7 November 2015


I have been interested for more than thirty years in the presentation of acoustic performances by small music groups. I listen to and play in traditional jazz bands and I also attend chamber music concerts (especially those given by string quartets). So I am offering the following questions and my personal answers to them as food for thought.

What do chamber musicians and jazz musicians have in common?

They play one to a part and their music is not popular with the masses. Playing a type of music that does not attract large audiences, they do not make a fortune.

Why do we choose to be ‘unpopular’?

We take pride in being miniaturists. We like hearing music played acoustically. It is easier to appreciate details. The noise level is bearable. There are delicate textures. We better appreciate the drama of the music’s dialogue. The individual players - playing just one to a part - are more free to express themselves.

Does such a group need a leader?

Do not be too democratic. It is helpful to have a leader (or to take turns at being leader). It may help to have two leaders – one who manages bookings and one who 'directs the traffic' of the music.

Do we need to get on well together socially in order to make good music?

It helps, but is not essential. Musicians who do not get on well socially sometimes make wonderful music together. Conversely, musicians who get on well sometimes make a poor job of performing. 

How can we give a decent performance if we are just starting out and some of our players are inexperienced?

Choose repertoire within your capabilities. Then, however limited the players' abilities, aim to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. This means not just playing the notes; it means concentrating on teamwork and interpretation.

Can we get away with practising alone, or should we often rehearse as a group?

Group rehearsals are essential for chamber music; and many jazz groups would be more worth listening to if they rehearsed together more often.

How can we ensure that practice brings improvement?

Do not use much time playing pieces you already know well. Seek new challenges; and focus on the mental as well as the physical. 

How do we get bookings?

The following methods may help - but not much: the Internet, Leaflets, Small Ads. Agents may be helpful but should be treated with caution. Being seen and heard (for example, busking in the street) is the best form of advertising: one performance leads to another. Next best is word-of-mouth. 

How should we dress when giving a concert?

For most venues, a group should look good and adopt a unifying style, even if this means some formality. Individuals have to forego personal preferences for the good of the group.

How can we win over our audience?

It is essential to keep in your mind that your listeners are giving you two hours of their precious time. So you owe it to them to communicate well. Look involved and interested. Smile. Speak to them: they love information. Your programme should be balanced and should match the needs of the audience. Don't be too esoteric and don't risk a built-in fidget ingredient. Welcome feedback and learn from it.

If we develop a good programme, can we be sure it will always work?

Don’t be surprised when you discover that no two audiences are the same. Every audience acquires its own collective mood. A piece of music that is received enthusiastically by one audience may fail completely with another. Also, you must never take seriously anyone's promise that all the seats will be sold!

Should we use microphones and amplification systems?

Wherever possible, play acoustically. Instruments carry surprisingly well, even in large halls.

Will a piece of music become stale if we play it often?

Staleness may set in eventually, but not for a very long time; and during that time, you play the piece better and better. Do not complain when asked to play a piece you have played a hundred times before. You must please the paying public. 

How should we relate to the people who help put on our concerts?

Support in every way the entrepreneurs, promoters and sponsors who give you opportunities to play, who publicize events and attract the audience. They rarely have much cash to play with.

Will the piano be in tune?

Expect pianos to be unsatisfactory even if they have allegedly been tuned recently. Regrettably, it is best to have your electronic keyboard in the car.

Should we make a CD?

If it gives you pleasure, fine; but you are unlikely to recoup the cost. Also, recording will highlight mechanical noises, coughs, unwanted resonances and especially errors; and a good balance will be hard to achieve. So think twice before making a CD. ‘Demo’ recordings should not be necessary and are unlikely to pay for themselves.

How should we arrange the performers at a public performance?

If you have enough space and not too many players, go for an ‘arc’. A well-known jazz musician friend of mine wrote this after first trying this arrangement: ‘The difference when playing in a semi-circle was amazing. I could hear every instrument, and see everyone. More importantly, I could see all signals. I feel that, where possible, it is a good formation for a 4/5 piece band. Also, the audience can see everyone too!’