Bridging Four Decades and Five Octaves

August 10, 2018, 1:06 PM · What do a 28-year-old engineer, 43-year-old symphony executive director, 50-year-old climate change scientist, and 61-year-old HR consultant have in common? We play in the same flute quartet.

After our last rehearsal, which was so exhilarating it actually left me giddy, I found myself wondering: Would the four of us spend this amount of time together under any other circumstances if chamber music weren’t involved? Now don’t get me wrong. I like these folks. I mean, I really like them. But it’s been a long time since a man in his 20s willingly chose to spend an evening with me. And, for the most part, my friends don’t hold PhDs in environmental engineering. Nor do they negotiate orchestral concerts and manage a symphony between 9 and 5.

flute quartet
L-R: Melissa (viola), Rachel (flute), David (cello), Diana (violin).

And, yet, this disparate foursome has bonded over our mutual desire to play music at the highest level our collective abilities allow.

We all come from backgrounds that involved rigorous musical study from an early age. Our college degrees are all in the arts and music performance. Then, for a variety of reasons (financial necessity, health issues, family situations, basic disillusionment), we all moved into other careers. But when we sit in those four chairs with our instruments tuned and ready, we tap into a common language that allows us to communicate in a way that transcends the best dinner date or evening on the town — a language that is constrained by neither age nor profession.

The Language of Music

This language isn’t just about understanding that you don’t take the repeats in a "da capo" or the interpretation of a slash through a grace note’s stem. (Although I’m always relieved when I still remember the musical rules.) Rather, it’s about the gentle lift of the bow in a Mozart phrase, the subtle pause before the final cadence in Bach, the imperceptible breath after a fermata in Beethoven. The moments that make mere notes on a page turn into music.

As musicians, we’re trained to listen… whether that be to the tempo indicated in an upbeat or the heartbreak revealed in the smallest sigh. We’re trained to be open minded… whether that be in giving Schoenberg an honest try or listening to the views of one who brings forth an entirely different perspective. We’re trained to be precise…whether that be in the attention paid to a double dotted note or the focus given to a person speaking her mind. This may be the reason that in addition to wonderful music-making, we have incredible conversations.

Discussions Between the Notes

As we nourish our bodies with take-n-bake pizza and wine before we start to play, we share the day-to-day moments of our lives. The trials of juggling work and family responsibilities, the excitement of a new boyfriend who is a bonafide rocket scientist, the challenge of a 12-year-old daughter who wants to fly a drone, the complexities of a long-distance relationship, and (my current all-consuming issue) how to best see the music on the page: eyeglasses, contact lenses, readers, or some combination of the above.

To my great relief, we don’t talk politics. I’d be hard pressed to tell you the political leanings of anyone in the group. And we mostly steer clear of current events, with the exception of rather lively discussions about the latest news items posted on violinist.com. We tend to stick to topics closer to home — whatever we might be wrestling with at the time. And then we turn our attention to the music.

In a Class by Itself

The experience of playing in a small ensemble stands solidly within its own category of musical expression. At the beginning of 2018, I vowed to play more chamber music and it started with the formation of this flute quartet. Now I have a second outlet that complements my regular string quartet and stretches me even further. I've moved up to the first violin chair (scary), my regular first violinist is playing viola (a challenge she finds stimulating), we’re joined by a new cellist (a facile player who's rock solid), and we've added a flutist (a wonderful musician who’s as comfortable playing the first violin line as the flute line).

There is a freedom that comes when the musical expectations are set solely by each individual player. We are each personally working to become more proficient. Any judgement passed comes only from within one’s own self. As the weakest link, I can honestly say that I feel nothing but support from the other three chairs. We have tremendous respect for one another and truly appreciate the desire we share to keep music in our lives. And that’s not always easy.

I know how hard my quartet partners work. I know how early they get up for work, how many swim meets they attend each week with their kids, how much preparation went into the climate change presentation, how far they have to drive to be with a loved one, how bad traffic was on the parkway getting to my house to rehearse. And they know I’m dealing with the emotional aftermath of losing a beloved family member. If they know how much our time together has kept me afloat, they are kind enough not to say.

While it might be easier to simply spend an evening, at best, getting ready for the next day or, at worst, giving in to the pressures of daily life, we don’t. We get our instruments out and tune up. Because we know that when we do, we will feel a vital and inextricable connection to ourselves, to each other, and to that indescribable phenomenon we simply call music.

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Replies

August 11, 2018 at 01:51 AM · This is so inspiring and entertaining all at once! It makes me want to get a chamber group together in Rochester. Musician cameraderie is truly remarkable. Thanks for sharing a slice of what you get to experience each time you meet. ~Christina

August 11, 2018 at 06:07 PM · Diana, you bring such warmth and humanity to us through your descriptions of your musical life. You are sweet but not sentimental, lending a clear-eyed and pragmatic,yet poetic, perspective on what it really can mean to live a musical life. Thank you. Mark

August 11, 2018 at 08:04 PM · How marvelous! What music can do. I will never understand how it works. As a matter of fact I was just talking to a friend last night who is a wonderful guitarist and singer and has played for years in his own band. I mentioned how perplexing the power of music is and what it does to/for us. I brought it up in a continuing effort to understand how and why it does what it does. His response was just that humans are wired to react to music. Yes, but that didn't satisfy me and I will continue to look for answers since music (as Diana says) transcends everything that's going on in the world and brings a divided world together. Isn't that what we all need - especially today! Chamber music transports me. Give me Brahms or Beethoven violin sonatas, trios, etc, (and so many others) and I'm there! As an opera stage manager, I have hours of work every day in preparation for the rehearsals. But when that orchestra starts to play and the curtain goes up, the rest of the world disappears and we are all family creating music. I remember years ago while working for the El Paso Opera I asked our wonderful Maestro, Raymond Harvey a couple of technical questions to find out what he preferred and his response was "It doesn't matter, I'm here to make music." Amen!

August 12, 2018 at 01:03 PM · Christina & Mark: I am so appreciative of your kind comments! Joe: Your thoughts on chamber music are simply wonderful. And I love Maestro Harvey's comment! If we could all keep that in mind, how much easier (and more beautiful) life would be. Thank you!

August 12, 2018 at 03:22 PM · Diana, yet another great and inspiring article. I wish I had three musicians to jam with, but alas, I haven't found three people who want to play with a middle-of-the-road guitarist.

August 12, 2018 at 07:51 PM · Tough to find literature....decent literature, for that combo other than the Mozarts......

August 12, 2018 at 09:16 PM · What I particularly appreciate about this quartet is that original instrumentation doesn't get in their way of playing whatever music they want to enjoy. One can extend this instrumental flexibility to unlimited possibilities, and we all should embrace this approach when gathering just to enjoy the pleasure and privilege of playing in small ensembles! Bravo!

August 13, 2018 at 01:25 AM · My string quartet is named Octavia - because 3 of us were born in a year ending in 8, and the prefix oct- means eight. Our years are 1958, 68 and 78, so 3 big birthdays this year :-)

August 13, 2018 at 12:31 PM · When a quartet such as yours works so well, I picture four people who want to get along with each other, both musically and personally. It's not that easy. Strong, divisive opinions can really get in the way. Your group exemplifies the best traits that are necessary to thrive.

August 13, 2018 at 12:42 PM · To 107: Thanks for your lovely comment! My advice is to crash someone's string quartet rehearsal and then pull up a chair. There is a slow movement in one of the Mozart flute quartets that I'm working on that is all pizzicato for the strings. You'd fit right in!!

To 98: True, so creativity will be needed.

To 96: Thanks! And you're correct, we don't let instrumentation hold us back. Interestingly, we often find the 1st violin line sounds even better on flute.

To 118: The Octavia String Quartet is marvelous!! Happy 60th, 50th, and 40th to you all!

To 216: Thank you! You're right that putting opinions aside is not always easy. I guess we have all realized how important this music-making opportunity is to each of us and we don't want to ruin it.

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