By Ioanida Costache ’12

For the past three weeks a group of string players have been working with Professor of Music David Schneider on a chamber music project designed to get classical music out of its traditional settings of classrooms and concert halls.  With Schneider on clarinet, a string quartet composed of UMass alumnus Ben Van Vliet, me on violin, Hana Kommel ’10 on viola and local cellist Wayne Smith prepared a range of pieces to bring to a different kind of audience.

Schneider, who teaches courses on music theory, music history and analysis, has for some time wanted to organize a group of students who were interested in community engagement. He approached prospective group members in early April with this opportunity to exercise our performing muscles in atypical venues – in our case, the Amherst Survival Center (a community center that provides meals and other services to the needy) and the Hampshire County Jail. It sounded intriguing to me, and I signed on for “Chamber Music Outreach.”

Audience members listen to the musicians at the Amherst Survival Center.

Now, several weeks and almost 50 hours of rehearsal time later, I found myself cramped between a whirling fan and a humming refrigerator at the Amherst Survival Center. We would be playing during dinner. I hardly expected to be heard, let alone listened to. Having never been to the center, I had already been worried that we would feel out of place, unaccepted by the people and the space. But the moment we stepped in, we were received with such anticipation and warmth that all of those inhibitions fell away. The people sat down, listened intently and seemed to be immersed in our playing.

On our second visit, this time during lunch, crowded into a corner by the pantry, we should have felt more in the way than appreciated. We had to creatively find stopping points in our pieces to allow one woman to climb over us to get to the supplies.

Despite this, as the 75 people—including our own Tony Marx, who was volunteering at the center—stopped by to listen, I felt that our presence there was a definite positive. As Professor Schneider discussed each movement, one quiet-mannered man interrupted to ask a question about the “shaky thing” the violinists were doing with their left hands while playing. Ben stood up and explained that this is called vibrato and demonstrated the difference in timbre when the instrument is played with or without vibrato.

Watching this man curiously engage in something that was clearly foreign to him was the highlight of the entire experience for me. This man asking about vibrato made these concerts far more rewarding than the stuffy atmosphere of a “standard” concert in a music hall.

After we played, we were offered a great meal and great conversation with many of the listeners. An elderly woman who sat entranced through our entire set expressed many thanks as we were packing up even though she missed lunch to watch us.


The reception made us feel just what Tracy Levy, program director, described to sum up the concerts: “The Buckley Ensemble brought a sense of calm and wonder to the Amherst Survival Center both times they performed here.  The community was transformed by the beautiful music, and everyone—all 75 people for lunch and 20 people during dinner—expressed their appreciation and joy.”

We took our show farther down the road, to the Hampshire County Jail, where we played for the inmates in an acoustically booming visitors’ room. The setup in this venue was similar to that of a traditional concert; we were not integrated into general flow of the place, as we were  at the Survival Center. But the difference in audience made a huge difference in our playing. The group remarked to each other later that we felt we played our best at these performances because we felt like we had to really sell Brahms to these guys. The most wonderful part about it is that they picked up on it! When prompted for questions at the end, the inmates commented on how moving it was to see us play with such conviction and passion.

What exactly the listeners may have gotten out of our Mozart and Brahms, I’m not sure. It’s possible that the young girl listening to us with a smirk on her face might now find a way to bring an instrument into her life, or that we rekindled a forgotten interest for some of the older folks. It’s also possible that the impact we made wasn’t as direct as we would have hoped.

After performing twice at the Survival Center and playing another two sets at the Hampshire Jail, I don’t think any of the performers pieced together these fragments and feelings into a concluding statement about the experience. I do know that our group was greatly affected by the experience. I think the impact we made was in fact made onto us as well. The conversations we had among ourselves in reflection, as well as with the sheriff and other directors, highlighted our desire to do more of this outreach.

At the very least, these performances were exhilarating for us, since we felt responsible for bringing something we love and cherish into the lives of people who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to classical music.

After our performance at the Survival Center, we handed out save-the-date cards for two additional performances by the Buckley Chamber Players. These concerts, Summer Songs on July 10 and Amber Hues on July 21, will be in Buckley Recital Hall are free and open to the public. We all hope to see some of our audience from the Survival Center there.

Photos by Samuel Masinter ’04.