Chamber Music Training Goes Virtual

May 28, 2020

The intimacy of chamber music inspires passion – three or four musicians playing their hearts out together for an audience.

So when the statewide pandemic shutdown separated musicians and audience members alike, one local group of chamber music enthusiasts didn’t get mad. Instead, they got virtual.

The Chamber Music Connection (CMC) is a Worthington-based program that helps musicians from elementary school-age to adults refine their chamber music skills through weekly classes and small ensemble coachings.  CMC has taken its usual face-to-face class offerings online in a program it calls iSTEM Connect.

The iSTEM acronym refers to Chamber Music Connection’s foundational curriculum, which consists of classes in improvisation, small ensembles, theory, entrepreneurship and movement, including classes in yoga, the Alexander Technique, Body Mapping and Eurhythmics.

When CMC formalized its iSTEM curriculum six years ago, students participated in face-to-face sessions during a week-long iSTEM summer program. The iSTEM Connect program now offers those classes online.

Deborah Price, founder and artistic director of Chamber Music Connection
Credit Holley Meister Rosebaugh / Courtesy of Chamber Music Connection

The program’s 20 instructors live in Columbus, Chicago, Cleveland, San Diego and Gettysburg, Pa., and guest artists join sessions from locations coast to coast. Members of international touring string quartets and major U.S. orchestras also drop in each week as guest artists.

The first iSTEM Connect term ran for the month of April 2020, with 44 full program participants and some additional students taking only the yoga classes. The program’s second term involved nine ensembles of 38 students working in four-hour class gatherings every Friday afternoon and evening in May.

Most of the iSTEM Connect students live in central Ohio, although two students have participated from San Diego and one student joins the weekly sessions from Hong Kong, where the sessions begin at 4 a.m. local time.

“We’re online giving people the opportunity from totally different parts of the world to be able to play chamber music together who would never be able to play chamber music together,” said CMC Founder and Artistic Director Deborah Price. “(CMC’s) not just central Ohio anymore. It’s across the world.”

From iSTEM to iSTEM Connect

Violist and CMC Assistant Artistic Director Stephanie Price-Wong says she had seen the potential to expand the iSTEM curriculum into an iSTEM center, with multiple offerings of each course.

Stephanie Price-Wong, assistant artistic director of Chamber Music Connection.
Credit Gerry Szymanski / Chamber Music Connection

“I said, ‘I think this iSTEM idea could be the focus of the (CMC) program,’” said Price-Wong in a recent video interview.

The only thing keeping Price-Wong and her mother, Deborah Price, from expanding the iSTEM class offerings was…space. Lacking a physical space of its own, CMC normally holds its Friday classes and ensemble coachings in St. John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington.

Although CMC had already been teaching some online classes in yoga and music theory, the challenges of operating during a global pandemic shifted the focus of the group’s planning from real estate to technology.

“...And we were like, how do we do online chamber music?,” said Price-Wong.

The iSTEM Connect program offers classes as video conferences on Zoom. Each four-hour session begins and ends with a 30-minute yoga class, and includes classes in music theory, Alexander Technique, Body Mapping or Eurhythmics, and ensemble coachings in breakout rooms. Each session also features a Snack & Chat, with informal appearances by members of internationally touring string quartets.

Price says the music theory and movement classes translate well to the virtual realm, and that Zoom’s screen sharing feature also allows in-depth study of the printed scores the students are learning to play.

The challenge has been figuring out what ensemble coachings–the centerpiece of CMC’s program–look like online.

“The chamber music portion is a bit more complicated because we can’t play simultaneously,” Price said.

Since musicians can’t hear each other when they play together in real time on Zoom, it’s not like playing together face-to-face. So each week, iSTEM Connect students video record their parts individually, using the Acapella app to “layer” their parts together into a complete performance.

“It’s been a great listening exercise for the students to know what to listen for with different parts (of a piece), almost as you would in a chamber music exercise, playing as a quartet but breaking it up into duets or into trio and a solo in order to analyze and dissect the music,” said violinist Lane Champa, a CMC alumnus who now coaches chamber ensembles in the program.

“It’s not the same as chamber music because you don’t do it simultaneously, you do it one voice at a time,” said cellist Christopher Costanza, a recent Snack & Chat guest. “But when it comes together at the end, when you finally see the end result, there is a great level of excitement.” Costanza is a member of the St. Lawrence String Quartet.

The DAJJ Quartet, one of the small ensembles in CMC's iSTEM Connect program, performs Beethoven with help from the Acapella app.

An Evening with iSTEM Connect

During a recent Friday afternoon session, yoga instructor Alix Raspé Gray led a Power Yoga class through a series of sun salutations, a sequence of movements designed to warm and limber the body.

Gray says teaching yoga online does present some challenges – it’s more difficult to feel her students’ energy, she says, when she’s not in the same room with them. But she says online classes still get students to breathe, to move and to relax at what is a stressful time for many.

Yoga instructor and harpist Alix Raspé Gray leads an online yoga class on Zoom in Chamber Music Columbus' iSTEM Connect
Credit Jennifer Hambrick/WOSU Public Media / Courtesy of Chamber Music Connection

“When you feel out of control – and a lot of people feel that way now during the quarantine – it’s very easy to feel like the world is moving around us and we can’t do anything about it,” said Gray in a recent interview. “So feeling grounded during this time and feeling secure and feeling that – even though we’re at home and it feels like a limited time creatively – we actually can do so much from home is very important.”

Later in the same Friday session, David Nesmith leads a Body Mapping class, in a different virtual breakout room. Nesmith is a hornist and certified Alexander Technique and Body Mapping instructor on the faculty at Denison University. He has taught Alexander Technique and Body Mapping for 20 years…and online for a decade.

Nesmith is demonstrating the correct location of the bottom knuckles of each finger, as the gallery of students in the class follow along.

Both Body Mapping and the Alexander Technique, Nesmith says, are more about training the mind than about training parts of the body.

“In the virtual realm, the only thing missing is the capacity for quality human touch, but we can touch each other through our thinking, through our intentions,” said Nesmith. “This is what’s been ramped up quite a lot by doing it virtually with technology. I see their thinking change… I see them experience themselves differently. They’re doing the brain work.”

In an ensemble coaching, cellist and CMC coach Kyle Price talks about movement with a string quartet of high school-age students. Price demonstrates some ways to move that are intentionally a little unusual.

Kyle Price leads a chamber music coaching via Zoom in Chamber Music Connection's iSTEM Connect program.
Credit Jennifer Hambrick/WOSU Public Media / Courtesy of Chamber Music Connection

“Essentially we’re opening up the possibilities of moving in ways that are contrary to our habit,” Price tells the students.

Price shares a video of a performance by the Cavani String Quartet. The class watches part of the video together, then Price asks what the students noticed about how the musicians communicated with each other through their movements.

“I notice that it’s like each person is leading everyone else,” says iSTEM Connect student Julian Tugaoen, “and they do that very effectively.”

Tugaoen, 17, has been a CMC student for 10 years and says working on chamber music online, with the help of the Acapella app, has brought to light some aspects of playing in a small ensemble that in-person rehearsals and coachings don’t usually do.

“There is a lot that we’re gaining in terms of things that we may not have focused on in normal coaching,” Tugaoen said. “One thing we’ve had to work on is our sense of rhythm and our sense of tempo internally.  When we play in person, it’s a lot easier to play together, because you can see each other’s cueing and you can feel their energy. When you do it online, it’s a lot more restrictive.  … that has helped us work on establishing a stronger internal sense of rhythm and tempo.”

Back in his virtual meeting room, Price encourages students to watch videos of great string quartet performances, to listen to recordings and to explore how they can use movement to get into the character of the music they’re playing by playing along with those recordings.

“It’s a sandbox of curiosity,” Price tells the students, “so just have fun playing in that sandbox.”

Students will have a chance to continue playing in that sandbox of curiosity in the next iSTEM Connect session, a week-long session that will run June 15-19.

Virtually Connected

If CMC students did not have access to current technology, the COVIC-19 pandemic might have brought their chamber music study to a standstill. 

“(The students) might not be doing musical things if they didn’t have this offered to them,” said Costanza. “They might practice their instruments, but they might not have that chamber music component on any level if they didn’t have someplace to go meet with people, even virtually, and to create projects. So it gives them a way to do something.”

An Acapella performance of the third movement of Dvorak's Piano Quintet, Op. 81, No. 2, with CMC iSTEM student Julian Tugaoen playing all of the parts

Technology is also giving iSTEM Connect students a chance to make the human connections that caused so many to fall in love with chamber music in the first place.

“In the world right now, it’s hard to feel connected to people. And I think this whole experience is an important piece of continuity that CMC has created, especially now, where things are disjunct in a lot of ways.” Champa said. “It makes a good connection.”