Developing as a string quartet

February 25, 2006 at 06:10 AM · Let's say you've had the good fortune to find four professional musicians who want to play together in a quartet: people who get along, play decently together and are willing to spend some time on the group to make it more than a pick-up wedding gig quartet.

What steps can a group take to develop as a quartet? What sequence of repertoire would help most in developing artistically? What kind of scales or other fun voodoo would help in developing technically? What should be done to ensure that the group continues to get along, with egos well-fed and in-check? Any other advice? Stories? Pitfalls to be avoided?

Replies (12)

February 25, 2006 at 11:43 AM · something that one of my friends does to help her trio get along is to celebrate Happy Good Days. This is where they get together and celebrate everything that is good. This is usually over gourmet pizza and garlic bread, and of course, Moet & Chandon Champagne. Needless to say, Happy Good Days are usually celebrated right after pay day.

February 25, 2006 at 12:31 PM · From the psychological point of view of molding a cohesive quartet of people, listen, listen, listen to everyone's ideas. Try what anyone suggests. Find something good in everyone's approach. Discuss, discuss, discuss. Have fun. Strive for one quartet "voice" rather than 4 soloist voices. It's the genuine respect and open communication and appreciation of the others -- personally as well as musically -- that will meld your group into a cohesive group with a common purpose and mission.

February 25, 2006 at 04:08 PM · I suspect you've already read them, but reading Indivisible by Four: A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony by Arnold Steinhardt and The Art of Quartet Playing: The Guarneri Quartet by David Blum might be helpful.


February 25, 2006 at 11:47 PM · Good ideas. No, I hadn't read those books either. I just love David Blum, too. I read the book "Quintet" which has profiles of five artists, including Joseph Gingold. I will track those down!

Any ideas for artistic development through the choice of repertoire?

February 27, 2006 at 02:46 PM · As always a devoted food/housing cooperative member while I was at Oberlin and as a lover of consensus decision-making processes used on the managing Board of those co-ops, I found it really interesting that before beginning string quartet intensive work in the Conservatory, all members were required to read this book:

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Roger Fisher and William Ury (NY: Penguin, 1981) Good and thin easy read. Most effective when all are familiar with it.

Other general pithy bits that have helped me in groups are:

Keep your comments about the sound, not each other.

Don't only talk about issues that can be better and more efficiently resolved by playing experiments-- Everyone be open and play in different ways together and listen (recording is a good and impersonal tool in rehearsal!) BEFORE digging in ideological heels and flapping mouths. More music, less talk, surprises for all, greater learning, satisfaction, and unanimity. :-)

February 27, 2006 at 03:24 PM · Not that I have any real experience in this particularly, but it seems to me that as violinists, it's easy for us to forget the importance of all four parts. An exercise for a beginning quartet might be to take a piece where each part is really about equal, and play a few bars missing one or more parts. Then put them back in, and enjoy the completion of the sound.

If each member of the quartet understands that each other member's part is equally important to their own, you'll be at a good starting point.

February 28, 2006 at 12:47 AM · Greetings,

the books mentioned are essential.

The difference between the Guarneri Quartet approach and others (European perhaps) tends to be about who makes the musicla decisions which wa straditionally the big name first violinist. This undemocratic system is the main caus eof the constant change of personel in many quartets over the last hundred years. Some quartets came up with useful soultions. For example, every player has one vote about how to play -one- movement of a work . This means that if the interpretation decision cannot be made because of a fifty ffty split, then the playe rwith the vote cvan override the dissenters -fro that movement only.-

The older systemn was not all bad and the best quartet work I have ever done is where the leader knew the score backwards, inside out and upside down -before- the first rehearsal. This is really importnat. One then has a productive firts rehearsal in which the leader diplomatically guides the bothe rplayers throuhg what need sto be done in terms of leaidng voice, dynamics and so on. The Guarneri tended to elarn stuff by playing togterh and growing together. I personally prefer the former method. But the leader ha sot be damn good.

Another wya of rehearsing that is valuable is to assign quarter of the time to each quartet member. They are -in charge- for the duration of that fifteen minutes and how they choose to rehearse. Be it plaing a whole movement through or thirty minutes getitng one chord in tune , is entirely up to them. No buts, no complaints.

It is also useful to give eaxch memebe rthe responsilbilty for thinking of a wya to warm up at the beginning of each new rehearsals. This stimulates creative thinking.

A lot of quartet playing is about who has the main voice, which interrelates with the issue of leading. Much time cna e spent making decisions about who is actually going to lead because, as noted by the Guarneri in various contexts , the firts violin is often the worst perosn to do this.

Another good point is -never- look at people faces. The only way to get perfect ensemlbe is towatch other people`s left hands like aninja on amphetamines. That really is a key secret. Often the cellists left hand can give the clearesr lead.

Intonation, intonation, intonation. WhenI coach quartets i often spend a couple of hours just going through the pitch note by note and then performing at the end. Enraged and frustrated groups suddenly break out in big grins as they realize their sound has changed into a bell like resonance because they have actually taken the trouble to clean up their act. Belive me, the patience to do this is one of -the hardest- things about quartet playing.

There was also a good approach written in a blog a few days ago. I think it was Jessica`s. Theidea being that three member sof the group give themsleve sover entirely to the interpretation and muse of a selectd player. They must let all their preconceptions about the work go and respond to thta person. Then a new interpetor is chosen and the procedure is repeated. In this manner a rapid understanding of the other sin the group is achieved and the quality of listening is intensified ot the nth degree.

I have used this tehcnique with a piano trio for some time now. As a newbie to chamber music the pianist habitually played the Beethoven trio part as if it were a concerto. By asking her to compare her performance when she was initiator and interpretor with when the cello took the role she changed her whole approach. The first time we did it she stopped in amazement and commented n how she was hearing things for the first time form the cellist and how exciting it was.

As far as repertoire is cocnerned Haydn opus 20 no 4 is a good work for clarifying things. Really it is Haydn, Haydn and Haydn. But dn@t neglect the first 13 quartets of Mozart either. INorder tyo get a real grasp of the Beethoven quartets it is importnat to play as many of them a spossible. Oddly enough, you might find it easier to get into them via the opus 59 rather thna the more obvious route of beginnning at the beginning with the opus 18. Opus 18 no1 (no 6 reall) is one of the most frustrating quartets ever penned and the way this group hovers ambivalently between classical and Romantic playing doe s not help.



February 28, 2006 at 09:48 AM · Ahh, buri. So full of knowledge, and the reason the respond to a discussion page should have a spell check option.

February 28, 2006 at 06:51 PM · Thanks for all this wonderful advice!

February 28, 2006 at 07:26 PM · Last Resort Music & Latham Music both have good albums for quartet gigs:

If the quartet is to become a source of revenue, it would be worthwhile to have the 4 of you sit down & discuss the business side of things rather than go the way of the Audubon 4tet! If you know others with gig 4tets, get advice & ideas from them.

February 28, 2006 at 07:30 PM · Ben, all the letters are there - you just have to look for them a little harder when Buri has typed them. Think of it as a literary "Where's Waldo" game. ;)

Great suggestions, Buri. It's definitely useful to have someone who has studied the score and understands the work. In our amateur group, that's the first violinist, by default; she has been a chamber music coach and a teacher for many, many years.

March 1, 2006 at 12:57 AM · Greetings,

Ben, my spell checker is having a week off. She says she feels over worked,



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