Not long ago, we had the privilege of playing for Mathieu Herzog, founding violist of the Quatuor Ébène and one of our great chamber music idols. When he found out that we had been playing together for just over a year, he smiled knowingly and said, “Ah, so you are still in paradise.”
We have heard dozens of similar comments before. As a quartet, we spent the summer at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival for six weeks and from there went directly to the McGill International String Quartet Academy for two more weeks. We spent almost every waking moment together, inside and outside of rehearsal - and we loved it. People who have made these tongue-in-cheek comments to us about our “newness,” mostly alluding to the fact that we have not yet grown to hate each other, are simply assuming (sometimes from personal experience) that our fondness for each other and our passion for what we do is due to our relative inexperience.
We are still in the “honeymoon period” of our string quartet relationship - still in love with each other and the music we are able to play and excited about what the future holds. Paradise.
However, the road to paradise is not an easy one. People say playing in a string quartet is a four-way marriage, and that is something I have found to be true. Relationships take a great deal of time and effort, and I know that each of us work hard every day at our relationship with each other and with the music that we play, always striving to find better ways to communicate with each other, and taking the time out of our own busy schedules to do so. It is certainly not always easy or fun, and we have our fair share of disagreements just like everyone else. Our quartet actually did not begin as four friends coming together to play music, but as four people who love chamber music more than anything in the world, who began playing together and became friends along the way. To me, this is the essence of who we are. Our friendship grew over time out of a mutual respect for each other and one common passion - string quartets - which has connected us in unexpected and deeply important ways, and now, just a year later, I cannot imagine my life without these three, who have come to be my greatest inspirations and my closest friends.
Although we are still a young quartet, we are at a crucial point in our life together.
Currently we are the Apprentice Quartet at the Cleveland Institute of Music, a position which provides us concert and outreach opportunities in the Cleveland area and allows us the extra time we need to rehearse (right now we are in the midst of several weeks of recording sessions as we are preparing for several competitions this year, and finding enough rehearsal and recording time can be a challenge). Each of us is working on a different degree program in school, but we have made arrangements so that we will all graduate in two years together, and we then plan on applying to quartet residencies at various schools around the United States, with the ultimate goal of a career as a professional string quartet. It is not an easy career path that we have chosen, and we are all too aware of the practical challenges we will face as we move forward - for example, for the majority of schools with a string quartet residency program, there is often only one spot for a student quartet, which may only open up every two years. String quartet playing is one of the most competitive and specialized fields within the already difficult field of classical music, and sometimes even when all the right elements are in place and the stars have aligned it can be close to impossible to make it professionally.
So how will we attempt to make it? From a practical point of view, we have done a great deal of planning. We have mapped out the next two years, in a general sense, and have a list of competitions, festivals, and schools that we hope to apply for. We have talked at various points over the year about our long-term goals as an ensemble to make sure we are all always on the same page. On a small scale, we plan out our rehearsals in great detail, compiling a composite schedule for our daily rehearsals and keeping in mind deadlines of recordings, the repertoire we need to learn, and any upcoming performances we need to prepare for. Even though we all know that the best-laid plans sometimes fail, there is never harm in developing a unified way to work toward our goals together.
Being practical about the realities of the planning, hard work, sacrifice, and commitment involved in becoming a professional string quartet is absolutely necessary, but being able to stand being around each other through this life together requires a much different process.
During the summer we had a few life-changing coaching sessions with some really incredible musicians. They were all, of course, extremely musically inspiring, but what shifted for us this summer was learning from them how to communicate most effectively and empathetically with each other.
For an art form that is built around the idea of connection, the actual work of cultivating that connection can be a surprisingly difficult thing to do. At the suggestion of one of our mentors, we all sat down together and talked about what makes us happy or lights us up, what brings us down, what enables us to perform at our best, and what we need from each other when we are at our worst. We talked about our strengths, what we each bring to the quartet, and what type of role each of us fills in the group. This kind of discussion requires a deep, sometimes uncomfortable vulnerability and trust, but when we are actively working to build these relationships with one another, it makes us better musicians onstage and brings us closer offstage. Our willingness to be so vulnerable with each other, even when it is difficult, is to me a sign of just how much we want this.
In many ways we may still be very much in paradise, enchanted by the idea of spending our lives doing what we love with the people that we love, with deep meaning and human connection at the center of what we do. This idea is naive, of course, because of the enormous amount of work that goes into doing what we want to do, but it is that very idea that we all fell in love with and that drew us to the magic of playing string quartets. Naive as it may be, it does not make our paradise any less real, nor does it invalidate the work we currently do, the challenges we will inevitably face, or the relationships we have built together. I have no idea what will happen for us in the future, but for now I am more than happy living in our string quartet paradise.