Violinist Claudia Bloom has been hooked on chamber music from a young age.
"For me, it's so exciting to be able to be heard in a group and to express your music in a very intimate setting," she said. "It's so much fun. It's very gratifying, and you learn how to interpret music along with other musicians."
Her musical family (including a cellist brother and pianist father and twin sister) and her teacher, renowned violinist Anne Crowden, fostered in Bloom a lifelong love of playing in small ensembles. Wanting to encourage new generations of chamber musicians, she founded the Palo Alto School of Chamber Music, which has been offering locals the chance to learn, bond and play with peers since 2015.
Bloom grew up in the East Bay, studying and playing music intensively. After earning a bachelor's degree from Manhattan School of Music and a master's degree from Yale School of Music, she got her dream job: a spot on Duke University's music faculty and in its resident string quartet.
In 1992, after some time in Zurich, her husband's career brought the family to Palo Alto.
"I had to start all over again," she said. But she quickly became part of the local music scene, forming and joining numerous chamber groups, serving as second violinist with Opera San Jose, subbing for the San Francisco Symphony, playing in a klezmer group alongside her husband, and teaching private lessons. Still, "chamber music is really my passion," Bloom said. Inspiration to develop a school came out of the small groups she was hosting at her home.
"I thought, 'You know, I would really like to do this and collaborate with my friends who are also private teachers,'" she said. And so, the Palo Alto School of Chamber Music was officially born in 2015, starting out as a summer program, then expanding into year-round coaching sessions for children, teens and adults.
"There's so much that goes into playing chamber music -- teamwork, being responsible, public speaking, we have a theory component now, a little composition -- they perform for each other and parents and friends at the end of the session," Bloom said. "They come away feeling really good about themselves because they have input, they have a voice."
At the school, interested students are matched in a group (trio, quartet or quintet) of peers at their level. Each group receives coaching from the faculty and rehearses weekly, forming a tight bond with both their coach and their fellow musicians. An optional orchestral ensemble also rehearses weekly. In addition to Bloom, local musicians Be'eri Moalem, Lucinda Breed Lenicheck, Virginia Smedberg, Gulnar Spurlock, Yueh Chou and Susan Macy make up the faculty.
Moalem, who in addition to coaching small groups also conducts the school's Allegro Ensemble (and has contributed as a music writer to this news organization), recalled fondly the first time he played a duet in harmony, at age 12.
"It felt like my soul was being tickled and I burst out in tearful laughter. It was such an exalting experience and I've been chasing that feeling ever since," he said. "I'm very happy to have an opportunity to teach chamber music, passing on the gift that was once passed to me."
While private lessons and participation in large orchestras are undoubtedly invaluable experiences for musicians, Bloom said chamber music offers a unique opportunity for students to both work as an ensemble and an individual.
Willa Bednarz, 16, is a Gunn High School junior who's been playing violin for nine years.
"I love that in chamber music, everyone works together and roots for each other because we all have our own part to contribute," she said. "Playing with just a couple other kids my age, we have a lot of freedom to collaborate and have fun coming up with our own ideas for the music."
Max Chang, 17, another Palo Alto violinist, has been part of the school for three years, joining after taking private lessons and being part of the orchestras at Greene Middle School.
"I really liked to play in a small group, where every person had their own unique role, and their part to fill or else the music wouldn't work. It was a different experience than the orchestra, where as long as most people played their part the rest could do whatever they wanted," he told this news organization.
San Jose-based cellist Tyler Biesemeyer, 16, agreed.
"It feels a lot more personal," he said. "Everyone has direct communication with each other, and everyone's opinions are heard and valued equally."
The school, which was formerly housed at First Lutheran Church in Palo Alto, this September will move to a new home in a new city, on the campus of Yew Chung International School of Silicon Valley (310 Easy St., Mountain View). For the foreseeable future, participants will be masked, and auditions are currently held via video rather than in person.
When the COVID-19 pandemic first struck, the school was forced to cancel planned performances by its 10 chamber groups.
"We had to say goodbye right before they performed for the spring session," Bloom said. The faculty pivoted to online lessons, with some chamber groups continuing to meet in outdoor and distanced rehearsals.
"During the pandemic, my quartet was able to keep playing on my teacher's front lawn," Bednarz said. "Being with friends and practicing under the trees was always a highlight of my week."
The school also serves a social function, offering a way to meet new people and form friendships. And Bloom and the rest of the faculty strive to offer an empowering experience, free from pressure.
"I have students who are also in youth orchestras. Some of them have a lot of expectations and are high-powered," Bloom said. "Ours is, I would say, a little different. We are trying not to compete with other programs. The main draw is that we are encouraging, we're nurturing."
More information is available at schoolofchambermusic.com.