An Italian economist breaks my fear of late Beethoven

From our Friday diarist, violinist Anthea Kreston:


I am being driven to the train from another glorious visit to the Queen Elizabeth Chapel in Brussels, where my quartet is the master chamber music teachers. Tonight, I am excited to have another opportunity to perform Beethoven Op. 130/133. 

To know that a late Beethoven is on the second half of a concert program makes one focus in a unique way. Concentration and energy must be precisely controlled throughout the concert (and during the rehearsal) to allow for the extreme demands of the work to come. Compounding this plan is the fact that this particular Beethoven has, as its final movement, the Grosse Fugue, perhaps the most dense and demanding work written for the string quartet. 

There are five movements before we reach the Fugue, each with their own specific technical and emotional demands. The first movement is a huge work itself – with interwoven 16th note passages and fragments of complex melodies which pass quickly between members. It is easy to make a mess of this movement – both for the musicians and the audience. Too much concern with the structure and details (which of course have to be controlled with the precision of laser surgery) mean that the danger of losing the audience, who we need with us for the next 50 minutes, is real and quite probable. Perhaps the same way as a surgeon has to equally balance her technique with her bedside manner. If trust with the audience is lost, regaining it is painstaking and often futile. My main goal here is to infuse the work with as much warmth as possible – the structure won’t speak to everyone, but the base emotions can.  

After these next concerts, I have, again, the opportunity to stand among three musicians who I respect and admire greatly, and to be welcomed by them into a world that they have taken thousands of hours to craft, to investigate.  I prepare my part of the puzzle, knowing that they have performed this piece countless times, on stages throughout the world, and have recorded and won the coveted Echo Award (the Grammy of Europe) for this particular piece. There is no place for me to hide – no way for me to enter at the level of knowledge, technical perfection, or emotionally be on the same wavelength as them. There is no way to win. I must be humble as well as confident. So here is the dilemma. 

As musicians, we face enormous pressure to be perfect. Technically, emotionally, even physically. But this pressure can, in fact, produce the opposite results. It can lead to injury, self-doubt, and a lack of sincerity.  It can tip the balance and make us start to care what others think more than what you, yourself, value. I get an extraordinary amount of input from all sides – not only from my colleagues, but from reviews, audience members, and business partners. How to balance this with my own incessant self-criticism can be crushing. 

So – what do I do? I create a series of locks – if one overflows, I have many other options on which to rely. I don’t step into that first rehearsal with one fingering option which has been drilled with a metronome. I have a handful of options – colors, fingerings, tempi, bowings. I read about the composer at that particular point in his life, the specific piece, the geopolitical climate during which it was written.  I utilize the 80/20 rule – also known as the “the law of the vital few” or the “Pareto Principal”, after the Italian economist who discovered it in 1896.  This is, actually, the way I have survived this past year in almost all ways. 

Vilfredo Pareto, an avid gardener, observed that 80% of his peas  grew from only 20% of his pea pods. He then threw his net wider, and, as an economist, discovered that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. This ratio is prevalent in business as well – 80% of income comes from 20% of clients, and this ratio exists through many natural and man-made situations. As a violinist, I was familiar with the method developed by my mother-in-law, which, I am sure, was discovered in a moment of sheer panic when she realized, as all mothers do, that we have about 10 times as much work that needs to be done, immediately, than we have the time for. 

Here is the method. Put your music on a stand as far away from you as you can – across the room.  Then extend your bow arm, with bow pointed towards the page. Locate the darkest part of the page, and walk towards it, aiming with your bow. When the bow strikes the page, this is the part you have to practice. And you probably have 2 minutes to do it, because I can already smell dinner burning.  

So – this is the way I prepare – as much without the violin as possible – on trains or planes, in bed late at night with a score or book. With the 80/20 method.  And, with a healthy dose of self-forgiveness and humor as I walk into that room, knowing that I am not here to replicate something that has happened before, but to respect, acknowledge, learn, and share.

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  • thank you Andrea. As always it enhances my understanding of music making, and how professionals approach a performance.

    • It’s “Anthea”.

      When playing in a small group like a quartet who makes the interpretive decisions (like the conductor of an orchestra)?

      • Hi Sue –
        Autocorrect hate she my name….
        Every group must find its own way – when quartets first began it was lead (almost without exception) by the first violinist (and many groups were named after the first violinist). Some retain more of that traditional hierarchy than others, but one thing I love about my quartet is that it is completely democratic. Everyone has equal say and leadership responsibilities.
        Thanks for reading! I am at intermission in Amsterdam now….., gearing up for the second half!

  • What an elegant essay, a combination of humility and urgency. One of a million people can do what you do, but from what you do you share advice we all can use. Thank you and continued success!

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