strong proponent of the whole notion of maintaining an amateur musical community.... People benefit greatly from participating directly in great music; they become more whole. But it also stimulates the culture on a professional level - it leads them to buy tickets to go to concerts." It's a win-win situation all around.

* The Amateur Chamber Music Players can be reached at (212) 645-7424 in New York.

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