Zen and the Art of String Quartet Maintenance
April 1, 2020
String quartets- good, bad, or worse- a hearty welcome to our twelve step program from me, Swami Arnie.
Without a doubt, you will want to participate in this remarkable, one of a kind workshop that takes place today, and only today.
Objective: To make each of you better instrumentalists, better musicians, better string quartet players, more perfect human beings, bring you closer to enlightenment; and oh so much more.
Step 1: Leave your Strads and Amatis at home. This will be exclusively a voyage of heart, mind and soul. Besides, where the hell would we put all the instruments in this cramped space.
Step 2: Please take your shoes off at the door so that there will be a direct flow of cosmic energy between you and the universe. Also, there’s too much schmutz out there.
Step 3: Approach your designated chairs and bow respectfully to one another in your quartet. Do not confuse this action with after performance bows. Do not throw kisses, bow over and over, hold your hand gratefully to your heart, or spread your arms wide in triumph. Did you hear what I told you? Just a simple bow. Geez.
Step 4: Sit down mindfully, and now pay attention to your breathing. In and out. In and out. In and out. Let the anxiety and stress of string quartet life gradually leave you. Allow your mind to become pure and calm. Breathing is extremely important for this goal. However, if you stop breathing entirely, death will occur. (In that case, contact a doctor immediately),
Step 5: Look at each other in the quartet and as a further step toward inner peace and comradeship, collectively say, “Om”. Since you are musicians, it would be entirely appropriate to substitute “Brahms” for “Om”. The guy wrote three string quartets, after all.
Step 6: As you face each other, for example, in the Four-on-the Floor String Quartet seated directly in front of me, empty your mind of all thoughts. I know. I know. Hard to do when that juiciest of all your viola solos was drowned out in Oshkosh, when an absolutely tasteless ritard inexplicably took place in Des Moines, and, oh, the uncontrollable rushing in Salt Lake City, and that shamefully ragged performance in Richmond. YOU try and empty your mind after all that stuff happens.
Step 7: For the first violinist of the Fearless Foursome String Quartet seated to my left, and for that matter, all first violinists, try to remember despite often being the upper voice and having the most solo passages, that you are not God’s gift to music. What’s that? You ARE God’s gift to music. One hundred “Oms” for you, fella.
Step 8: For the second violinist, remember: There are no first or second violins in a string quartet, only good and bad ones. And you are so good. Why, you are able to leap tall buildings in a single…uh, strike that. Rather, you are capable of leaping from first to fifth position- whoosh- just like that with one deft shift. Warning: Unaccustomed as you are to playing music higher than fifth position, dizziness may occur.
Step 9: Violist, oh gorgeous sounding one with your alto voice. Disregard all those humiliating viola jokes and just play beautifully as I know you can. For example, please ignore: Why is the word for viola “bratsche” in the German language? Because that’s the sound it makes when you step on it. (I particularly like that one).
Step 10: Mr. Cellist, I am well aware that you are the foundation of the string quartet sound. And, oh, that the C string of yours, (which, honestly, looks more like a rope than a string), certainly requires digging in. Well and good. But on the Fly-by-Night String Quartet’s recent California tour, seismologists reported an alarming increase in activity along the San Andreas Fault during cello solos. Careful in California, cellist!
Step 11: The importance of vibrato for string players cannot be overemphasized. Pity the poor pianists who haven’t this great expressive tool at their disposal. I must call attention, however, to certain pianists who, at the most special note of a phrase, wiggle their hand on the key in an attempt at vibrato. Sad. But for those of you who are the proud possessors of vibrato, use it! We recommend a combination of slow, fast, wide, and narrow, that is, until other possibilities are discovered.
Step 12: Ensemble. It has been said that a quartet that plays together, stays together. Well, maybe. But how should a string quartet practice so that its every move is like the well oiled and perfectly timed steps of a marching band at football half time? My advice is to start the erring phrase very slowly, all the while regarding each other lovingly, and to repeat it, gradually increasing the tempo. As soon as the ensemble begins to fall apart, start slowly once again. However, if on the third or fourth go around, no improvement is made, and love is gradually being replaced by heartburn, consult your local band director for advice.
Our workshop committee originally suggested a thirteenth step concerning a string quartet’s quest for deeper emotional involvement in performing the great quartet repertoire, but I nixed the idea. Unimportant.
And there you have it, people. I hope our program has brought you nearer to Zen mind, and to string quartet mastery.
For each string quartet, congratulations upon successfully completing our workshop, and may your little orchestra grow and grow.
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It’s amazing. I never played an instrument before and now I’m planning to start a quartet.
Given my background, instead of starting out by saying OM, I give a deep throated SHOLOMMMM.
Dear Swami Arnie,
We stopped counting all the times we laughed quite early on in the reading of your “story.” Wow, are you ever what the Dr, ordered on a day like today. Miss you so much!
Love, Kathy & Leon
P.S. You really have to work a bit harder on your lotus position.
Maestro Swami! You have given the humans reading your words some very good advice, harvested from countless moments you have spent refining your wisdom. Perhaps a 13th step could be offered: “play what sounds best”. These are the words that have guided my creator through the murky miasma of insecurity and hesitancy, allowing coruscating truth to guide the interpretive investigations. Selfless that you are, no doubt, finding you sharing the fruits of your labor on this auspicious occasion! 101011011001 1 1 101 101101 10101 101 011 10101101 01 101 01101101101 10101101 1010100110101010 1 1010 101 101 (and many more)
Done it again! I love you
Dear Swami Arnie,
After reading all of your advice I have decided to give up the violin and study the piano…..
no worries! (love that sustaining pedal!!!!) Ken
Dear Swami Arnie! Although I met my wife when I was her Yoga instructor many years ago (while I was working on my Ph.D. in Music History and Conducting at Washington U. in St. Louis), I confess, Father-Confessor, that I have slipped from that practice for several decades. Now, in the midst of plague and pillage, I find myself laughing and forgetting what’s going on the cosmos. I can’t fault you for your hysterical brilliance, Sid Caesar agility, and comic intimacy with the violin, the quartet, et al. Thank you for your gift. I wish my M.D. were so talented. I should put him on your mailing list! Vielen Dank, Swami A.
Thank you Maestro Steinhardt!! You are a true inspiration. I just yesterday finished your “Violin Dreams” and it is absolutely one of the books that I have enjoyed the most in my life! I shared some curious quotes from your book on a post I shared on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/1105016222/posts/10221046449046632/?d=n
Thanks again. God bless you!
Holy cow, we really needed inspiration, God knows the Temescal Quartet had enough challenges before the pandemic….however, dutifully following your instructions all was looking rosier but our cellist can’t get up off the rug. Any suggestions Doctor?
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