Play for Your LIFE!: Chamber Music from Mozart to Led Zeppelin

Play for Your LIFE!: Chamber Music from Mozart to Led Zeppelin

 By Joseph Rutkowski

I believe that chamber music is the most intimate form of musical collaboration, and all teenagers should learn the skills to study rehearse and perform chamber music. The workshop that I will present next month at NAfME’s 2015 National In-Service Conference will give teachers ideas on how to implement a chamber music program and encourage their students to enjoy playing chamber music in school and outside.

“Chamber Music is the classical version of a garage band.” — Barbara Haney.

At the All-Eastern Conference in Baltimore in 2005, I had the good fortune to see the U.S. Marine Band Clarinet Quartet give a chamber music workshop at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. The bass clarinetist Barbara Haney said, “Chamber Music is the classical version of a garage band.”

What’s So Special about Chamber Music?

During the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school, my parents moved to a new school district. On the first day of school, I made my way to the band room before classes began and found the band director, Mr. Sobol, to express my desire to be close to the front of the clarinet section. The next day during my free period, I went to the band room to see if I could practice there. Mr. Sobol saw me and noticed that another clarinetist by the name of Joe London was also hanging out in the band room. He handed us a book of clarinet duets and said, “Here, play some duets.” Without many words spoken between the two of us, London and I spent the period playing duets. This was the beginning of our relationship. We became friends for LIFE.




The older I get, the more exciting I find LIFE is when I play my clarinet (or piano or accordion) with other musicians, no matter what their age or level of playing and no matter what kind of music it is. I want to make sure that my students have the chance to play their instruments with other musicians after high school, after college, after they get a job and raise a family—for LIFE!

You can’t always find a band or an orchestra to play with, but you can always find one or two or more other musicians with whom to play chamber music.

A Summer of Music

I just finished one of the best summers I have ever had, because I was playing chamber music with friends and strangers almost every day. I don’t really have time to do this during the school year. I look forward to the summer to contacting these other musicians. You don’t need a whole orchestra or a whole band or a conductor to play chamber music—just one other person. Two or three make it more rewarding. There are so many outstanding pieces by the great composers for woodwinds, strings, and combinations—with or without piano.

The first group I played with this summer was a viola/clarinet/piano trio. We played Mozart, Schumann, and Bruch. The pianist was actually the parent of one of my students from 10 years ago, and the violist was an adjudicator whom I met about 10 years ago when we hosted a NYSSMA Festival. These two met as strangers last year when we started this little group. And now we’re looking to book concerts in Westchester in New York City for next season during the school year, even though all three of us will be busy as this school year gets started.


music teacher


The next group I played with were two young musicians: a violinist in his late 20s, who was a student teacher with me several years back, and a pianist who was a professional musician in her 30s. We played Bartok and Milhaud. I was surprised that these two young musicians did not know the Bartok Contrasts. I had spent the previous two weeks practicing my part because I knew how difficult that was from performing at 30 years ago. I was taken aback to see that these two fine young musicians were sight-reading at our session. I implored them to practice their parts before the next time we get together and I promised them that they would not be sorry for the time they spend on studying this piece because it is such an important staple in the 20th century chamber music repertoire.

Later on in the summer I got together with a friend whom I have not seen in 40 years when we were students at Mannes College working in the library. She is a cellist with three friends up in Massachusetts that read string quartets every once in a while. We played through the Mozart and Brahms quintets for clarinet and strings, and that was almost the highlight of my summer.

The highlight of my summer came later that night when my wife and I attended a lovely dinner in the country hosted by a concert promoter we know. There was a gorgeous view of a meadow from her porch with her horses grazing and then galloping. After hors d’oeuvres and before dinner was served, our host asked me to bring the accordion out of my car, at which I began playing songs that all the guests knew, including “You Are My Sunshine” and other traditional American songs. One of the other guests brought out her dulcimer, and our host brought out a pair of spoons, while the other three guests joined in singing as we played charming music by traditional and unknown composers.

An Interactive Chamber Music Workshop

I find that this workshop often motivates the teachers to pick up their instruments that they might not have been playing for many years so that they can join their students in playing chamber music. I have presented this chamber music workshop several times in the past, including at TMEA (Texas Music Educators Association), the Balanced Mind Conferences (NEMC), the NYSSMA Winter Conference, and All-Eastern Conferences in New York City, Baltimore, MD, and Hartford, CT.


music students


I was thrilled to have dedicated teachers from San Antonio, Rochester, Baltimore, and Hartford provide their students as demonstration groups for these conferences. And I am very grateful to Band Director Eric J. Scott of Martin Luther King, Jr. Academic Magnet School in Nashville, TN, for preparing his students to demonstrate at my workshop on Tuesday, October 26th, at 11:30 a.m. These fine students will be demonstrating 15 pieces that are the starting point of forming a chamber music club or class.




After the students find the joy in playing music outside of the band or orchestra class, I introduce chamber music collections that have pieces for various combinations. And then of course there are traditional ensembles: string quartet, woodwind quintet, brass choir, etc.

Click here for an overview of the workshop, including music and instrument parts.

Givin g the Gift of Music Anywhere

When we have students who enjoy playing music, they have the chance to go off campus to play at nursing homes, hospitals, and other venues to give the joy of music to others.

What I find so special about playing chamber music is the fact that each player is responsible for her/his own part or line. The other incredible benefit of having a chamber music program is the sight-reading experience that the students acquire from being exposed to new music every week. At our school, this experience leads our students to display their sight-reading skills every Friday when we sight-read charts of pop and jazz tunes I hand out when we all meet in the lobby of the school to greet the students, teachers and staff on the final day of the school week with live music.

“Lobby Music”

Everybody knows we call it the “lobby music.” One time when we had exams on Friday, I decided to hold lobby music on a Thursday. It confused everyone in the school. Everybody thought that it was Friday and were very disappointed that there was another school day left in the week, and there would be no lobby music on Friday because of the exams.

The theme of my teaching methodology for instrumental music is to master the scales before playing the music of the masters:


View Joseph Rutkowski’s GRAMMY Music Educator AwardTM videos for 2013 and 2016 to learn more about his teaching methods and impact on students.


About the author:

music teacher

Joseph Rutkowski has taught band and orchestra classes at the John L. Miller-Great Neck North High School on Long Island since 1991 and was the orchestra director at Stuyvesant High School in NYC for the eight years prior. He continues to perform as a concert clarinetist in orchestras and chamber ensembles, as well as a jazz pianist with his sons and former students. Joseph is a two-time Presidential Scholar Teacher, a Distiguished Teacher of the Harvard Club of Long Island, and a two-time GRAMMY Music Educator AwardTM Quarterfinalist.

Joseph Rutkowski will be presenting at the 2015 NAfME National In-Service Conference, Tuesday, October 27, 2015 from 11:30 AM – 12:30 PM. Join his session “Play For Your Life!” [Chamber Music (from Mozart to Led Zeppelin) Reading Session for All Instrumentalists]. Be sure to bring your instrument – no matter what you play!

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