Three international string quartets announced changes of personnel this week, always a massive disruption in any tight-knit group.
It so happens that our diarist Anthea Kreston, violinist in a celebrated Berlin-based quartet has been furrowing her brow over these very issues as the winter break approaches. Here are her hard-earned survival tips:
How does one flourish in a string quartet? The obstacles are numerous – there are so many different levels of quartets, and each face innumerable stresses – from technical to financial to personal. When a group is very successful (as mine is), the pressure of stepping onto a stage at the top of our abilities, despite the rigors of the road and a bundle of repertoire that stresses even the strongest of arms, is great and never abates. But at the base of it all is the ability of four stubborn and opinionated people to come to agreements while maintaining cordiality.
The first step is to try to be as flexible as possible with both your technique and opinions. No one gets into a professional quartet without years of training, during which time your personality and opinions become more and more distinct and individual. Then, next step – try to play with three other people who have just as deep a feeling as you do about every detail – from the shape of your right-hand pinky to how audible your breath is. Not to mention the accent continuum and your deep thoughts of every composer and style of playing. Can of worms is the understatement of the century. Maybe vat of scorpions is more like it.
So – first – some quotes by former teachers, colleagues and friends that help keep it all in perspective. These are always cycling in my head.
1 – “In classical music, the slow notes are the melody” (truism)
2 – “Any bowing can sound like Shit” (anonymous- this by a curmudgeonly coach from a famous quartet after a protracted conversation on the merits of a particular up and down bow)
3 – “Those aren’t the 4 notes I am worried about being out of tune!” (Ida Kavafian – after one of those endless “let’s check our g and c string” sessions)
4 – “Honesty without tact is cruelty” (Nina Lee, Brentano Quartet)
5 – “Don’t lead, don’t follow, play with” (David Soyer, Guarneri Quartet)
And now some basic “how-to” advice. Before you say something, take a moment and double check this basic list. Is what you are about to say:
1 – the truth or an opinion
2 – necessary
3 – kind
Take a deep breath. Nothing is as important as it seems to you right at that heated moment.