Amateur chamber music workshop celebrates 25 years in Essex County

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Walking along Prospect Street in Maplewood, you might not notice the Ethical Culture Society of Essex County amid the many attractive multi-story dwellings. But if it were just the right Saturday afternoon, you would be unable to ignore the society thanks to the symphonic sounds emanating from it.

From the street, it sounds much like an orchestra tuning up, but, as you approach the society’s building, the sounds begin to sort themselves out. From behind each of the closed doors of the many rooms in this spacious structure, you will hear the sounds of chamber music. From this door a Mozart Flute Quartet, from that perhaps the Mendelssohn Octet. Maybe here a Dvorak Piano Quintet, all of them played with a fervor that would inspire the most hardened cynic. Opening the doors to any of these rooms will reveal not professional musicians but doctors, lawyers, students, in short every possible occupation. What links all these diverse individuals is a love of music.

For 25 years now the Stirling Strings amateur chamber music workshop has been meeting one Saturday afternoon each month and these music lovers have been experiencing the joys of chamber music right here in Essex County. There are two sessions per academic year. In the fall and the spring the tireless director of the workshop, Mary Babiarz, groups the players by skill levels to work on their selected pieces. Each group is then coached by professional musicians for half of the time on that day and works on its own for the remainder. There is a break in the middle of the afternoon for refreshments and hobnobbing. At the end of each afternoon there is a half-hour presentation of one kind or another, perhaps a performance with professionals or a demonstration by an instrument builder or a brief lecture by a music historian.

Participants range in age from teenagers to senior citizens — one one Saturday you may speak with a 16-year-old participant before turning to an 82-year-old participant.

“I have been a participant in this workshop for about 20 years,” attorney Gilbert Leeds said. “It is excellent in every way: great format, excellent coaching, well-planned and run, and interesting special guests and topics. It’s also a very relaxed social atmosphere and lots of fun. Mary Babiarz and her coaches are all top notch.”

Babiarz says it is a labor of love for her and the other coaches.

“Seeing these people be able to experience these masterpieces is so gratifying,” she said. “There’s nothing like being inside one of these timeless works of art. Their joy is contagious!”

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the workshop is a treasure for our community. If you have a violin tucked away in the attic, perhaps you should consider getting it out, practicing for a bit and then heading over to join the fun. For more information, visit

The text and photos were provided by Frank Valina.