To my teacher when I was 16

From our diarist Anthea Kreston:

When my quartet played last season in Houston, I got in touch with a couple of my favorite old chamber music teachers who teach at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice – Norman Fischer from Tanglewood Quartet Program, and James Dunham of the Cleveland Quartet. There is something about chamber music, and that kind of deep, slow work, and the relationships you form with those teachers, which gives a foundation for a life-time friendship.

When I got to Houston, Norman folded me into a huge bear hug – it was as if we had just seen each other the day before. While deep and heavy into my preparation of the Bartok 4th string quartet this week, I was swarmed with memories of my 16-year-old self. We, the 12 high-school students at the Tanglewood Advanced Quartet Program, were selected by live auditions held in major cities in the States. 6 weeks, 3 groups, 2 works each. Amongst us would be, in the future, 3 Curtis alumna, several Juilliard grads, and members of the Avalon, Cassatt and Miro quartets. Norman was a caring and exacting teacher, and created in us all a never-ending love of the work and satisfaction of the string quartet.

Dear Norman,

Hope all is well! I have been spending a lot of time with Bartók 4 recently, getting ready for the next tours. I remember working with you on this at Tanglewood when I was 16 – those memories of the piece are so embedded in my fingers and brain. I know I was too young and immature to be able to play that piece then, but the work you did with us was so thoughtful, organic, and true – it is carrying over incredibly well right now. I did also play this on viola with the Avalon quartet, very intensely with Vermeer and some Cleveland guys, but it is always that first summer that comes back.

I was thinking about writing about this a bit, then I became more curious about your teaching approach and methods. How did you figure out how to teach a piece like this to a bunch of 16 year olds? What is your prep like? You had us singing combined rhythms. Things like this. I don’t even have to look at my part – I just sing along and play – it is quite amazing.

Do you have time this week or next to jot down some answers or ideas? I would love it!!!

All my best to you,
Anthea

Dear Anthea,

This is fun. In the summer of 1970, I was in a student string quartet program in San Francisco run at the Conservatory by the members of the Lenox Quartet. In my quartet was Andrew Jennings, violin 1, Sherry Kloss, violin 2 and Irene Breslaw, viola. We decided to learn Bartok 4, so I went down to the music store and bought two miniature scores (this is before photocopying was possible on chemically-untreated paper), figured out the page turns, cut them up and pasted onto art book paper. I still have the score I used. We learned most of the difficult rhythmic things by singing through first and working out the tricky parts. This was a technique that I learned from my cello teacher at Oberlin (Richard Kapuscinski) when he coached my quartet learning Milton Babbitt’s Second Quartet for a concert my freshman year in 1968 (in that quartet were members Ronald Copes, violin 1, Muriel Moebius, violin 2 and Nancy Ellis viola). Back in San Francisco, we rehearsed a lot more than the other quartets and I remember playing the performance at the Legion of Honor. In the front row was an elderly man who was intensely watching and listening as we played. When we finished the scurrying second movement, he shouted out a lusty, BRAVO! I nearly fell out of my chair. Afterwards we were introduced to Germain Prévost who had premiered the work as a member of the Pro Arte Quartet.

Skip ahead to Tanglewood and your quartet. I could tell that the four of you were a good match for each other and that you all had technical skill and imagination to boot. The Bartok 4 would be an ambitious but possible project. Remember that you were coached every day and that you played your work-in-progress for master classes three times a week for commentary by the other quartets. So there was a lot of attention. Of course, there was singing to work out the rhythm and ensemble issues. However, what I remember most was that when the second movement came up, I wouldn’t let you play it together unless you could sing it flawlessly from beginning to end. In order to keep the pulse, I had you walk in time and sing your parts off a score (as I remember it was 2 in front and 2 right behind, marching forward). After two day of this, the next morning you sat down and played from beginning to end without a problem. I almost burst into tears I was so proud of you!! By the performance it was really comfortable and you were just making music and not worried about anyone falling off the wagon.

At the core, one needs to know what every voice is doing in order to channel the entire score in performance. Combinatorial rhythms and feeling the full inner momentum of the phrase in its primal way is essential.

Hope this helps. Let me know if you have any other questions….

Sending my best to you all,
Norman

 

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    • Haha. Funny. Is this James Dunham? You have to ask Norman Fischer to sing it for you. I can make a little video. Maybe I can later today and send it to Norman and he can post it. Combined rhythm can’t be totally sung in the second, but the passing of accents can be, combined entrances, and some of the continuous melodies…..

    • Ugh I am so avoiding practicing today. Just got to my hotel in Dortmund. FaceTimed my family to postpone practicing. I did an hour, very boring stuff, but will go for a bit of a walk before rehearsal and concert…….

  • I love the idea of singing everything as a non-comic rehearsal practice, so audaciously enlightening and fun/funny! New motto: abandon deference and invite vocalizing, yes!

  • Like others I so enjoy your practice and performance tips, Anthea. I have experienced being tutored in a small group where we had to sing our parts to get a good handle on the rhythm first and I was surprised at how helpful it was.

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