June 1, 2013
We were enjoying an after-concert snack at the hotel restaurant when David Soyer, our cellist in the Guarneri String Quartet, took a sip of his beer, leaned back expansively, and announced in a mock Eastern European accent, “I rub stick against rope. Make many zlotys.”
No, we weren’t somewhere in Poland where people deal in zlotys, the national currency. Dave was simply stating in his inimitable fashion that he’d just earned money playing the cello. Nothing unusual about that. All four of us had made money that evening performing a concert of string quartet music. We had done so for years and would be blessed to do so for many more to come.
But what if we hadn’t been able to earn a fee playing concerts? What if we weren’t good enough or the demand for string quartets dried up? For that matter, what if upon graduation from music school I couldn’t find enough work as a chamber musician, orchestra player, soloist, or teacher to sustain myself?
These, of course, are some of the questions that every young person considering a career in the uncertain field of music should ask. Every young person should, but yours truly didn’t. When I look back on my teenage years, already passionately committed to music, dead-set on becoming a concert violinist, disciplined enough to be practicing several hours daily, and eagerly seeking out performance opportunities, not once to the best of my recollection did I consider whether I would actually be able to make a living rubbing a stick against a rope as Dave so charmingly put it.
When I was eight or nine I won five dollars playing the violin at a restaurant talent show, and later my teacher landed me a job playing as a movie extra for which I received twenty-two dollars a day. The five dollars bought me a child’s bow and arrow set, the movie money a genuine leather baseball glove—exciting events in themselves but leaving me quite clueless about the possibility of becoming a regular wage earner one day. Only years later, as a music student at the Curtis Institute of Music, did I begin to see the dollar and cents value of my fiddling. I was able to earn a little money by occasionally performing around the Philadelphia area. In my last year at school, I won the Leventritt International Violin Competition. It gave me the thrill of performing as soloist with some of America’s major orchestras, yet these glittering engagements only presented the elusive possibility rather than the solid promise of a solo career and steady employment down the road.
Then, with my impending graduation from school rushing towards me from only months away, the question could no longer be avoided: How on earth was I going to make a living as a musician? To my good fortune, the answer came quickly. George Szell, the venerable conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, invited me to be his assistant concertmaster, and that fall I became a working musician receiving a weekly paycheck. This could easily have been the last time I would ever have to worry about providing a roof over my head or three solid meals a day under that roof. The Cleveland Orchestra position offered not only musical inspiration but also a comfortable and secure life. I was part of a great orchestra led by a charismatic conductor, and as a splendid fringe benefit I was given the opportunity to solo with the orchestra every year. A perfect life, you would think.
But after only a few years of this perfect life, I walked into Szell’s office and told him that I was leaving the orchestra. Szell’s face turned dark and he demanded to know why. I explained that four of us had decided to form a string quartet. Szell’s demeanor instantly changed. He smiled broadly, shook my hand, wished me good luck, and told me what I already knew about him: he revered the string quartet literature. I walked out of Szell’s office feeling good about the future. John Dalley, violin, Michael Tree, viola, David Soyer, cello, and I were going to live out the dream of spending our lives playing string quartets. One small matter, though. We had no concerts, no manager, and not even a quartet name. The two bachelors and two married men with children who comprised our quartet had yet to answer a now familiar question. How were we going to make a living?
When our quartet formed in 1964, you could count on the fingers of one hand the number of professional string quartets sustaining themselves mainly from concert fees. In music school we dreamed of becoming the next great soloist or landing an attractive orchestra position. String quartets? You did that for the love of it. Were the four of us naïve, or courageous, or did we have an intuition that interest in chamber music was about to soar just as we entered the field?
We called ourselves the Guarneri String Quartet. And we practiced. And we waited. Soon we landed a college residency, then a manager, and even a recording contract. Concerts only dribbled in at first and the fees were paltry. We practiced some more. The Guarneri String Quartet must have begun to sound like a worthy ensemble, but here the element of perfect timing—something that can be dreamed of but never planned—came into play. At that moment in time, and for whatever complex set of reasons, interest in chamber music simply exploded. The number of our concerts increased and our fees began slowly to rise from three to four figures. Suddenly, we were making a living.
The Guarneri String Quartet soon made its first tour of Europe. Now fees came not only in dollars, but also in French francs, Italian lire, German D-marks, Dutch guilder, and even Dave’s Polish zlotys. The Europeans had the curious habit of often paying in cash. A sober looking, well-dressed gentleman would show up, usually at the concert’s intermission, with the money in a briefcase. My brother-in-law thought that the tradition stemmed from a time when kings and queens would toss a gold coin or two to entertainers who performed for them in court. As each tour progressed, we slowly acquired considerable amounts of money that tended to bulge from both sides of our inner jacket pockets. Fellow travelers may have suspected that we were a string quartet of women in drag.
The Quartet once tried to simplify life by asking to be paid for all our Australian concerts in one lump sum at the end of a tour. We had played in most of Australia’s principal cities, so the amount paid us after our last concert was considerable. Dividing it would take some time. We spread the money out on a bed in one of our hotel rooms to count it more easily, and ordered sandwiches and drinks from room service. The waiter entered the room just as the four of us finished making four massive piles of money on different parts of the bed. His eyes bulged as he set the tray down unsteadily. Looking alternately at us and at the money, he began to back nervously out of the room. Michael was the quickest to react. “You haven’t seen anything, right?”
“Right” came the waiter’s answer in a strangled squeal as he fled the room.
Before long, our Quartet was playing on average one hundred concerts a year and with those concerts came endless questions. What actually should our concert fee be? If we’re hired for more than one concert, say, a Beethoven Quartet cycle, should we offer a reduction? If our manager informs us of a possible low fee concert in Mosquito Bump, Oregon, on a free day between concerts already booked in Pipikville and Kasha Cove, should we accept or stick hard and fast to our published fee and risk going bowling that night? But this was the small stuff. We were actually making a living; and not only that, we dearly loved being the Guarneri String Quartet. After all, what could be better than spending your life performing masterpieces from the great string quartet literature?
The four of us lived mainly from concerts in the Quartet’s forty-five year career, but after our first residency at Harpur College in Binghamton, New York, we also taught at the Curtis Institute of Music and the University of Maryland. Most of us continue to teach now even though the Quartet has retired. Among other reasons, we teach out of a desire to pass on whatever we know and feel about music to the next generation.
Of course, musicians get paid to teach as well as to play. Funny thing about money, whether earned by fiddling or by telling others how. As a tangible object, it has little significance (I visualize piles of cash on an Australian hotel room bed as I write). It exists, as we all are well aware, to pay the rent, feed the body, and if something’s left over, to go see the latest movie in town. I would never want to just sit there and stare at those dollars, euros, or whatever I’ve been paid in, or worse still to pick the stuff up and hold it lovingly in my hands, would I? Well, almost never.
Some time ago, I agreed to hear Jonathan Talbott, a gifted young violinist who had asked to play for me. Afterwards, I made a few suggestions and demonstrated one or two things on the violin. (A picture is not the only thing worth a thousand words.) When our quasi lesson had come to an end, Jonathan thanked me and said that although we had never spoken of a fee, he wanted, nevertheless, to pay me—not with money but instead with a special gift. He handed me an envelope containing five bird feathers, telling me they were from the Yellow-shafted Flicker, a bird in the woodpecker family that resides in eastern North America. The feathers were dark brown, delicately bordered in white, and true to the bird’s name, they displayed striking shafts of yellow running up their middles.
All my concert and teaching fees whether in cash, check, or bank drafts have inevitably been sucked willy-nilly down that improbable funnel we call life, never to surface again.
But not my bird feathers.
I gaze at them often, not only to enjoy their miraculous color and design but also for the memories they invoke of a lovely encounter with a talented young musician. Those yellow-shafted beauties give me the kind of satisfaction that money never can. To paraphrase David Soyer:
“I rub stick against rope. Make many bird feathers.”
Photo by Dorothea von Haeften
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