A Conversation with Márta Ábrahám-Nagyi

December 8th, 2017 | By Yvonne Tsao
Martaa Brahamnagyi - School For Strings


A Conversation about Chamber Music with Márta Ábrahám-Nagyi, piano faculty at The School for Strings

What is chamber music? 

Many people don’t realize what chamber music is. To put it very simply, chamber music is “playing music together with other people.” However, the experience can reach way beyond that and become much more meaningful than just simply “playing with someone else.” To me, chamber music truly represents the ultimate way of music-making.

Chamber music is a “conversation.” It offers a different kind of complexity and expressivity than solo music. Through musical conversation with someone else, I discovered something very special that playing only solo wouldn’t have allowed me to realize, experience, understand and acquire. In other words, chamber music truly opens up a whole new world, it elevates you to new dimensions, and in return you gain a lot.

Why do you think chamber music is important to music students? 

Because it is an essential component of their music education! I am convinced that every student who plays an instrument has to experience this kind of music-making, otherwise they won’t be able to get a complete idea of what they are doing or can be doing on their instruments. I often find that when students are ready to start studying chamber music, it’s not always obvious what the class can offer. Unfortunately, a lot of the time they see it only as an extra item on their busy agenda – but actually it is so much more! The new skill-set they are gaining is irreplaceable. Therefore chamber music should be really the ultimate goal! When students get a taste of it on their own – what it means and what it takes to play with others – it fosters a different kind of learning.

So is that the reason why you call chamber music the ultimate way of music-learning, as well? 

A solo performance is a wonderful experience, but playing with someone else teaches you an unbelievable amount about music, about your instrument, and about yourself. Chamber music is a “multi-dimensional” training. For example, when you are playing with other people you have to be much more aware of what you want to do with your part. Also, how to play together, breathe together and create unity with others while still maintaining independence; how to be a supportive “accompanist” in any given moment while at the same time (or in the next moment) being able to play a “solo” part, as well. It is very important to be open, flexible, and willing, to connect with each other and make teamwork happen. One has to analyze and recognize a lot of details, too. Listening to each other, watching every – even the tiniest – movement of the other players is crucial. You have to be open to the unexpected and able to adjust in a heartbeat, which means you need to have control over your own instrument, be able to focus and listen 200%. To achieve this in playing chamber music requires a certain level of mastery, both technically and musically, on our own instruments.

As a student, I was fortunate to study at very prestigious schools, with teachers who were not only outstanding pedagogues, but famous concert pianists, both in Hungary and internationally. I studied at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, and for a year as a guest student at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. My teacher in Salzburg was one of the classmates of András Schiff at the Liszt Academy. They played many recitals and made several recordings together. My piano teacher at the Liszt Academy studied with Ernst von Dohnányi; Dohnányi’s teacher was a student of Franz Liszt. His composition teacher was connected to Johannes Brahms. I feel very fortunate to have this kind of musical heritage implanted in me.

However, I feel that it was through my chamber music classes that I learned the most about music, about what it means, about expressivity, and so on. Of course, this would not have been possible without a good foundation from my piano teachers (to whom I am eternally thankful). Therefore I have to say, private lessons and chamber music go hand in hand, complimenting each other in every possible way. I would also like to see students treating chamber music with the same respect as private lessons.

When do you think a child is ready to play chamber music? 

When students are little and not as advanced on their instrument, they are not able to team up with others to play chamber music. It would be too confusing for them. But when they reach an intermediate level, when they can read music fairly well and are able to learn quickly, then chamber music can be introduced. In other words, when they have good control over what they are doing and can focus on the other players, they are ready. It is also important to note that chamber music can help to further improve reading, listening and technical skills. It improves reading because you are “forced” to go on, to be together with the others. Listening skills are a key element – one must always be “ready.” Technical skills are important too, as most of the chamber repertoire is written for more advanced or professional levels.

Do you have any advice for students when they are practicing or playing chamber music? 

First, treat chamber music and preparation for chamber class with the same importance as your private lesson! Put your heart and soul into it and it will draw you in without you noticing and lead you to dig further, ultimately bringing you to conclusions that will inspire you. Don’t leave your practicing until the last minute. If you do that, you will limit yourself in your next chamber class. In addition, listen to a lot of chamber music and go to chamber music recitals as well as solo performances. If you want to become a professional musician or study at a conservatory, chamber music is a requirement that won’t be evaluated any differently than your private lessons.

Naturally, social interaction is very important in chamber music. When playing with others, it’s not about you, it’s about the team or group, and what’s even bigger than the group is the piece – the music you want to express. If you keep your music to yourself, the group effort cannot happen. It’s like putting on a drama production: if one character is missing, it’s hard to put the play together. Similarly, if one member of the chamber group is absent for the lesson, I find myself having to go through the same exact section again the following week. It is hard if someone is not committed. Full-hearted attendance is crucial!

Sasha said that in one of the recent faculty meetings you mentioned that chamber music changed your life. Can you please share your experience? 

There is a very strange, magical thing that happens when you are playing with someone. And when you experience that feeling, that very special connection, you never want to let it go. It’s a kind of meta-communication. In that moment, there is an unspoken language you are speaking, not with words, but through music. There is an understanding of each other, an understanding of the music in a shared way – really having the same thoughts and emotions. Somehow, through emotions, you connect, and that is the connection the audience experiences.

Chamber music is a vital part of my life. I couldn’t live without it. Playing chamber music transforms me and through it I learn a lot about music, style, harmonies, my partners, and myself.

A school set-up – as opposed to just taking instrumental lessons privately – provides a variety of classes offering all aspects of music education. That road will – at some point – take you to chamber music, when you are “playing music with other people”. And in that moment of collaborative music-making, everything comes together and everything makes sense. It is great fun!

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