Advice for Aspiring String Quartets: 10 Questions for the Pacifica Quartet

The Verona Quartet (formerly the Wasmuth Quartet), Indiana University Jacobs School of Music’s graduate string quartet, interviews us on what it takes to make it as a professional, touring string quartet.

The Verona Quartet is Jonathan Ong (violin), Dorothy Ro (violin), Abigail Rojansky (viola), and Warren Hagerty (cello). Within months of their formation, they won the Silver Medal in the senior division of the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition and first prize at IU’s Kuttner String Quartet Competition. A few months later they were Grand Prize winners at the 2014 Coleman Chamber Music Competition and the First Place and Audience Choice Award winners at the 2014 Chesapeake International Chamber Music Competition. In May 2014, the Wasmuth Quartet won the Bronze Medal at the 8th Osaka International Chamber Music Competition in Osaka, Japan and in March 2015 they won Second Prize at the Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition. The Verona Quartet is currently the Graduate String Quartet-in-Residence at the IU Jacobs School of Music, where they are principally mentored by the Pacifica Quartet. 

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Here is their interview with us.

1) Warren: The four of you are stuck on an island and you can only have one kind of food to eat and one piece of music to listen to and you all have to agree on what it is.

Masumi: I know the piece of music. John Cage 4’33”.

Simin: It would be a Beethoven Quartet, probably.

Brandon: Let’s just pick four and vote on the best one. Schubert B-flat trio.

Sibbi: That’s your all time favorite in the entire world? I think it would have to be something like Goldberg variations.

Brandon: That’s your favorite?

[Laughter followed by long pause]

Simin: Wow….

Masumi: So four hours later…

Sibbi: Maybe we have to schedule another meeting…

Jonathan: You can all agree to disagree.

Sibbi: Maybe let’s go to the food and come back.

Simin: BBQ ribs.

Brandon: That sounds good.

[All agree]

Simin: Oh wait, would that all we could eat?

Sibbi: Every single day?

Masumi: It’s not really healthy.

Jonathan: It could just be BBQ. It doesn’t have to be BBQ ribs.

Masumi: Oh, ok. BBQ then.

Simin: I like BBQ. I’ll go with BBQ.

Sibbi: BBQ it is

Jonathan: Wow that was easy!

Brandon: I think the music one is a lot harder. I don’t think we could ever come to an agreement on that. Because we are a quartet I think we might want to hear something totally different like a Beatles album.

Sibbi: But not every single day….

Brandon: It could just be on Sundays when we have our family BBQ meal! Anyway, I think we are not going to come up with a consensus.

Masumi: Ok so we didn’t come up with any kind of an answer

Sibbi; Just the food!

Masumi: So that’s a failure!

2) Dorothy: Tell us a little about the beginnings of your quartet life—the greatest struggles and successes

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Simin: We started just as I was finishing undergrad and the during the first 6-8 months we traveled to rehearse so we would go to Oberlin or Los Angeles to rehearse. The first thing we did together was Aspen that summer and we decided that we all wanted to live in the same place for the next year so we moved to Chicago. I would say that our biggest struggle at that time was that we had no money for the first three years. We all had a pact that we wouldn’t take gigs unless we all four got them. So we did some teaching all at the same time so we could control the hours and we lived off of our credit cards.

Brandon: I think the biggest stress was with the unknown. We didn’t know if it was going to work out.  Are you going to have concerts? Are people going to want to hear you?  All that stuff that I think most people deal with in their twenties but as a quartet it’s kind of multiplied because the other thing is you’re watching other people taking auditions and getting jobs and it takes a while for a quartet to get on their feet. So that was a stress.

Simin: It was in our third year that we won Concert Artists Guild and that was kind of the turn around. From then we started getting concerts and could actually somewhat live as a string quartet. But I would say it was three complete years of all four of us just having faith that this was going to work and we were going to try it.

Brandon: Three plus.

Jonathan: We’re on year two…

Brandon: You have a whole year!

Simin: You have it better in that you’re in school and have some stability with that. We were living in Chicago and sharing a studio apartment…

Jonathan: And what about greatest successes?

Brandon: [Winning] Concert Artists Guild and Naumburg. Part of it is because when you’re starting out you do need some recognition just to keep the enthusiasm going and to feel like you’re headed in the right direction and both Concert Artists Guild and Naumburg gave us a lot of that. They gave us confidence and also made us more of a known entity and that made it a lot easier to get concerts.

3) Jonathan: It seems like the nature of string quartet life is that it can be very unpredictable, especially in the beginning. What was and what has been your approach?

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Sibbi: Trying to make it as much of a nine-to-five kind of existence as possible, so for instance we schedule very far in advance and pretty carefully and we stick with that. I think one of the hardest things for me when I first joined the quartet was not being able to just know when we were going to do anything because we were always changing or adding rehearsals. We didn’t have the stability because we had all committed to making quartet the number one thing no matter what. But suddenly you could never go and do anything outside of quartet. Actually getting our University of Illinois job [first full-time university-level residency] forced us to become very rigid in our scheduling because we all had the same teaching responsibilities and I feel it actually freed us up a little bit and made it more sort of a balanced existence.

Simin: That’s so true because quartet can easily become all consuming and that’s okay when you’re young and you don’t have families and you don’t have any other responsibilities but once you start having anything outside of quartet life then it doesn’t work as well if you don’t schedule.

Masumi: Scheduling affords you a delusion of regularity because at the end of the day there is no real regularity.

Sibbi: Which is why I say we are trying to create as much of a nine-to-five existence as possible.  But then I do think our rehearsals have gotten better because instead of adding rehearsals at the last minute, our rehearsals are scheduled months in advance and it has forced us to be better prepared.

Brandon: Because you know you can’t add more rehearsals.  We just won’t now. If we’ve scheduled a Saturday off months ago when we made our schedule then other people have already made plans like family stuff, teaching obligations… So you have to get it done. But I think the other element of surprise in a string quartet is that there are so many other things you have to deal with – people, organizations, residencies, teaching, etc.

Sibbi: Part of the unpredictability is actually the amount of people that you need to be in pretty close contact with. It’s not just ourselves but our management and our publicist. And then there are students, administrators, composers, people that record us, and all of this leads to unpredictability. We are often being pulled in many different directions and I find that to be something we really cannot plan for.

Brandon: I think what happens is when you first start out is that things seem kind of complicated. And then it kind of grows every year. You think, “Wow, this is kind of crazy how much is going on in our lives. This is the worst it can be!” And then the next year there is more stuff going on. Then you look back and you think, “Wow, early on it really wasn’t so bad.” But at the same time there are so many stresses that we don’t have now that we had in the early years. You guys are doing all these competitions and you’re trying to build repertoire and that’s stressful because every first performance is scary. And we’re in a position where we have tons of repertoire to draw from, so there are different kinds of stresses as you progress.

Masumi: It’s hard to decide if it was better before email and cell phone. Because you get more done now, maybe, in a way you get more done, you get more little things done, but somehow it’s a different level of focusing so it’s debatable.

Sibbi: I remember asking Paul Katz [of the Cleveland Quartet] how they did it before cell phones and email. So if somebody was late, everybody just waited! And if someone in Europe needed something they just waited two weeks for the mail to come. Or they sent a fax.

4) Abigail: You’re always surrounded by three other critics in a string quartet. Do you have any advice about giving and receiving criticism in a healthy and constructive way?

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Sibbi: We always talk about how the greater good of the quartet is the most important thing. I trust that they know my playing so well that I rely on them to help me sound the best that I can and then since it’s to the quartet’s advantage that we all sound our best, our comments are both to help each other out and to help us to be unified as a quartet.

Brandon: We were having this conversation a while ago about how if someone has a melodic line how much input the others should have as opposed to just letting people play. Because it is important to discuss a musical line so the whole quartet is thinking about it and it unifies things but at the same time sometimes you just have to let people play because if you are always kind of micromanaging their playing they can get a little bit tight.

Simin: It’s along the lines of what Sibbi was saying about the greater good of the quartet. So knowing their playing well enough that even if you don’t like the way someone is playing something, you can see them getting a little tight and you know that at the concert tomorrow night they’re going to be a little nervous about it so just let them play and give them what they need to sound good.

Sibbi: Because we also rehearse so much that we remember things so then in the concert once it comes to these two notes that someone discussed the articulation a lot in rehearsal, you get there and all you can thing about are those two notes.

Brandon: And of course to try the ideas discussed as well as you can and be committed to it.

Sibbi: And there’s a trust factor there and at this point we do trust each other. We trust that everyone likes each other’s playing, and so it’s trusting that when someone is suggesting an idea that is totally different from yours, that it has validity and you should try it.

Brandon: It’s one of the hardest things we deal with on a regular basis.

Sibbi: And it’s a combination of sometimes letting things go and sometimes actually really rehearsing something until you come to a consensus. And it depends on the day.

Simin: It depends on the day and the amount of rehearsal time you’re going have before a concert. Because of course the ideal is to always come to a consensus. But when you’re under the gun and you have to get up and play it the next day you sometimes have to just say, “Okay, we’re going to try it like this.”

Sibbi: Because the quartet will sound better even though you may not agree with it because it will be more together.

5) Warren: One of the struggles of being a young quartet is not having the repertoire built up yet. So when you have a lot of new repertoire to learn, how do you structure your rehearsals to make sure you get to everything?

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Brandon: Yeah, we had a lot of problems with that.

Sibbi: We still have a lot of problems with that!

Simin: We try to plan it though. Even just yesterday we said, “We have this much music to learn. Let’s this week make sure we know these things, next week let’s make sure we know these things.” You know, we just really give ourselves time limits on stuff.

Brandon: We have a tour in two months and we know there are eight or nine pieces that we’re playing in a period of three days and a couple of those pieces we’re not playing at all this year so we know that’s going to be a crazy time. So we’re already talking now about trying to start rehearsing some of those pieces now so that when we’re in the heat of that period it will come together faster and we won’t overstress. So a lot of it has to do with thinking ahead in your schedule.

6) Dorothy: Let’s say you only have one day to prepare for a concert – like you just found out that day.  What is your go to program and why?

Masumi: The last program we played!

[All agree]

7) Jonathan: All young quartets have to take part in competitions and auditions. How do you deal with pre-competition stress, especially in the two weeks leading up to it when it gets really intense?

Masumi: Why would you ask that question? [Laughter. The Verona is preparing for a major competition in two weeks.]

Brandon: You’re not stressed are you? I feel like the most stressed I’ve ever been in a quartet was in that period with all those competitions.

Simin: Oh gosh, not me at all. No, I felt like that was much less stressful because you know, if you get it then great. But if you don’t, it’s like your life is just like it was the day before. You know what I mean? Because there’s no pressure really.

Sibbi: Michael Jordan once said he was never worried about his game-winning shot because you either make it or you don’t.

Simin: I always feel like that. You shouldn’t be that stressed because you can always do another competition. But I find it much more stressful later when there are expectations about the quartet.  Let’s say you win a competition, there’s a winner’s recital. Like our Naumburg debut concert. That was a stressful thing. There were people sitting there like, “Okay now let’s hear why they won.” Any situation where you feel like others are looking to see your value is stressful. And a competition is of course that but you don’t have anything to lose. You only have to gain.

Sibbi: That’s a great attitude.

Brandon: That is a great attitude. I didn’t apply that… Actually you know if you think about it, if you’re out there playing well, you can’t expect that competitions are going to make your career. You can’t look at it that way. They’re helpful. But if people have faith in you, and you hear from a lot of people that they really like the way that you play, you have to have confidence that that’s going to be the basis for having your career. It’s not based on the competitions and what those particular judges were listening for. That’s a healthier way of thinking about it.

Simin: Basically, winning a competition just gives you opportunities to prove yourself to presenters. That’s all it gives you.

Sibbi: That’s actually true because if an established quartet still highlights the competitions they won in the early days, maybe their career’s not that good…. But I think that one should go into a competition being as intense as possible but in the most positive way, if that make sense.

8) Abby:  Now that you’re performing a lot, do you still have anxiety before you perform?

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Simin: Of course.

Brandon: Yes.

Sibbi: Yes, and there is just a totally different level of expectation now.

Simin: For me it’s more intense now than before because of that. But we do play a lot so there’s something to knowing how to deal with it if you suddenly feel your heart beat when you walk on stage. You know this feeling and say, “Okay, well maybe the first half of the first movement of the Haydn is going to be kind of… and then it will go away.” You trust that it will go away because you’ve had that experience many times. Whereas before that would happen to me and I’d be like “Oh my gosh, I’m not going to be able to play!” because you don’t know that experience. So you just get better at trusting that it’s all going to be fine.

Brandon: One thing that I noticed about myself is that I feel now that I’m much better at, in a performance, if something happens that’s not good, I can kind of just put it in the past and move on whereas early on I remember if I didn’t play a solo well or if intonation wasn’t good in the quartet I would kind of be down and get progressively more nervous. Now its like, “Okay, it happened. Whatever. It’s just one concert and you’re going to play a million concerts and there are millions of people in Indiana who could care less about your concert.” You know what I mean? Put it into perspective. It’s one concert for these people here and they’re going to forget about it and you’re going to forget about it. Because we play so many concerts now that we can’t think of everything as the most major moment of our life.

9) Jonathan: Well, this final question sounds so stupid now!

Dorothy: This is Jon’s question…

Warren: Yeah, just to clarify, this is Jon’s question. If you had to assign a specific animal to each of the members of the quartet, what would that animal be?

Brandon: Well I think Sibbi would be a bear because of his name.

Sibbi: You find me that scary and imposing?

Brandon: Sigurbjorn means “bear conquerer,” right?

Sibbi: Well it’s Icelandic so it would be a polar bear.

Brandon: I think Brandon means protector of kitties.

Masumi: This is a very strange question…

Sibbi: It’s scary because when we’re next rehearsing we’ll be thinking about these animals. So what animal should we assign Masumi?

Brandon: He’s tall so…

[Silence]

Sibbi: Ok, so what animal should we assign Simin?

Simin: I’ll be fine with whatever.

Brandon: Really?

Sibbi: You will have to do that one [looking at Brandon].

Brandon: That’s dangerous. I’m gonna go home with her later… I don’t know, I had thought of an animal for her before….it was a smaller, petite animal, but a very cute one.

[“Aww’s” from everyone]

10) Abigail: As you see young quartets coming on to the scene now, is there one thing you really want to tell to all of them?

Simin: I feel that one of the reasons you guys are going to make it is because of the personalities in your group and that’s such a huge part of it.  The four of you are serious musicians but you’re pretty laid back people from what I can see. I think that it’s really hard for people who are really uptight about things to do well in a quartet and a lot of young quartets fall apart because of that. You guys seem like you’re very adaptable. You work well together, you compromise, you have that kind of rapport that not a lot of the young quartets have.

Brandon: I think relating to people is important too. You’re out there doing outreach, you’re teaching, it’s such a people job. You’re with so many people: administrators, presenters, and audience members after concerts so you have to develop relationships all the time.

Sibbi: If a presenter finds you to be impossible to work with, then they’re just going to hire another quartet. You have to be sort of an easy hire and be reasonable and of course it’s a given that the concert has to be great, and then everything around it just has to be simple because these presenters have so many things to worry about and the last thing they want to worry about is a certain person in the quartet having ridiculous demands.

Brandon: Or inflated ego. I mean, you’re just in a quartet. Nobody should have an inflated ego.

Simin: Right, and then usually the quartet will just explode if there are those kinds of personalities. You have to work with these four people everyday for a long time.

Sibbi: And related to that, you have to play well. That’s a given. Lately I do find that so many schools and so many people are talking about the “changing field in classical music” and being more entrepreneurial and marketing yourself and finding a niche and this is all true, but at the end of the day you still have to rehearse and play well and be committed to what you’re doing.

Simin: That’s a given.

Sibbi: Commitment. And being easy to work with.

Brandon: You just have to work hard.

 

 

 

 

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