When a string quartet plays musical chairs

First published on Limelight Magazine, 16 March 2017

When a string quartet plays musical chairs


From the Coach’s Box

There is this notion that once you are a professional musician, you don’t need lessons any more, or that one reaches a certain point and everything becomes clear, like obtaining some guru, oracle status. If only that were true. To be honest, the more I learn, the more daunted I become about how much I don’t know.

I remember Bill Hennessy (one of the quartet’s first teachers) pointing out that the top tennis players have coaches so why not musicians? As the quartet has now settled in our new membership, we felt time for some new ears. But whose ears do we chose?

David Jones (the percussionist, not the department store) has been someone we have admired for years. It can be tricky listening or watching to performances at home (there’s always so many distractions!) but his DVD had me riveted. I was longing to know what he would make of Haydn or Beethoven so I suggested to the quartet that rather than a seasoned string player or chamber music specialist, we ask David Jones to help us understand the music we were playing in a different way. What actually happened was truly unexpected.

David came to one of our concerts and afterwards, instead of grabbing a drink and sharing a few laughs, we went back to the warm up room to get the low down from our “coach”. In recent years those who know me and my family will know that in order to have a conversation with my son, it’s certainly a bonus to be across AFL footy.  What has fascinated me the most, in my limited education, is the role and importance of the coach (and their coaching staff) in bringing a team together. Alastair Clarkson has been an absolute genius in making sure Hawthorn continues to grow and reinvent itself but it’s how he gets the players working together towards a common goal (pun intended) and trusting each other that is outstanding. Could David be our Alastair Clarkson?

Rather than give a musician’s analysis of our interpretations, he began by asking us questions like: “What does this music mean to you?”; “Where are you on your journey?”; and “When was the last time you felt comfortable on stage?” These didn’t induce one word answers and we found ourselves in an unexpected therapy session. It was a crucial conversation that we had no idea we needed. What the quartet said will remain inside those four walls, but what emerged was a much deeper understanding of our motivation behind our music making and, from that point, the four of us took a great leap together and began to improvise.

It would have been easy for us to feel self conscious but after dipping our toes in the surprisingly warm sounds, David gently guided us in a musical “choose your own adventure.”

After the newly minted piece reached its natural conclusion, there was an amazed silence.

Music can be just so much fun.

The Middle Men

Imagine if once you had bought that magnificent piece of art, you discovered it didn’t suit the carpet or the couch and it clashed with the drapes, so you asked the artist to reconsider their artistic vision. It’s unthinkable and yet, many composers have been asked to do just that.

Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison. Can one compare live music to visual art? The composer gives their work of art over to the performer to interpret the dots on the page into sound and then the audience interprets the musician’s performance. Performers are, in effect, the middle men.

Visual art has no middle man. There is simply the art and the audience. On any given day, you may view the same painting differently and I believe that is the sign of a great work of art. On any given day, a performer will play a piece of music differently and the great pieces of music lend themselves to that too.

The responsibility of the musician to the music (and I say music, not composer, purposefully) is a heavy one, but not as heavy as the responsibility of the musician to the audience. The only way someone can get in the way of you totally absorbing a piece of visual art is to quite literally get in the way. Musicians are quite capable of getting in the way of an audience absorbing a piece of music.

It goes without saying that it is much easier being a middle man to a living composer. In working with Stuart Greenbaum on his latest string quartet, it highlights Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn’s absence from the rehearsal room.

I wonder if musicians playing Stuart’s sixth quartet in the future will look at our markings on the page and wonder what on earth they all mean. One benefit is the age of recording; future generations will be able to hear our premieres with great ease. But will that help?

One famous story I love is of the recording of the sonata for cello and piano by Shostakovich. Dimitry Shostakovich himself and the great Mstislav Rostropovich recorded it together and, like many cellists, I used it as a benchmark recording when learning the piece. I later learned through memoirs by Rostropovich that he considered the tempo of the last movement to be too fast. He remembered that it was a nice day and Shostakovich was going to visit friends in the country. He wanted to be finished so he could get outside into the sunshine.

Music and language: the experience of learning the complete string quartets by Sibelius

The connection between music and language is a well worn cliché, but in preparing the complete string quartets of Sibelius it has become even more evident just how closely the experience of “speaking” music and speaking a language are similar.

As musicians, we are constantly walking a tightrope between what one believes to be the composer’s intentions and our own interpretation of those intentions. The reason we enjoy listening to the same piece played again and again by different performers is that everyone finds their own voice through the composer’s markings on the page.

The experience of learning a new piece or discovering a new composer is like learning a new language. When I lived in Paris for a short time as a student, I was incredibly lonely. Not because I didn’t have anyone to talk to, but because I couldn’t express myself the way I would normally. I had the words, but I couldn’t let them flow freely enough and without conscious effort to say how I really felt.

Once one is fluent in a language, emotion is able to be understood.

The same goes for music. Once one is fluent in the language of Beethoven, Brahms, Shostakovich, Hadyn, Mozart, Kats-Chernin or Sculthorpe, it is easier to find a personal voice and still stay true to the composer. Continuing this analogy further, there are many accents within the same language – the slight difference in accent between Adelaide and Melbourne doesn’t preclude us from communicating.

Once one is fluent in the language of a composer, emotion is able to be understood.

In learning and performing all the string quartets plus the smaller pieces by Sibelius, it has been an intensive course in his language. We are beginning to become fluent in the language of Sibelius and our own voice is emerging. Whether or not our musical and emotional intentions are understood remains to be heard. If you’ll forgive me using an even more wearied cliché – it does prove the universality of music. The quartet won’t have a hope of becoming fluent in Finnish before we travel to Finland, but I think we have a good chance of becoming fluent in Sibelius, and that’s probably the next best thing.

Will piano lessons scar my child for life?

I recently started my 5-year-old son on piano lessons. When I told a friend that he was going to do piano until he was 12, she said, “Really? Whether he likes it or not?” My answer was, “Yes – whether he likes it or not, he is learning piano until age 12.”

It is an expected response from a professional musician, but then again, plenty of professional musicians wouldn’t put their children through the torment of that pursuit of perfection on their offspring.

My own memories of learning music as a child were euphoric. My parents never forced me to practise, and while I didn’t do absurd hours every day, I really loved making sounds and creating music on the piano and the cello. I often say that my biggest regret is giving up piano at age 12. I have never met anyone who has said, “Thank goodness I gave up the piano, it was a complete waste of time.”

I was lucky. All my instrumental teachers were engaging and I loved spending time with them. I loved learning this new language. All too often when people tell me that they gave up an instrument it was because the teacher was horrifying, they were rapped over the knuckles, or they had to play the same piece for 6 months in order to pass an exam; and in the end they couldn’t see the point.

Music gives one the ability to talk without words, and that’s probably the whole point. How many studies and articles have we read about the benefits of learning a musical instrument on a child’s brain development and their acquisition of knowledge and skills? I haven’t read one to the contrary, yet music lessons are still seen as something extra, an added bonus for those with money. I passionately disagree! Music is as important as maths, English, history or geography, and very bit as important as art or sport.

Art and sport are so easy to incorporate into a child’s daily routine and parents will do it without even trying: kicking the footy on the oval, throwing a ball, even a simple running race or climbing in the playground. All you have to do to encourage a kid to draw is to give them a scrap bit of paper and some pencils and let their imagination go wild. The wonderful thing is that we never tell a child they are wrong when they show us an unrecognisable drawing of a spaceship with three aliens. So how can we do the same with music?

Recently I saw a fantastic busker in Sydney captivating an audience on some upturned buckets with scintillating rhythm and it got me thinking: music doesn’t have to be about major and minor scales and playing Twinkle Twinkle perfectly. Just give kids some buckets and sticks and they can let their imagination do the rest. The important thing is that music is made a part of every day.

I have heard so many stories form colleagues about the incentives they were given as kids to practise. One was even rewarded with days off school (much to the annoyance of the classroom teachers!). In so many non-western cultures, music forms part of every day. Every single person participates and it is simply a part of their life.

Have a look at this video from Victor Wooten. Hopefully it inspires you to make some music – even if it’s on an upturned saucepan with a wooden spoon.

Funny Concert Anecdote #2

These stories are as told to us by members of the Elias Quartet – a fantastic group that we met at the London String Quartet Competition in 2003. They have since toured Australia twice and we have had many a great night with them!

Based in London, the Elias Quartet now have a heavy international touring schedule, with the resources and management to help them keep on track but when they were starting out, there were many instances where they had to hot foot it all over the UK playing for the many concert societies over the country to make ends meet. The routine was pretty simple: dash to the train station in the morning after having returned home from a concert late the night before, and collapse on the train for some catch up sleep before the next performance.

One particular day, they were all extremely exhausted and all four dashed onto the train and all fell asleep. When they all wok two hours later they had a horrid surprise: they had travelled two hours in the wrong direction. Once they recovered from the initial shock and realised that the town signs and announcements were indeed correct, they hailed a taxi and talked the driver into taking them the whole way to their concert destination – a four hour taxi ride.

Watching the taxi meter go up, any thoughts of a profit from the evening quickly evaporated and they spent their entire fee on just getting to the concert.

Once they arrived at the hall, they only had time to dash backstage and upstairs to the stage so the concert could start on time. They did the first half in their civilian clothes, changing to their performing clothes at interval, much to the amusement of the audience!

On another occasion, the second violinist Don discovered that he had left his music, his stand and his concert clothes at home. Luckily he had his violin so with some quick thinking, the quartet managed to adjust some of Martin’s (the viola player) pants with sticky tape and staples (Don is a good 40cm shorter than Martin) and they fashioned some music with a cut and paste job from a score of the music one of them had in a bag. Then they found someone who had a spare music stand (it was one of those multi coloured ones used to entice children to practise).

So Don walked on stage, feeling like the entertainment at a kids party and doing his best to wrestle with a score that was stuck to cardboard and almost as big as he was, while holding up is pants and trying to look like the consummate professional. Luckily Don is a first rate actor!