Amateurs Help Keep Chamber Music Alive

A new survey suggests that chamber musicians are not a dying breed. Baby boomers in particular are dusting off their instruments and spending more of their leisure time in the practice room. Theresa Schiavone reports on a group of amateur string musicians in Colorado.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

At a time when digital entertainment is available in the palm of your hand, it seems some people, actually a lot of people, are turning back to a centuries old form of entertainment. They're making music themselves at home. Theresa Schiavone reports on some of the reasons why.

(Soundbite of piano)

Ms. ESTHER WEINSTEIN(ph) (Amateur Musician): ...is where you come in. Da-dee, da-da...

Unidentified Woman #1: ...about that...

Unidentified Woman #2: ...come in again?

Ms. WEINSTEIN: Yes, you do.

(Soundbite of piano and violin music)

THERESA SCHIAVONE reporting:

An amateur piano trio plunges into a Mendelssohn piece. The musicians are tucked into a wooden cabin on a chilly summer day in the mountains of northern Colorado.

Ms. WEINSTEIN: We have a little baseboard heat here to take the edge off the fingers.

SCHIAVONE: Pianist Esther Weinstein is an elementary school music teacher from Las Vegas. She's at a chamber music camp called Schombear In the Rockies(ph). The name is a takeoff on the French word, `chambre,' for chamber, where this music was first played.

(Soundbite of piano and violin music)

Ms. WEINSTEIN: This whole experience is just wonderful. It's people who do this for love. We're all gainfully employed in other professions. We don't--this is not our day job.

SCHIAVONE: There are no classes at Schombear, no lessons. Pianist Esther Weinstein is playing with cellist Vicki Hauntiss(ph) from Arizona and violinist Judy Grosswiler who lives in Denver.

Ms. WEINSTEIN: People come only to read music. It's not coached. You just read. Read, read, read, and you get better as you do it.

SCHIAVONE: And it seems that more people are doing it. According to a recent Gallup survey commissioned by the International Music Products Association, sales of stringed instruments, such as violins and cellos, were up by almost 5 percent last year. Sales of fretted instruments, like guitars, were up almost 15 percent. These increases do not include purchases by students, professionals or church groups. Joe Lamond is the association's director, and he has a good idea who's buying.

Mr. JOE LAMOND (International Music Products Association): I would really look to the demographics of the boomers. You know, we've got some 77 million baby-boomers entering that period of their life where they've had some success in their jobs, their kids are a little bit older and, in many ways, they're starting to look for some things and some hobbies that make them feel good. And there's very few thins that can kind of bring back some of their best memories of their youth than playing music and playing in a band.

SCHIAVONE: But this may have less to do with nostalgia for the care-free days of youth and more to do with public school music programs that were strong, Lamond says, in the 1960s. A 2003 Gallup survey found that most adults who play musical instruments learned to play as kids in school. The National Endowment for the Arts started charting the association between childhood music instruction and adults who play instruments in the 1980s. Mark Bauerline directs the NEA's Office of Research and Analysis.

Mr. MARK BAUERLINE (National Endowment for the Arts, Office of Research and Analysis): We found that those who took music classes as children, 1 in 20 did play classical music as an adult. Those who did not take music classes as children, only 1 in 250 play classical music as an adult.

SCHIAVONE: These numbers include professional musicians as well as amateurs. The Gallup survey also found that the single most important motivation for childhood music instruction was the encouragement of parents.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #3: I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

Mr. ANTHONY ELIAS(ph) (Amateur Musician): OK.

SCHIAVONE: Denver physician Anthony Elias is a sometime violinist, though in the world of amateur music making he's an A-level player. He attributes that to growing up under his mother's piano.

Mr. ELIAS: My mother was a piano teacher and I'd lie under the piano as a little kid, sort of as a nesting place, and listen to my mother practice or play chamber music or whatever.

SCHIAVONE: Years later, when Anthony met his future wife, Ellen(ph), the pre-med students joked about raising their own string quartet. They almost have. They've come up with a string trio, plus a renegade son who plays the clarinet. They play together regularly in their living room.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #4: That was great. That was just great.

Mr. ELIAS: Keep going. Le--next two...

SCHIAVONE: They also seek out other musicians. Ellen Elias has listed her family in a chamber music players directory.

Ms. ELLEN ELIAS (Amateur Musician): It's worked wonderfully well. When we first moved up to Boston we found people there to play with right away. Almost faster than we had an apartment to live in, we had people to play with. And when we moved from Massachusetts, we found people right away here in Colorado who are wonderful musicians--moving totally across the country and not knowing a soul.

SCHIAVONE: The directory is maintained by Amateur Chamber Music Players Incorporated. The organization was started in the late 1940s by a woman who held chamber soirees and a traveling salesman who wanted to play chamber music with others. Daniel Nimetz is the group's current director. He says its membership is growing and it's spread overseas.

Mr. DANIEL NIMETZ (Director, Amateur Chamber Music Players Incorporated): Our international directory really began as a convenience for North Americans who were traveling abroad and wanted to meet foreigners. And it's taken on a life of its own, and we have people abroad who use it within their own countries. But there, too, it's total strangers and, in many cases, language is a formidable barrier and we have many instances where an evening of quartets took place among four people whose only common denominator was making the music. They couldn't speak the same language at all.

(Soundbite of music)

SCHIAVONE: Most amateur musicians still wind up playing with friends and people they know in their own communities.

(Soundbite of music)

SCHIAVONE: For violinist Judy Grosswiler, who studied when she was a child, spending a few days at Schombear In the Rockies is a rare treat. She can't wait till she retires.

Ms. JUDY GROSSWILER (Amateur Musician): Music was--going to become one of the major things in my life when I retire. The whole focus. I'm going to use all of my chamber music--I look forward to doing it day in, day out. It's going to be something, I imagine if I live, I'll be in total ecstasy throughout the rest of my life.

SCHIAVONE: After all, the word `amateur' comes from the Latin word for `lover' and dates back to a time that precedes the distinction between amateurs and paid professionals, when making music was its only reward. For NPR News, I'm Theresa Schiavone in Denver.

(Soundbite of music)

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