How the heck does a string quartet survive?

How the heck does a string quartet survive?


norman lebrecht

December 14, 2017

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.


  • Ungeheuer says:

    Not to mention the spectre of ever declining interest these chamber ensembles face. What to do?!

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    “Honesty without tact is cruelty.”
    So true, in all disciplines.
    Thank you!

  • Scotty says:

    “Being in a string quartet is like being married but without the benefits.” Robert Mann (I think).

  • Rich Kleinfeldt says:

    We are servants to the music. (John Browning)
    That’s why you stay together.

  • qwerty1234 says:

    “Honesty without tact is cruelty.”

    Wow! That’s a keeper!

  • Tony Finley says:

    The best Quartet is like a happy engaged couple before the wedding – full of anticipation, excitement and passion: beyond that there is an uncertain future …. (me, now).

  • Marg says:

    It seems to me harnessing the passion creatively is critical – thats where the honest/tact comes in for example. Knowing when to stand firm and when to give on an issue. A fine balance. As always, your blog is food for thought for areas of life beyond music.

  • Bruce says:

    I love how you always have such great advice in your “How To Be A Musician*” columns.

    *(how to prepare, how to practice, how to rehearse, how to be a good colleague, etc.)

    You should compile them into a book.