August 31, 2005 - More than four centuries ago in Italy, a group of artists gathered in the homes of the country's elite to discuss music and the arts.
They were called the "Camerata," and they aimed to bring culture and beauty to patrons while eking out a livelihood for themselves.
Today's camerata are University of Arizona music students, and they are ready to show up in your living room to enhance anything from a sit-down dinner to an outdoor birthday party.
They play everything from jazz to classical guitar music. They'll bring harps, if you like, or even tubas.
"It tends to add a touch of class for those evening events to have an ensemble at your party," said Kelland Thomas, the coordinator of the university's Camerata program.
The program began in 1996 because the university noticed that normal music programs don't teach students how to patch together various income sources to make a living, Thomas said.
"The traditional music school or conservatory education is about practicing and honing the craft and gaining artistic skills to make music, but when you get out of the academy, then what?" he said. "We're trying to fill the gap in the music education."
The school stepped in with a course to teach students how to put together a press kit and a demo compact disc and write grants. It also stepped in to teach them to negotiate contracts.
"One of the things musicians have to do in this day and age is develop modern 21st century patrons," Thomas said.
Many of the patrons with whom the students practice negotiating contracts hail from spacious homes just north of Tucson, Thomas said.
"I know there have been a lot of performances in homes in the Foothills,' he said. "Among other reasons, there are patrons and donors of the school of music there who host functions."
The modern-day camerata of Southern Arizona are upperclassmen and graduate students who have made it through the Camerata program's careers in music class. By the end of September, Thomas said about 20 ensembles should be on the roster as performers looking for venues.
"Not only is the music high quality but they also represent themselves very well in a professional way," Thomas said.
He added that the student musicians often are able to work with people who have definite ideas about the music they want, right up to the specific pieces.
"Some people want light jazz in the background, some want a harpist or guitarist playing soft classical music as a light accompaniment to the evening, and some want to make it more the focus," he said. "There really is a wide range of music represented."
The financial arrangement is up to the students and their clients.
"We train the musicians to negotiate on behalf of their ensembles," Thomas said. "It's important to stress that we don't ask students to go out and play for free. They are busy students, and they're learning how to do this as a career."
If the music group composition that a potential patron is looking for is not available on the Camerata roster, Thomas said he sometimes can find that group regardless.
Recently, a couple called looking for an Indian drum player for a wedding reception that was set to take place in two weeks. Thomas pulled from his resources and filled the request.
"I also utilize the contacts with former students and current students to work with people," he said. "I always try to work with everyone as much as possible."
He added, though, that it's best to call to book a group as soon as you know an event is going to take place.
Camerata offers an unusual service, Thomas said, by giving people one number to call to be connected with a wide range of music possibilities and also with someone who will spend time discussing what kind of group might work best in a particular space.
"We're impacting the community in a positive way to be able to conveniently put people in touch with the musical ensembles that will fulfill their needs," he said.
The Camerata participants do more than just home recitals. They also take their music into other parts of the community through school outreach, residencies in schools, and public performances at larger events.
Wherever they perform, they give people the opportunity to nurture the arts of young musicians, Thomas said.
"It's a good deal, and you're helping out," he said. "I suppose another benefit is that the students gain valuable experience. Often people like to see students who are learning and be around that excitement. There's a real energy these students bring to the table, by and large."