Book club: String quartets rehearse so much more than other ensembles

From our moderator, Anthea Kreston:

The Fortnightly Music Book Club is taking a close look at Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, a book about the fictional Maggiore string quartet, told through the eyes of the second violinist. This week we are fortunate to have Sibbi Bernhardsson (pictured), a member of the venerated Pacifica Quartet for 17 years, and now Professor of Violin at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music (from which he graduated), answering reader questions.

The writing in An Equal Music is deeply personal, poetic, and the themes weave between lost/gained love, the struggle for musical fulfillment, and the complex lives of a successful touring string quartet. Questions can be left below in comments, or sent to

Reader Question:
“Quartet rehearsals, in An Equal Music, seem to be part stream-of-conscious, detailed work, and complex inter-personal dynamics. And the goals seem to be elusive as well. Can you talk about what it is like to rehearse in a quartet – the challenges, the goals, and the triumphs? How rehearsal technique relates to your relationships outside of quartet?” (Passage from page 17 quoted below)

An Equal Music:
“Cope, Helen,” says Piers. “Brahms is your baby.”
Helen sighs. “Say something nice, Billy.”
But Billy is now concentrating on a little yellow score that he has brought along.
“My deodorant experiment isn’t a success,” says Helen suddenly, raising one creamy arm.
“We‘d better get on with it or we’ll never get through it,” says Billy.
Finally, after an hour and a half we arrive at the second movement. It is dark outside, and we are exhausted, as much with one another‘s temperaments as with the music. By ours is an odd quadripartite marriage with six relationships, any of which, at any given time, could be cordial or neutral or strained.“

Sibbi Bernhardsson:
It was funny and interesting to me to read the description of a rehearsal in the Maggiore quartet. Quartets have to rehearse so much more than any other ensembles because you have four committed and convinced musical brains that have to become one. Furthermore, a quartet has to be unified in every aspect of an interpretation of a
piece. There is something about it being four individuals as supposed to three or five that makes things in many ways more perfect but also more complicated.

Since most professional quartets chose to play with each other and looked hard for each other, there is a strong musical and personal chemistry, respect and understanding between the members of a quartet. I think most times agreeing on a concept of a piece or even a specific passage is not often an issue, it can be, but mostly not. Most of the rehearsing is spent finding ways to bring these concepts and moods to life. How to play them together and what kind of sound, texture, balance, tempo etc. to use for it all to work. Since one cannot compromise in order to make a ‘deal’ every idea has to be tried with great integrity in order to reach a consensus. That is always the goal. You cannot compromise the music ever.

Reading how words were flying between the members of the Maggiore quartet and how various random comments were made unrelated to the music was in certain ways realistic to how rehearsals go. I played with a quartet for 17 years. We rehearsed a lot. My first few years in the quartet we rehearsed 6-7 hours a day and then my last few years we rehearsed every day for 4 hours.

A lingo and way of speaking developed and also there was so much context to every comment and suggestion that was made. The intensity was great because there was always a concert around the corner and everyone cared so deeply about the music. For someone then to suddenly bringing up for a brief moment current affairs or a funny remark or a casual observation was not uncommon.It was often a welcome break from the work being done, and I think healthy and natural. But then the rehearsal always carried on as if nothing had been said.

I always enjoyed the quartet rehearsal process. The literature is so remarkable and there is something so musically pure about delving into these master pieces and trying to find a meaning to all the notes, articulations and dynamics. The music making that a professional quartet achieves is so intimate, sensitive and personal due to the remarkable commitment and hours the members spend together and rehearse.


Reader Question:
“The relationship between student and teacher seems to be very complicated in An Equal Music. It has a code of honor, a unique closeness, the possibility of harming one another, and hopes and dreams – different for both student and teacher. And it evolves over time, a relationship that continues (with or without contact) for the duration of both people’s lives. Can you address this from your own perspective?”

Sibbi Bernhardsson:
The relationship between student and teacher in An Equal Music is very complicated, but in my view that relationship should never be complicated. I am grateful and feel very fortunate to have always had
a great relationship with my teachers and maintain a close relationship with all my former teachers. It is a complete partnership. It is to the teachers benefit that a student improves, thrives and blossoms. But in order for that to happen a student has to be committed, hard working and completely open to ideas and suggestions. A student puts so much trust into the relationship with their teacher. Students are willing to move halfway across the globe to study with a specific teacher and the weekly lessons is typically for the serious music student the absolute most important event of the week. A good lesson can make for a great week and a very bad lesson can make for a pretty sad week.

I was lucky that all my teachers made it clear to me, and this is a value I use in my own teaching, that they accepted me because they liked me not only as a musician but as a human being. Because that was clear they could then go ahead and tell me anything and I never considered it to be a personal attack since the comments in the
lessons were only about music and technique.

This is a value I find critical in a healthy and productive relationship between a teacher and student. The student thirsts for information and wants all weaknesses to be addressed and look for solutions to turn these weaknesses into strengths. A teachers job is to help their student reach their full potential. That has to be the ultimate goal. What that full potential is varies of course greatly from student to student.

A student and teacher relationship is a unique one. My teachers were such powerful mentors and influences on me that I don’t think a day goes by or that I ever teach a lesson without thinking of them and/or quoting them. I assume that the relationship between a coach and an athlete can be similar, however, since music is at the center of the relationship with it’s full range of human emotions it is also a deeply personal, vulnerable but really in most cases a wonderful and a lifelong relationship.

Thank you, Sibbi Bernhardsson, for taking the time from your busy schedule to speak with us.

Next episode we will be hearing from a member of the quartet which was studied by Vikram Seth during the writing of the book. Have a great week, and see you in a Fortnight!

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  • Can one speculate that the deodorant experiments were continued and finally crowned with success? And what, exactly, is a “creamy arm”– does it involve the application of a sunblocker or dairy product?

  • My understanding is that Seth spent months shadowing the Artis Quartet of Vienna for his book. I see this long-established group is coming up to a 40th birthday celebration soon but haven’t appeared that much in London recently. Pity.

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