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Chamber Music & Conflict Resolution
Nourishing Ideas > Philia in the Community > Chamber Music & Conflict Resolution

By Rena Sharon

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all art and science." 
- Albert Einstein

Chamber music is played by a small group of musicians without a conductor or leader. By its nature it requires a profound degree of collaboration. The degrees and layers of subtle agreement, if thoroughly deconstructed, are astonishingly intricate, from the matching speeds of bow strokes, to synchronous breathing, to minute increments of timing based on shared understanding of a collectively created thought.

Wide gulfs of opinion and passionate conviction must be crossed to construct unified performances. Yielding to colleagues can place challenging exigencies upon belief structures which are somewhat analogous to religious conviction in their intimacy and intensity. Interpretive concessions can even impact a player on a physical level - sore necks, tight arms would be potential consequences of playing against one's inclination!

Struggling to find consensus requires discussion at a definitively abstract level, since interpretation is essentially formed through subjective reaction to incomplete data about a fathomless mystery - art. A musical score is often comparable to a permit-level construction blueprint in its lack of specificity, and the answers to interpretive questions are largely in the realm of opinion and predilection. An example might be: what tempo did Beethoven have in mind when he indicated "lively, but not too fast"? Since the composer cannot be reached for comment, there is no objective way to find an exact answer. But the performance cannot take place without that most basic decision. There is no obvious way to arrive at a conclusion - just a haggling and negotiation process which must be traversed within minutes so the rehearsal can move forward.

Consensus is essential, by whatever means. Do we ever descend into insult and aggression? Yes, occasionally! But even our worst scenarios are mitigated by that unmoveable and uncompromising element - the concert date. If we fail to achieve consensus in time, we will play badly together and will suffer collective humiliation!

So the incentive for cooperative agreement is high. And when all parties do participate in collective compromise, those artistic and philosophical concessions can result in breathtakingly meaningful insights. The players often make collective discoveries which may have been invisible to the individuals, since these can only be revealed through the proverbial sum of the parts.

The decisions in an average chamber music performance number in the thousands, and even more surprisingly, once on stage every decision may be modified in the spontaneity of the performance moment. The odds against success should be reasonably high with so many variables. But a successful chamber music performance is a transcendent experience - minds linked in the non-verbal co-creation of that mysterious phenomenon of human perception, beauty/truth.

Reprinted by permission from the CRANE summer newsletter, July 2005.

Rena Sharon is Professor of Collaborative Piano Studies at the University of British Columbia. She is also Artistic Co-director of the Young Artist Experience, an interdisciplinary chamber music camp for teens. In February 2000 she was awarded the prestigious Dean of Arts Award, presented to one member of the UBC Faculty of Arts annually for excellence in teaching, research and community outreach activities.

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