Playing in a string quartet – more like playmobile than Jenga?

Playing in a string quartet – more like playmobile than Jenga?


norman lebrecht

September 02, 2016

Anthea Kreston of the Artemis Quartet, our weekly diarist, is left wondering what fits where.

dusinberre book



In the mail this week was the book “Beethoven for a Later Age, The Journey of a String Quartet”, the book by the first violinist of the Takács Quartet – sent my my father-in-law.  As I read it, the contrast between my path and Dusinberre diverges. As with most quartets, the Takacs chose a new member who was quite a bit younger than themselves – around 20 years younger. Part of the idea is that the person is fresh, easily moulded and not jaded.  Perhaps another is that they are not tied down by family, financial worries or obligation.  Another thought is of the energy level and longevity of the group.

In my case, I was surprised that the Artemis contacted me for an audition – I would be the second oldest member of this quartet – with a family to take care of (read: exhausted and distracted), and with (probably) lots of music ideas which were staid and inflexible. But – as I have mentioned before – this quartet is open-minded. Many of the other applicants did fit the mould mentioned above, but they still wanted to see what I was all about. After the audition, they said “there were a handful of men, younger than you by many years, who didn’t even come close to your energy level and flexibility – you clearly are a natural learner and have energy to spare”.  I do have a never-ending supply of energy (sometimes to a fault), and in this case it worked to my advantage.

So – to Playmobile. I think, at 23 years old, entering a string quartet is like playing Playmobile. You can be any character, have a full scenery set-up or have nothing but yourself, and the game is complete. When you are 23 and in a quartet, it is just about you, and the world around you can and will shift dramatically as you grown older. I knew I would not have this kind of flexibility when I moved to Berlin. I would be moving with an extended structure – each piece of the game set and related to one another.

I thought it would perhaps be like Legos – the variety of pieces like Playmobile, but with a more solid set-up – pieces can lock together and form a foundation. A base can be built, and if something goes wrong with any of the 4 main characters (my immediate family) and their part of the structure falls, the base remains, and always grows stronger and taller together, easy to rebuild. There is less free-play than Playmobile – less fantasy – but the pay-off is a solid building.

But – this analogy is not the case. Our lives here are much more similar to Jenga.  We try to build a solid square structure (financial, educational, home-life, nutrition, reliable/inflexible schedule, 4 different but co-existing paths), only to take turns taking away a brick here, a brick there, and when the structure crumbles, no solid base remains. Constant rebuilding from square one. Start again. Rebuild with confidence. Come back each time with renewed optimism.




The pieces of Jenga are all identical. There is no fantasy besides what you put into it. All perfectly uniform beige wooden blocks, stacked into a tall tower. Each member then takes turns removing a piece, trying not to make the tower crumble. Each piece is precariously balanced on the other, and a complex web of interrelated gravity-influenced pieces try to stay together. This is what it is like here. No puzzle piece is more or less important than the other. My concert in Vienna is equal to our daughter’s contents of her lunchbox that day. Jason’s ability to get in his daily minimum of 1.5 hours of practice is as important as whether our youngest had enough “jumping time” that day. When one person has a strong day, another person’s setback can destroy the entire day. Rebuild every night. Our oldest daughter loves school, but our younger daughter now misses her sister and feels weak and sad.

Maybe, in time, our Jenga game will be replaced by our Legos, and then, eventually, by Playmobile. We brought all of these games with us to Germany, but for some reason, our favorite family game is a very loosely-structured Clue.  Go figure.