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.

 

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