Ensemble Playing by Christine Draeger

When I first heard a flute (on TV, not live) I was captivated. I wanted to play the flute. Luckily my school had some flutes so I was given one and allocated a practice room with two other keen beginners. We didn't have a teacher. We taught ourselves the basics and played simple duets and trios. Straight away we were put in the school orchestra. We must have struggled! but I just remember it as an exciting experience, being immersed in a big sound.

Ensemble playing, anything from two players up to orchestra size can be wonderful. When it works, ensemble playing is definitely a case where "the whole is more than the sum of its parts".

In 1992 I started Tucana Flute Quartet. After years of playing in orchestras and other ensembles I wanted to work with other flute players; the sounds and the people I really liked! Have a look at the Tucana Flute Quartet clips on youtube.

One of the great things about small flute ensembles is that you can organise it yourself. You can choose to work with people you like so that as well as playing music you are spending time with friends. However that doesn't mean it's always easy! Here are some tips from a lifetime of playing duets, trios and quartets.

  • Is the refreshment and chat part going to happen before or after the playing? Have a plan, the chat can take over!
  • It's important  for each ensemble member to be able to respect everyone else's strengths. If there is strong mutual respect among ensemble members, then it is easier to give and receive constructive criticisms.
  • Because chamber music is a conversation, sometimes one instrument must stand out, sometimes another. It is not always a simple matter.
  • Leading and following. These two roles are more alike than you might think. For example if you are leading in the beginning of a piece you will lift the end of your flute as you breathe in. Other players in the group will be watching and listening. They will followyour body language and breath. The uniform movement in the group is a reassurance that all are in the right spot. If a player doesn't join in with this mirroring it can be disturbing for the others.
  • (If you plan to perform for an audience this moving within the group can be a part of the performance which audiences sometimes enjoy as a visual expression of the ensemble interplay. Some chamber music groups play up to their audience and exaggerate this for effect. Why not? It's another aspect of your performance which can help your audience understand and enjoy the music.)
  • In order to create a unified chamber music sound, decisions need to be made about articulation, breathing,  intonation, when to use vibrato etc, etc.  Try to be a clear communicator, it's easy to be misunderstood. The communal nature of decision-making is often more stressful than the decisions themselves.
  • Aim for excellence rather than "perfection". If you try to control and lock in every detail, your playing can lose spontaneity. Musicians need to be flexible and responsive to the things, good and bad, which can happen in a live performance.