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Caeli Smith

An Interview with Time for Three

July 12, 2007 at 7:48 AM


PHILADELPHIA--I first got to know the trio Time For Three in 2004 when I worked with them during the filming of the documentary Rittenhouse Square (2005). Violinists Nick Kendall,28, and Zach dePue, 27, and double bassist Ranaan Meyer, 29, have been together since their student days at the Curtis Institute, and in the past few years they've been making a huge splash in on the music scene, drawing classical music lovers to their high-spirited arrangements and drawing wider audiences to classical music. Not only are they fabulous musicians who work magically together in a group, they are also the heartthrobs of many teenage girl musicians throughout the country! Their music is often described as "bluegrass crossover", but it's much more than that. Their arrangements, improvisations, and original compositions include works from classical, traditional, and popular traditions.

We had scheduled an interview this afternoon at Ranaan's house in Philadelphia's beautiful Art Museum area, but a sudden summer thunderstorm had them stuck in traffic on I-95 and me stuck at home with a tree fallen across my driveway. So our interview took place as a four-way cell phone conference call!

Caeli: People always comment on the name "Time For Three". Whose idea was it?

Ranann: Zach came up with the name, at first as a joke: "It’s time for three!" It was a time when we were all working hard on our own careers—Nick and Zach doing solo repertoire and me studying to become an orchestral bass player. We were being lighthearted and funny.

Caeli: But the name also reveals your serious purpose.

Ranaan: When I was a student at Manhattan School of Music I had a jazz trio—piano, drums and bass—that we called "3.1". It was really on the cutting edge, musically. The idea was "three musicians coming together for one purpose". Nick, Zach, and I had the same thought about our own group.

Nick: Not long ago, when we were working on our website we talked to some professionals about the idea of branding—do you know what that is?

Caeli: Branding? Not really…

Nick: It's a marketing idea in which the customer sees a word or phrase and in a split second understands the essence of what a product is. You know, if you see the word "Coke" you instantly think of Coke! The people working on our website said, "Time For Three??? What does that mean? You should think of a different name! And we thought about it seriously. But then people screamed at us, "You can't change the name!" So we kept it.

Caeli: I recently interviewed Zach, so we already know all about his early life and musical upbringing. But what about Nick and Ranaan? How did you guys get started in the musical life? Did you come from musical families?

Nick: My mom isn't a musician, but my family on my father's side has plenty of professional players and teachers. My paternal grandfather, John Kendall, brought the Suzuki method from Japan to America in the early 60's. My sister, Yumi, who's 23, is the assistant principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Our cousin, Daniel Foster, is the principal violist of the National Symphony Orchestra where his father, William Forster, another Suzuki pedagogue, has played in the viola section for year; my uncle, Christopher Kendall is the Dean of the School of Music at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Caeli: It's no surprise that you became a violinist.

Nick: Everyone in the family plays, either for fun and or as a main focus in their career. As for me, I started playing when I was three and began formal lessons at three-and-a-half. I grew up in DC (Silver Springs, Maryland, to be precise) and for years I studied with an amazing teacher, Ronda Cole, who is an internationally famous Suzuki pedagogue. I credit Ms. Cole for evoking a lot of the energy and creative spirit that I bring to my playing. When I was in 9th grade I was introduced to Mr. Danchenko, who would eventually become my teacher at Curtis. I commuted every Friday to Baltimore for lessons with him, and studied with him at ENCORE for six or seven summers.

Caeli: So, from the very beginning you knew you would become a professional?

Nick: Well, I've always loved playing, but I didn’t love working.

Caeli: (laughing) Who does?

Nick: My parents never pushed me to become professional. Maybe because, with so many pro musicians in the family, they understood how difficult the life can be. But my mom, being Asian, pushed me along enough so that music would enhance my life. Then, when I was fourteen I won the National Symphony Orchestra Competition and got to perform with the orchestra at the Kennedy Center, and I realized what could happen if I applied myself. So I started working harder!

Ranaan: As for me, I grew up in New Jersey—Sicklerville, and later Washington Township. I started on piano when I was four with my mom Norma Meyer, a who's a great pianist. I learned to play nursery rhymes and basic stuff, but I never practiced. I would improvise at the piano. I loved playing Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel tunes.

Caeli: When did you start playing the bass? I've never seen a little kid playing bass!

Ranaan: I took up cello for a few months when I was nine, but then I quit. I used to quit a lot of things back then—I quit piano four times, and I also quit a lot of sports! But my mom always insisted that I play one instrument, so when I was eleven I noticed that a cool kid at my school named Luke played bass. He got all the chicks, and I wanted all the chicks, so…

Caeli: But you didn't quit bass.

Ranaan: Oh, I wanted to quit bass, but my mom wouldn't let me. Then, when I was fifteen, I was introduced to jazz and I fell in love with music—I was infatuated. Then I learned that to be a good jazz player I needed to be a good classical player, so that's how I fell in love with classical music.

Long story short, I got into Manhattan School of Music after high school and spent two-and-a-half years there before I auditioned for Curtis, where I studied with Hal Robinson from 1999 to 2003, with the goal of becoming an orchestral bass player. While I was at MSM, I was always gigging and doing other genres, mostly jazz and rock, from the time I was fifteen. I used to think, gosh, it would be nice to have a classical gig or two. But until I was nineteen, I didn't get to play much classical music professionally. Then I met up with Nick and Zach and everything that I'd been doing for years—improvising, classical, arranging—I could do in this one group…and even more than that. I figured this was the correct path.

Caeli: Did any of you have formal training in improvisation?

Ranaan: Improv made me fall in love with music. I was lucky enough to study with masters of jazz like Rufus Reid, master of jazz bass. His discography is huge. In the summers during high school I studied with legendary bass player Todd Coolman at the Skidmore Jazz institute in Sarasota Springs, NY., and with Milt Hinton one of the most famous jazz bass players of all time. He worked with all of the greats—Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington.

Zach: I didn't have formal instruction in improv, but growing up I spent time in the fiddle/bluegrass world jamming with musicians and, of course, my brothers.

Nick: Because I began studying violin with the Suzuki method, I learned how to play first by ear, which has been a tremendous help with improvisation. As a teenager I taught myself to drum with a set of trash cans because my parents didn't want real drums in the house. I used to play the trash can drums on the street, making money with my friends. And I was with a hip hop band when I was younger. When I was in 8th grade my youth orchestra had a chance to go to Spain, which was my first experience seeing gypsies play. They really inspired me! They have no formal training, their instruments look like crap, and yet they produce this sound and energy that's amazing!

Caeli: When did you guys realize that Time For Three was a serious commitment?

Nick: Well, at the beginning it was really just for fun. Literally, Zach and I had been playing together with his brothers in the streets at music festivals. Later, Zach, Ranaan and I played a jam session in Reading, Pennsylvania, where the Curtis orchestra had traveled to play a concert. We three got together in an open space and just jammed. We never thought much about it; we just played together when everyone else was warming up. But then people started getting wind of what we were doing. Board members of Curtis would think, "It would be fun to have those boys come and play at our party." In the beginning, we never rehearsed; we played when we gigged. Then we got called once before school let out and offered an opportunity to play at the Corcoran in DC. $150 a man. Plus a limo ride to Washington, hotel, and all we want to eat! We thought, well gosh, that sounds like fun. So we did it. In fact, we thought up our name on the limo ride down there.

Caeli: So you were hooked?

Nick: We realized how easy it was to be ourselves when we played together. We could let our own personalities emerge. And the audiences went wild.

But even after a couple years, we didn't take Time For Three that seriously. The trio was just a way for us to make a little cash; we hadn't put too much thought into the idea of making it a "career thing", which is completely different from our attitude towards it now.

Caeli: I've always wondered: do you get criticized by traditional bluegrass players for being classical musicians acting as sort of dilettantes in their genre?

Zach: Not to our faces!

All: (Laughter)

Ranaan: We just got another great review from our concert at the Newport Music Festival last night. We feel like we're blessed!

Zach: One interview after the next, the journalists ask us what styles we play. But it's hard to answer since we're open to all styles and are affected by all styles.

Ranaan: If it's something that feels good, we try it; if it works, we share it with our audiences.

Nick: We played the Rockport Chamber Music Festival a few weeks ago, and at intermission one guy got up and in a huff and stormed outside. We didn't notice, but later we were told he was saying, "This is outlandish! It's not Mozart or Brahms!"

Ranaan: People told us about it later because they thought it was hilarious. The three of us don't worry about negative criticism; we just laugh about it.

Zach: Any time you break tradition, some people will be shaken by it. Change is hard.


Caeli: Speaking of music festivals, where are you playing in the near future?

Nick: Wabash, Indiana. The Grand Teton Festival. The Utah Sympony. The Chatauqua Festival, the Ocean City Pops.

Zach: We played 130 dates across the country this year.

Nick: In 31 states. So it's hard to keep track. But there's a list of upcoming dates on our website.

Zach: Next January we'll be premiering a new concerto by composer Jennifer Higdon with Philadelphia Orchestra.

Ranaan: And this summer we're spending a lot of time away from the road, writing and working together. We're thirsty for new creative outlets.

Caeli: Can you give us a little hint about what new material you're working on?

Ranaan: We just completed new arrangement of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah".

Nick: It's a song that's been covered by Jeff Buckley, kd lang.

Caeli: Rufus Wainwright sings it in Shrek!

Nick: That's the one!

Caeli: How do you manage rehearsing while you're on the road?

Nick: When we travel, we're in a different city every day, and we get there mostly by car. We can't do too much rehearsing, not much more than 45 minutes a day, because the schedule we keep is so rigorous. That's why this summer is dedicated to rekindling creative energy.

Caeli: Will it be difficult with Zach moving to Indiana?

Nick: Crafting a schedule is a carefully coordinated effort. Some rehearsal will be in Indiana, some in Philly, where Zach still keeps a home.

Ranaan: It will be very moveable. We'll be creative and we'll make it work.

Caeli: Speaking of making it work: you guys spend an awful lot of time together, and in close quarters—traveling in a car. You're in a car right now, in fact. Do you ever get on one another's nerves?

Nick (to Ranaan): Shut up dude!

Ranaan: Why are you being so dominant in this interview, Nick?!

Zach: Guys! Don't fight!

Nick: The three of us are so close, we're brothers. Being on the road isn't reality, really. It's an artificial world. It's hard to be around anybody that much. Sometimes we argue or disagree, and need to get away from each other. But at the end of the day we know that this is how a team works.

Zach: Knowing how to work together and grow together—that's the most important thing we do.

Me, at age 11, working with Time For Three on the documentary Rittenhouse Square.

My quartet, Seraphina, opened for Time For Three at a fundraiser this winter.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on July 12, 2007 at 8:00 AM
Change it to t43. Seriously hip but enough like br-549 to be country too.
From Caeli Smith
Posted on July 12, 2007 at 8:08 AM
Actually on their website their logo is tf3, with the f looking like an f-hole!
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on July 12, 2007 at 9:53 AM
Allow me to be blunt. The problem is girls can't go around wearing t-shirts that say "time for three" on them, for a couple of reasons. Now, picture this shirt. White lettering on black. t43 in a big circle. Some kind of cryllic or old data style font. Some kind of big spooky Soviet building in the background and a few lightning bolts flying around. Now there's a shirt. Make the circle look vaguely like a coil of rope to attract the country fans too.
From Sarah Montoro
Posted on July 12, 2007 at 3:40 PM
you are weird jim..; >
love the interview Caeli!
From Albert Justice
Posted on July 12, 2007 at 5:19 PM
They rock! Now 'there' is varying rhythms.
From Albert Justice
Posted on July 12, 2007 at 5:58 PM
Sheesh--I'm having fun listening to this...
From Laurie Niles
Posted on July 12, 2007 at 6:30 PM
Really nice article, Caeli!
From Ruth Kuefler
Posted on July 12, 2007 at 8:28 PM
I really enjoyed this interview, especially the music clip - that's great! I just downloaded one of Time for Three's albums off iTunes and am listening as we speak. :)
From Karin Lin
Posted on July 12, 2007 at 8:34 PM
I love that pic from the documentary...even though your back is to the camera, you look so little and cute!
Great interview as always. I love those guys.
From Albert Justice
Posted on July 13, 2007 at 5:10 AM
Just wanted to say thanks again for sharing the clip Caeli--even as a musician every time I listen I start grinning and tapping my foot--that's high praise from me! ;> God have mercy on Witch's Dance and Lully tonight.
From Elizabeth R
Posted on July 15, 2007 at 9:59 AM
I love Time for Three!!!
And Jim, they do have shirts that say tf3, silly. I wore mine the other day!!

Great interview cae, as usual. I agree with karin, you look sooo cute and little in that pic!

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