6 Lessons in Chamber Music (and life) I learned at Caramoor

Coleman Itzkoff 6 Lessons
by Coleman Itzkoff, 2017 Evnin Rising Star cellist

Looking back at a week of intensive study and rehearsal alongside six fellow Rising Stars and three distinguished mentors, cellist Coleman Itzkoff shares the greatest lessons he learned ranging from laughter and relaxation to appreciating the little things.


When I was asked to write this post about my experience in the Evnin Rising Star program at Caramoor I must admit that I felt at first somewhat perplexed. Aside from the fact that I am a cellist and not a writer, the week we all spent together in Katonah felt more like a month than a week, with a myriad of ideas and experiences packed into each day. It seemed at first impossible to recount in an intelligible manner my overall impressions, which is why I’ve decided to organize my thoughts in list form. Sure it may be a bit prosaic, but I hope that it will both be helpful in sharing my thoughts on Caramoor, and valuable to my fellow young musicians.

So without further ado …

1) Explore the Micro to find the Macro

For those who’ve never been to Caramoor, the Tuscan-style Villa and the surrounding estate is a feast for the senses. The main house is filled with beautiful art and furniture, from an eight-fold Chinese jade folding screen from the Qing Dynasty to the various pieces of Renaissance art lining the walls of the grand Music Room. Every antique door, gilded light fixture, and indeed every corner of the estate was meticulously placed there by the original owner, Walter Rosen, and the overall effect is spellbinding.

Likewise, rehearsals were spent picking apart every small detail of the chamber music we were playing together. Every phrase, cadence, and trill was turned over and over again until we all felt we had found the “right” way. Several rehearsals went 20-30 minutes over time while we were discussing the possibilities of a mere six measures of music. Though that may seem tedious, it was actually quite the opposite. Exploring and digging deep into the music this way gave us all immense joy and pleasure, and resulting performances were all sensational (if I do say so myself).

There is an inherent joy and beauty in learning (or creating) but it cannot be found by merely skimming the surface.

The lesson here is this: Our approach to learning a new piece of music, be it chamber music or solo, must be to emphasize depth over breadth. There is an inherent joy and beauty in learning (or creating) but it cannot be found by merely skimming the surface. Go DEEP. Try a phrase 5 different ways, then try 5 more! Your focus on the small details will slowly but surely reveal a larger picture of beauty and care, and that care will be felt by any audience.

2) Say ‘Yes’

This one comes from my experiences of working with Atar Arad on Mozart’s String Quartet, K.499. Atar has had a long and distinguished career as a violist, chamber musician, teacher, and composer, most notably as a member of the award-winning Cleveland Quartet. As a side-note, he is also one of the most hilarious and entertaining people I’ve ever encountered, and if you are ever lucky enough to find yourself in the same room as this man, take a seat and prepare to laugh.

Throughout the week of rehearsals I was struck by Atar’s willingness to try new things; whenever one of us offered an opinion on a phrase or bowing, rather than first discussing (or arguing) over whether the idea was correct or not, Atar would chime in with a simple “Let’s try it.” Let’s try it. It may seem simple, but those who are experienced in chamber music know that quite often rather than playing through each possibility and then deciding, suggestions in rehearsals will often devolve into long musical or philosophical squabbles before a note is even played.

I heard somewhere that the first rule of improv is to say ‘yes’. I believe that this applies to chamber music as well. Even if you believe that your colleague’s idea is wrong, or that you have a better one, try their’s first. You may be surprised and change your mind! Or not, at which point you argue your case and make a final decision as a group. Atar Arad could have easily demanded that things be his way or the highway, as many musicians with his experience and skill do in chamber music environments, but instead he had the generosity and humility to always try things first and then make a judgment. For that, he is truly inspiring.

Atar Arad rehearses with Evnin Rising Stars In Mo Yang, Eunice Kim, Coleman Itzkoff, Alexander Hersh, and Sung Jin Lee.

3) Freedom through Discipline

I hear occasionally from younger musicians (and sometimes colleagues) that they don’t want to get bogged down in musical analysis and theory, that it somehow makes the music seem clinical or takes away from its emotional impact. I cannot disagree more. While rehearsing Haydn’s String Quartet No. 2, Op.50, Pam Frank asked after each rehearsal that we all study the score that night and mark out the phrase lengths and major cadences of the movements we would work on the following day. Not only did this put us all on the same page, saving a great deal of time and potential confusion, but it then opened us up to all the possibilities that we could explore.

There are so few objective aspects of music that it can sometimes seem daunting to come out with a coherent interpretation, especially when there are four people involved with four individual, subjective perspectives. By knowing the score inside out, marking sections and phrase lengths, cadence points, and particular harmonies that you find interesting, you are not limiting your possibilities but expanding them!

4) Take a Break!

This one is dedicated to Howard Nelson, our resident physical therapist. For those who don’t know, Pam suffered for many years from pain and numbness caused by faulty movements while playing, and was only able to come back to 100% after a long and arduous recovery period, guided by her then-physical therapist now-husband, Howard. She is quite open about her difficulties and now travels around the country giving joint Masterclasses with Howard to help young musicians avoid injury.

Life is short, but if we want to have long careers in music we must treat our bodies with great care.

I personally have dealt with various aches and pains over the years, and it is always a good idea to consult with a specialist like Howard. Without pretending to be a medical professional of any sort, this is probably what they’ll tell you: (1) Warm up away from the instrument by getting the blood flowing with jumping jacks, running in place, etc. (2) Take frequent practice breaks, especially if you’re sitting while practicing (3) Stretch and/or strengthen your body in the opposite direction or using the opposite muscles than you use while playing (4) Use a mirror while practicing and/or film yourself and then watch the footage without sound. You may be surprised where your imbalances or places of tension are.

Life is short, but if we want to have long careers in music we must treat our bodies with great care, as any athlete or professional would whose career requires constant physical exertion.

5) Play Haydn’s String Quartets

Do it. It’s good for you. He’ll delight you, engage your intellect, and make you laugh and cry all in the same movement. Plus he wrote 68 of them, so you better get started now.

Finally, and most importantly…

6) Have Fun!

After this week at Caramoor I can say with confidence that I have made six wonderful new friends (well technically four; Sung Jin and I met at Menlo in 2016 and Alex and I go way back). My fellow Evnin Rising Stars and I ate together, laughed together, explored the grounds together, went on Instagram photo shoots together, discussed the films of David Lynch together, sight-read Mendelssohn Octet while wearing Halloween wigs together, did everything … TOGETHER!

Whether it was discussing articulations in Haydn, or emotional affect in Mozart, or simply hanging out in the dressing room before a show, we were constantly bonding and having fun. In our profession, it’s easy to take what we do much too seriously and ignore the rest of what makes life so wonderful, and making new life-friends is one of the great benefits of this profession. In the words of my alma mater Rice University, “work hard, play hard.”

The gang takes a stroll through the enchanted forests of Caramoor. #caramoortakeover

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Learn more about Caramoor’s Evnin Rising Stars program.

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  1. Mindy Papp  / 

    What a great e mail!
    Wonderful to share the six lessons and video.
    Especially interesting to read how the house and grounds complimented the learning experience. Keep it up!
    Wouldn’t it be great to interview every artist with the question “what turns you on about the Rosen house…” or something like that.