Chamber players welcome musicians of all ages, experience levels

Musicians from the 2022 Tucson Adult Chamber Players gather after their recital. (Tucson Adult Chamber Players/Submitted)

By Bridgette M. Redman

Instrumental music often plays a major role in people’s lives while they are in school. Then they graduate, years pass and their instrument gathers dust while they wonder whether they could still make any music the way they used to.

Others never pick up an instrument until they are older and after spending time alone trying to learn, yearn for company, to have their instrument’s voice meld with the sounds of others.

For both those groups, the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music wants to extend an invitation.

The Tucson Adult Chamber Players is a twice-annual chamber music educational opportunity that is open to amateur string, wind and piano players. Registration for the next session is open until Feb. 15. Coaching and rehearsals will start March 11 and continue until the May 21 recital at the UA. 

The session fee is $350, however they offer sliding scale fees and this year they received a grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts that is letting them offer scholarships. 

Founder Kaety Byerley was one of those people who had played music throughout her secondary and college years. Then she set music aside to pursue a career in Berkeley, California.

“In my mid-30s, I realized something was missing,” Byerley said. “And I was like, it’s music. I need to come back to it. So, I found a group in the Bay Area that was basically an adult chamber program.”

She said it was all about reconnecting with a part of herself and recreating a more mature relationship with music. The organization put together amateur adult musicians and provided professional coaching. 

Then she moved back to Arizona in 2015. She knew there were many musicians and community orchestras in Tucson, but she couldn’t find an organized chamber music group for non-professional adults. So, she decided to start her own.

“I coordinated with a friend who was on the board of Arizona Friends of Chamber Music and he encouraged me to start this educational program as one part of the educational outreach of Arizona Friends of Chamber Music, which is a non-profit,” Byerley said.

The Tucson Adult Chamber Players is open to musicians of all ages and from all walks of life. They’ve had people as young as 18 and all the way up to 85 and older. Participants are matched to other musicians based on their skill level. 

Over the course of 10 weeks, they receive 90-minute coaching sessions with local professional musicians.  

The 10-week session ends with a recital where all of the groups get a chance to show what they’ve learned and connect with other participants.

“It’s really rewarding for both participants and coaches,” said Lyla Rothschild, a co-director of the group. “A lot of the participants form friendships and continue meeting and playing music together in the future. It’s a really awesome program and a lot of participants have told us they never thought they would have the chance to receive coaching at this level at this point in their lives.”

Rothschild said they’ve had people come in who haven’t played for more than 30 years and now are taking private lessons and have gotten back into doing something they enjoyed just for the pleasure of it. 

“It really adds something having music in your life and the connection you get through other people just makes it worth it,” Rothschild said.

Co-director Juan Mejia said many people repeat the twice-annual program and even form groups that stay together. He said Byerley’s string quartet has been together for nearly five years.

“A lot of participants really, really enjoy the program and they just come back—or they might skip one session depending on people’s schedules,” Mejia said.

Once people register for a session, those who are new to the program audition so that the organizers can figure out where in the program they will best fit. The coaches and the directors evaluate their skill level and determine what sort of music would best fit them.

“We kind of see what the level of the person is and what group they would best fit into,” Mejia said. “If it’s a beginning level group, we usually assign repertoire. If it’s a more advanced group, they pick the repertoire months in advance. They just tell us, look, we really want to work on this piece. We love it. That’s usually how we’ll do it.”

Byerley stressed that the auditions are for placement only. They aren’t intended to screen people out or keep them from participating. She said there have been a few times where they’ve had someone audition and they didn’t have enough others at their skill level to place them in a particular session.

“If we don’t have the right combination of applicants that session, sometimes that can’t work out because when you have someone who’s just learning their instrument or just learning how to read music, if you put them in a group with people who are more advanced, it can be frustrating playing for everyone,” Byerley said. “That’s part of the job of the coaches. I’ve gone to a lot of these placement auditions. It’s really a fun process. It can be stressful for people auditioning because maybe they haven’t played in 20 years, but it gives everybody a chance to get to know each other and really answer everyone’s questions.”

It is also a time for the coaches to engage in creative brainstorming, Byerley said. They consider all the personalities, the way people play, and the type of music that is available.

“It’s kind of like putting all the puzzle pieces together to create these groups of people who we think would make great music together and have a good time,” Byerley said.

Rothschild and Mejia give an example of one woman who participated in the program. She was in her 80s, had mobility issues and wanted to learn cello. Back when she was in college, she had played the oboe and could read music, but hadn’t played strings. Mejia worked with her and they were able at the end of one session to play a cello duet together.

“It’s just so cool to see someone at that age learning something completely new from scratch,” Rothschild said. “She was dedicated, and everyone was so supportive. Afterwards she told everyone thank you. This was her first time ever performing cello and she was just so nervous and just so excited to have the opportunity. It was just such a touching moment.”

Rothschild said they are open to any sort of instrument. They typically get a lot of people who play strings—violin, viola, cello—and a lot of piano. But over the years they’ve also had bassoons, flutes, clarinets and Baroque recorders among others. 

“It’s definitely open to everyone,” Rothschild said. “Depending on the level of different people and the instruments, we choose repertoire accordingly. It’s fun to be creative and find pieces that we’ve never even heard of before but that exist and people get to have that experience.”

As an intergenerational group, people of vastly different ages perform next to each other. Byerley compares it to a sports team where you have to come in and do your best, ask questions and give and take feedback—and have fun.

“I think everybody comes into the process with that mindset,” Byerley said. “After our recitals, we’ll have a reception with food and wine and things and it’s definitely a great opportunity for people to mingle.”

She said they’ve had a couple of other events over the years such as their sight-reading parties where several people from the community come together and bring their own music. They pair up into different groups and everyone in that group sight reads the music. She describes it as coming to a musical mystery party.

Rehearsals during the session are held either in participants’ homes or in the coach’s home. It contributes to it becoming a tight-knit group. Because it is a small chamber group, no two people are playing the same music, giving everyone a unique role. Some groups will take time out before or after the rehearsal—or sometimes in the middle, to have coffee or meet together to socialize.

“By the end of the 10 weeks, you’ve definitely bonded with the people in your group,” Rothschild said. “As with any activity, you realize it really doesn’t matter the age, we’re just all similar and having the human experience.”

Byerley praises Tucson for having such a wealth of talented people and appreciates the number of community orchestras in the area. The Tucson Adult Chamber Players differ from them in that they offer a more intimate experience.

“There’s great history and great stories behind it,” Byerley said. “There are opportunities to really develop your craft as a musician no matter what level you’re at. In chamber music, there are opportunities you don’t get if you’re playing in a big orchestra. There’s much more opportunity for personal expression and lyricism. If anyone is thinking about joining a group and they’re not sure what direction to go, I would definitely encourage them to try our program. I think they’ll be happily surprised.”

Tucson Adult Chamber Players, Spring 2023 Session

WHEN: Auditions are Saturday, Feb. 18; session begins Saturday, March 11, and the recital is Sunday, May 21

WHERE: Auditions at Pima Community College’s West Campus, 2202 W. Anklam Road, Tucson

COST: $350; sliding scale