IAYO / ESTA – Ireland Chamber Music Workshop for Tutors

Written by Katharina Baker

After 2 years of virtual productions, Zoom workshops and Zoom concerts and even Zoom coffee mornings, the Irish branch of ESTA (European String Teachers Association) in association with IAYO finally met live again on 24 April in one of the beautiful studios at the Irish World Academy, University of Limerick.

The first half of the day was filled with presentations followed by lunch – which provided the opportunity for a much longed-for catch-up for the teachers – while the afternoon was a practical play-through session of various repertoire. We had 5 presenters from three different music schools around Ireland who all successfully set up chamber music programmes for young players. It was most interesting to find out how different the schools structured their systems and how hurdles along the way were overcome.

At the heart of all programmes is the belief and experience that chamber music is important and very valuable for young players for so many reasons – not least for the pure joy of it! The educational benefits include: learning to listen to each other while taking full responsibility for an individual part; learning to lead and follow and ‘read’ each other; learning to breathe and move together and to make decisions on how to shape a piece together; learning to naturally develop all aspects of practical musicianship while enjoying music-making in a social context. And then, there is also the excitement for the young players to become fully independent musicians, playing and performing with peers without the conducting of a teacher – maybe even going busking together and earning some pocket money! Often friendships are formed along the way. All of this can hugely contribute to the young players’ motivation to play and practice and develop their skills.

In the Sligo Academy of Music, chamber music has always been a part of the activities, but in recent years, this school has found a new way of organising the sessions: Sligo Academy of Music have made the chamber music sessions part of their orchestral programme, through which it also is financed. Once a month on a Friday afternoon, about 12 different groups of varying sizes and instrumentation get together to work on their music for 2 hours. The older groups work both independently as well as with a tutor while the younger ones would have a tutor for the whole duration. Niamh Crowley, director of the Sligo Academy of Music, explained that the school has experienced a much greater uptake in chamber music playing since it has been made part of the orchestral programme. Groups can work with different teachers and perform their progress for each other at the end of each session. It is certainly an evening that both students and teachers look forward to!

Our colleagues in Cork – working in a music programme through the Cork ETB School of Music which runs 33 schools in 4 areas of County Cork with around 2500 students – are in the fortunate position that they are “given” chamber music hours by their employers which means that these can be offered free of charge to the selected students. Lisa O’Brien (violin), Yvonne McCarthy (cello) and Ruth O’Shea (piano) all work in various locations around the county of Cork and explained how they choose suitable students for their combined chamber music programme, considering the level and age of the students, the location and parental commitment. For new groups, the team experienced that starting with a trial period and initial project-based work helps to take the pressure off for everyone and gives the chance to carefully develop the right groupings for long term ensembles. In this programme, piano teacher Ruth has also managed to include young pianists, which can be a challenge as suitable repertoire is limited. Ruth has therefore written some music that also works for younger pianists and introduced some of her beautiful own compositions in the afternoon session.

Another important aspect of setting up and maintaining young chamber music groups successfully is to find suitable and attractive performance opportunities, which was mentioned by all presenters. I, Katharina Baker, talked more about that in my presentation of the chamber music programme in Coole Music & Arts in Gort, County Galway. Initially mostly project-based and with just one teacher involved, our school now has 10 regular groups meeting every second week with 3 teachers engaging with the programme. Students / families choose this as an extra activity.

As it is a shared cost between the group members and as the groups alternate every second week, the time and financial commitment has been manageable for the families. Performance opportunities include cinema gigs at film launches, support acts for professional ensembles, garden concerts, event music for cake or book sales, weddings, poetry readings, a musical advent calendar and lobby music at various concerts and community events. In Galway, busking is still one of the favourites – while in Cork, a young quartet fulfilled their dream and appear in the Late Late Toy Show.

I think, after this get-together, we all felt inspired to develop our chamber music activities further – and also knew that we could call on each other for support and ideas going forward. Also, ESTA Ireland would love more people to join and is accepting new members now. For further information on this, please see the ESTA – Ireland Facebook page.

The Irish branch of ESTA (European String Teachers Association)