Everything I Know About Marriage, I Learned From Chamber Music

By Miranda Wilson

The pandemic is getting really old, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I devote significant amounts of my daydreaming time to the things I’m going to do “when this is over.”

The thing that comes to mind first, and the thing I’ve missed the most, is playing chamber music.

(No, that’s a lie. The thing I miss the most is my hairstylist. Chamber music comes second, because priorities.)

I look Cruella-tastic.
Image credit: Pixabay

When you’re locked inside the house with your loved ones, you can’t help reflecting on relationships and how they work. I’m privileged to be very happily married to my dearest friend, but marriage isn’t an effortless process. And the more I started thinking about it, the more I realized that the same things that make chamber music work are also what make marriage work.

Chamber music, my starter marriage

My husband and I got married at the same exact time as the breakup of the string quartet I had played in full-time for several years. And while I mourned the loss of my quartet more than I had mourned any previous romantic relationships, it wasn’t lost on me that being in a quartet is very like being in a marriage…the classic joke being that it has all the disadvantages and none of the advantages.

Recipes for disaster

In John Gottman’s classic book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, he lists what he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, i.e. the things that can really ruin a marriage:

  • Criticism
  • Contempt
  • Defensiveness
  • Stonewalling

When I read Gottman’s work for the first time, I had a giant light-bulb moment…not really so much about marriage as about chamber music.

One of the things that makes rehearsing chamber music hard is that you have to make suggestions to others on how to improve group sound, intonation, and togetherness. By its very nature, this means that individual people will have to make individual adjustments to their instrumental technique and musicianship. For the group to work, some criticism is necessary.

It’s also very hard to take. (Just as in marriage, you sometimes think you’re headed for imminent divorce over the way your spouse loads the dishwasher.)

Criticism, a double-edged sword

If we learn to give criticism gently and listen to criticism generously, we can spare ourselves so many arguments and hurt feelings. Tips I learned in rehearsals have really helped me out as a wife and…just as a human.

  • Phrase criticism as an experiment. “What would happen if we reconfigured the intonation in the D major section so that your F-sharp comes in a little flatter?” If you make a neutrally-voiced request to try something, it’s so much easier for the person at fault to fix the problem and save face than it is if you say “You’re sharp. Fix it.”
  • Receive criticism as a gift. If it’s given gently, that makes it easier to see that it’s a gift to help you improve. Ever since I decided to be open to receiving the gift of feedback, I’ve been a happier person. I’ve also improved my dishwasher-loading skills.

When Someone Sucks

I’m not mincing words because we’ve all been there. Sometimes you’re the best player in the group, and the worst player is just so bad that you want to roll your eyes and say a sarcastic thing about their sharp F-sharp or their inability to count or come in at the right time.

Image credit: Pixabay

Big mistake. According to Gottman, rolling your eyes is a very contemptuous gesture. As an inveterate eye-roller, this was hard for me to give up, but it was worth it and I recommend it.

If you are truly contemptuous of a chamber music partner, you should probably not play chamber music with them. The relationship is best built on mutual respect, and if you have no respect for them, that should be the end of it. (Same with marriage.) But if the situation is redeemable, you should try to do that.

How do you do this? Make it your mission to make the other players sound good. If they habitually miss an entry, find a way to make it easy for them to come in. “Can we try this bit in a different way? What would happen if I lean in and give you my D, so that it could be easier for you to float in over the top on that F-sharp?”

Someone has a weak, feeble tone? Make it easier for them to “sing” by producing an overtone-rich tone that’s easier for them to “play off of.” Be easy to work with.

When You’re the One Who Sucks

We’ve all been there too. If you dropped the ball by showing up late, showing up unprepared, making careless errors… Yeah, it happens, and when it’s you, you gotta own it. That’s not easy. It’s hard not to feel defensive when others point out what you’ve done wrong. In my quartet days, my undiagnosed/untreated ADHD made it unbearably hard to focus during long rehearsals, and my colleagues were understandably peeved. Instead of asking myself what I could do differently, I got defensive and tried to blame them for rehearsing in a boring way.

If I’d admitted I wasn’t bringing my A-game, we might have come to a solution a lot faster.

Sometimes I don’t bring my A-game as a human, either. Sometimes I am distracted by a thrilling novel when my husband really needs to tell me about his rough day. That’s kind of a problem.

If any of this sounds familiar, here’s what you can do to banish some of the defensiveness.

  • Don’t use the rehearsal to work through why you’re under-performing. Preparations have to be done alone — learning the score, taking notes on the previous rehearsal, replicating rehearsal decisions in the practice room, taking stock of the areas for improvement.
  • It isn’t reasonable to expect chamber music partners to teach you your part, just as it isn’t reasonable to expect your spouse to therapize you. If you need help, seek it from an expert outside the group.

The Shut-Down: “I’m Right, You’re Wrong”

We’ve all been in the nightmare scenario in a concert when something happens. The something may never have happened in rehearsal, but it’s happening now, and the ensemble is suddenly “out.”

Image credit: Pixabay

In that situation, have you ever had a member of the group who wouldn’t adjust? They “knew” they were “right” and therefore everyone else was wrong, so they would stick to their guns and everyone else had to catch up. They just sawed away really loudly, seemingly oblivious to the needs and nuances of the situation.

Of all the obnoxious chamber music behaviours, I think this one is my least favourite.

Even if you were right and someone else was wrong, if it’s in your power to fix the ensemble, you need to do it. You never know what’s going on with other people. They might have terrible stage fright or simply not be as good a player as you are, so you have to swallow your pride and adjust for the good of the group.

Individual dogmatism is the enemy of a successfully functioning group. You can’t just think you’re perfect and setting the perfect example that everyone else has to follow. You might think you’re being a giver, but you can’t really be a giver if you’re unwilling to receive.

So here’s the hardest bit.

Wholeheartedly Try Out Different Viewpoints

Empathy is one of those things I’ve had to work hard on, since I think it comes more naturally to some people than others. Sometimes it’s hard for me to have the humility to try out someone’s bowing or someone’s crescendo if I think it’s not that great. “It didn’t work last time we tried it. Why are we expecting anything different this time?” “We don’t have very much time for the rehearsal, and I don’t want to spend it changing the bowing.” “That will never work, because…”

Hold it right there. The only way for the group to work is if you try out all the ideas. Even if they’re terrible ideas, that’s how you figure out the good ones.

It’s so hard to let go your pride and try someone else’s idea with as much conviction as if you’d dreamed it up yourself. You find yourself wanting to roll your eyes and say that it’s not as good as your idea, and then sulk when you’re outvoted by the other members of the group. It’s … just hard.

I guess what it comes down to is that you have to believe in the group sound as much as you believe in your individual opinions. If you come at it from the mindset of “We all win when we work on this relationship,” it can be easier to let go of defensiveness.

Four Happy Horses

Image credit: Pixabay

What would happen if we used four guiding principles in chamber music and in our human relationships?

  • Giving and receiving feedback in the spirit of creative experimentation
  • Individual preparation for the group A-game
  • Making others sound better
  • Being prepared to make adjustments

What are some of the principles you’ve found most useful in chamber music that translate over into real life? I love to hear from readers, so please leave a comment below, or head on over to my Facebook page for discussion!

© Miranda Wilson, 2020. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without permission of the author.

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