When Civitas Ensemble first formed seven years ago, its members knew they wanted to do more than simply play chamber music for Chicago audiences. The group wanted to invest in their region’s students. So when violinist Yuan-Qing Yu proposed being an Ensemble-in- Residence at Valparaiso University, the other members were on board. Since then, Civitas has traveled to Valparaiso at least twice every year, mentoring and coaching young musicians and performing free concerts for students and the public. “They’re an incredibly kind population, so it’s a wonderful school to be a part of,” says Lawrie Bloom, Civitas’ clarinetist.
While they’re on campus, Civitas members give private coaching sessions to individual students, spend time with various chamber groups to give feedback, and sit in on student orchestra rehearsals to provide guidance and notes. Dennis Friesen-Carper, a music professor at Valparaiso and conductor of the Valparaiso University Symphony Orchestra, says getting the chance to study with the professional members of Civitas is an invaluable experience for the students. “It gives our students the opportunity to be right next to these fantastic players, hear interesting music and get to interact with them, particularly in the coaching of our chamber music ensembles,” Friesen-Carper says. Civitas members have played solo and double concerti with the VUSO with music by Brahms, Mozart, Bruch, Dvorak, and Piazzola.
Members of Civitas teach students everything from how to improve their phrasing to giving technical advice. But Friesen-Carper thinks the most valuable advice they provide is teaching students about the nuances of performing together as a chamber group — a very different skill than what one learns playing in an orchestra. “In chamber music settings, it’s about getting them to listen more intently, to know when to assert and lead, versus following,” says Winston Choi, Civitas’ pianist. Because chamber music groups aren’t led by conductors, players need to learn how to listen to the other members to stay in sync, and they need to have a strong grasp of the entire piece, rather than just their own parts, so they can get back on track should the group go astray. “The last time I was at Valparaiso, I had a string quartet and they each knew their parts very well, but they were each counting their parts. In the short time I was with them, I got them to focus on trusting each other and listening to each other,” Yu says. “I think that’s the part I really enjoy — feeling like I made a difference.”
Bloom says they also focus on teaching the students in the chamber groups how to subtly gesture to the other members when they want them to moderate their tempo. “In any chamber group, any member in the group needs to learn how to indicate when we need to have something happen, and that’s a skill. People think that’s simple, but it’s not simple,” he says. Bloom encourages the chamber music groups he coaches to study the entire score so they know where to come in. “They’re too focused on their own part and they forget that that has to relate to someone else’s part. If you have rest, what else is going on?”
Friesen-Carper says the students often make big progress when they receive feedback from the Civitas members. “Having the chance to interact with these professionals gives the students an opportunity to move up to the next level with a criticism that might shake them out of their day-to- day, step-by- step progression,” he says. “Also they give a different point of view. There are times when the members of Civitas suggest an interpretation that is different than the professor who has been doing the coaching, and that’s all welcome.”
Choi agrees that they are often able to help students have a breakthrough, simply by offering different feedback than they usually get. “Sometimes, it’s the same points that their teachers have made, but hearing somebody else say it, often in different contexts and with different wording, can help to really inspire the change to be more embraced,” he says.
At Valparaiso, many of the students who perform in the orchestra or chamber groups are majoring in something other than music, and the majority are not interested in pursuing a career in music. But having the opportunity to work one-on- one with the professional musicians of Civitas can inspire a love of music that will last a lifetime. “Civitas is really working with people who are going to be experienced amateurs, as well as professionals and those who are going to be mostly savvy music consumers,” Friesen-Carper states. “So they are really nurturing the love of music and the understanding of Western music tradition in a very broad range of student musicians.”
Bloom confirms it is just as gratifying to mentor these students as it is to mentor those who want to become professional musicians. “They may be the next generation of audience members, and we need that just as much,” Bloom says.