Amateur Chamber Music

There are many opportunities for amateur musicians to join orchestras and choirs, but what of those whose preference is for small-scale musical works? Playing chamber music with sympathetic musicians must be one of the most absorbing and rewarding of all musical activities! Sadly, though, drawing together the instrumentalists to play a particular work can be almost impossible for those who do not have a large circle of musical acquaintances.

Some enthusiastic would-be chamber musicians have solved their own problem and provided fantastic opportunities for fellow players in their locality by setting up amateur chamber music clubs. Surrey (UK) is blessed with not one but two clubs through which members can arrange to play their preferred repertoire in their own homes and to share their discoveries with the wider membership in informal monthly concerts.

The Kingston and District Chamber Music Society ( is well placed to draw members from South-West London and from the northern parts of Surrey, although some members are happy to travel into the area from further a-field. The society also arranges two annual 1-day ‘outings’, at which  members can play a session with up to five different groups.

Farnham Chamber Music Club ( ), which has historical links with KDCMS, holds its monthly concerts in Churt. As this is near the borders of three counties – Surrey, West Sussex and Hampshire, membership is very much a cross-county affair. The varied and hugely enjoyable monthly concerts attract non-performing members as well as singers and instrumentalists. Although everyone is encouraged to contribute occasional concert items, no one is obliged to do so. Some groups meet regularly on the understanding that it is strictly for their own pleasure. A recent innovation is the ‘piano group’. Pianists are always in demand as accompanists and welcome as recitalists but some felt they would like to to explore more repertoire for 4-, or 6-, hands, etc..

If there is no club like these in your area, maybe the web-sites will inspire you to start your own! A marvellous online resource for would-be chamber musicians is the web-site of Amateur Chamber Music Players. Inc ( ). This is a lively international organisation which may introduce you to opportunities closer to home of which you are unaware!

Another possibility is a local adult education college/ institute, where the prospectus sometimes lists weekly chamber music coaching sessions. If all else fails, a residential summer school may provide an annual ‘fix’ of the music you long to play!

Sol-fa, So Good!

Tonic sol-fa isn’t exactly fashionable in music education today , so many amateur musicians know nothing of it. To my mind, this is a great pity. Familiarising themselves with this system has the potential, I believe, to be the most effective form of self-help that they could undertake.

So, what is this sol-fa thing? Tonic, or relative, sol-fa is a notation system in which each note of a scale is given a single-syllable name – the first degree of the scale is “do”, the second “re”, and so forth. As a syllable is associated with a degree of the scale, the relationships between the various symbols remain the same when a tune is transposed. This is sometimes called the ‘movable do’ system of sol-fa. One learns to recognise the aural characteristics of degrees of the scale and the intervals between them.

Identifying notes by their sol-fa syllables facilitates memorisation, playing by ear and transposition. It also makes it easier to learn scales and to grasp many aspects of theory. The Kodaly method is probably the most well-known instructional system based on tonic sol-fa. It is essentially a system of aural development and, like any other developmental process, it takes time and nurturing to become established. However, some of the benefits listed above can be enjoyed by those who have familiarised themselves with the principles but are still in an early stage of internalising the aural impressions created by movement between the various degrees of the scale.

Historically, tonic sol-fa has been a powerful tool to improve access to music learning for disadvantaged groups. In the UK, it was adopted as the instructional system for singing in Victorian schools. This musical education provided a strong basis for a choral tradition and enabled the factory-workers and miners of the day to quickly learn great choral works, the performance of which gave a wonderful new dimension to their harsh lives. In Hungary, Zoltan Kodaly used it to roll out a nationwide system of high-quality music education that made the experience of great music available to rich and poor alike.

I, also, have found this a means of widening inclusion, as the following example demonstrates. A few years ago, I was directing regular sessions for a small ensemble of experienced players. A young Ghanaian, in the UK for medical treatment following a motor cycle accident, was sitting in on the sessions and it was clear that he would love to participate! We had a keyboard that could be made available to him but he was a complete beginner and didn’t read music. As luck would have it, the tea-break conversation turned to tonic sol-fa and Philip said, “That’s how we did music when I was at school in Ghana.” So, we had our way in! I added sol-fa syllables to his music and he quickly learned to identify the notes for C major and A minor on the keyboard (which had a transpose facility). Using the sol-fa syllables to further support his good aural skills, he was able to participate in subsequent playing sessions and, in the process, discovered a new interest that would help him in rebuilding his shattered life.

I envy those who have been brought up on tonic sol-fa, developing strong aural skills from an early age. There are some excellent pre-school music schemes incorporating it and these provide a marvellous start for a young musician. However, it’s never too late – go for it!

Update 6 March 2013: See my post Learn Tonic Sol-fa with GridPlay for details of  free Windows software for learning tonic sol-fa.

Several posts on my blog deal with aspects of tonic sol-fa, so if you don’t see what you want in this post, check the ‘Category’ menu in the sidebar for more on this subject.

Playing Away

This is the time of the year when music publications aimed at teachers and musicians are full of ads for summer schools, which must mean that it’s time I got around to updating the “Creative Workshops” page on the Full Pitcher website. As our “Get Creative!” pages are resources specifically to support creative music-making, I only post details of courses with a focus on improvisation & composition (I’d be delighted to hear from anyone running such a course, anywhere in the world) but there are hundreds of other UK courses available, covering everything from bagpipes to music technology.

Every year, Rhinegold Publishing produce an “Annual Guide To Summer Schools”. This year it’s a 52-page small-print publication! This is sent free of charge to “Music Teacher” subscribers but non-subscribers can purchase it from the publisher’s website. For experienced amateurs, the breadth of choice is just amazing! But, if you dig around, there is also plenty on offer for less experienced musicians and for children.

Here, I’d like to introduce you to two small UK venues which are big on broadening musical experience and fun:

First, there is the Hindhead Music Centre, where the calendar of summer courses embraces both children and adults, with tuition levels from beginner to diploma. There is even a course, “Discover Music!” for children who don’t yet play an instrument and those who have just started. The centre is a country house, set amidst acres of National Trust commons and there is free time in which to swim in the pool or explore the glorious countryside.

Another of my favourite places is Benslow Music Trust, where adults can enjoy a mind-boggling range of courses – classical, folk, jazz, world music – you name it, they do it! It’s a friendly place and there are courses at various levels. Benslow courses are mainly short weekend or mid-week courses.