Founded in 1969, Pro Corda is, in the United Kingdom, synonymous with the practice of chamber music. Currently running residential courses for children ages 8 to 18 and non residential courses for children 5 to 10, Pro Corda has for generations been contributing to the development of a community of chamber musicians. Courses are organized by age groups throughout the year, and it is not uncommon for young people to return to the courses over a dozen times, slowly progressing through the different age levels to reach the senior course. In a society in which music education is not available through a conservatory system as exists in many other European countries, Pro Corda has provided a framework for the regular training of young musicians in a broad range of repertoire and ensemble skills.
The Intermediate course was a complete immersion for the 14-16 year old group. About 45 students playing all bowed strings and piano were organized into 25 ensembles from duos to sextets. Most of the students participated in two, three, or even four ensembles, and their day was spent moving from one coaching to another. Every morning, after breakfast, students gathered in a large barn space transformed into a multi-purpose concert hall for a yoga session led by the course director, Matthew Jones. The rest of the day would be devoted to ensemble coachings or individual practice, with the balance of their time divided between creative composition workshops with a resident composer (the first five days) and stage presence workshops with acting coaches from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama (the remaining days). The final musical activity would be chamber orchestra, which brought the collective energies into focus at the end of every afternoon. Each evening featured different activities, including the usual teachers’ concert, but also innumerable games and parties invented by the incredibly creative residency staff led by Jan Cassidy. Most interestingly, every student ensemble had the opportunity to record their ensemble two days before the final concert, which had the double function of helping the students to focus on a shorter term goal and also provide a musical memory of the week’s work in excellent conditions (each student received a CD of his ensembles at the end of the course. Somehow there was room as well for football, billiards, boating, and trips to Snape Malthings and Aldebourgh.
Course director Matthew Jones, who is also Senior Tutor in chamber music at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, constructs the ensembles and chooses repertoire according to the abilities of each student, and usually encouraging the ensembles to focus on only one or two movements of a given work. In this way a high level of familiarity and confidence in performance can be achieved in a relatively short time. This means that the focus can be more on process than on sheer production. The inclusion of yoga, composition, and stage presence in the programme underline this orientation: more than simply concentrating on the preparation of a particular piece, the students are being supported at every stage to acquire rehearsal skills that are transferable, lessons of apprenticeship which go far beyond the usual perfecting or execution of a given interpretation. The final concert, lasting more than five hours, was a remarkable demonstration of the effectiveness of this approach: students went from ensemble to ensemble throughout the concert, confident on stage, aware and listening, adapting and communicating with different partners in different repertoire without any of the usual frenzy or stress associated with such events. There remained a freshness and spontaneity that left an impression of well-being that one would hope the young people would carry off into the world for many years to come.
The chamber music coaching team assembled included very experienced Pro Corda teachers and one teaching fellow as part of a new Pro Corda professional development scheme (see above article). Teachers included violinist Darragh Morgan and pianist Mary Dullea of the Fidelio Trio, cellist Tim Lowe, and Evan Rothstein; like Matthew Jones, Professors Morgan, Lowe, and Rothstein are also associated with the Guildhall School. Mrs Dullea is Director of Performance at the University of Sheffield.
ECMTA Chairman Dr Evan Rothstein