FAQ: Brandon Vamos

pacifica_quartet1500_brandonWhat do you remember about your first performance with the Pacifica Quartet?

Wow. I think it was in a small church in Glendale, CA. We played Brahms’ A minor quartet (Op. 51 No. 2) and Haydn Op. 76 No. 1. I remember being very nervous but excited. I also remember loving the opportunity to play in a quartet—I had played in quartets before, but we had rehearsed quite a bit, and I had never played in a group that had reached that high of a level before. It was very enjoyable.

What is your secret for long-term success in a quartet?

Being committed to the task—you can’t ever really relax. The kind of rehearsing that goes into sounding good has to be intense: you have to do it with a great deal of thought and awareness. You can’t get lazy. You have to stay focused every day in rehearsal. Over time, you get better at it, but it is never an easy, relaxed thing—even if you play the repertoire many times, you have to come at it each and every time with a great deal of energy.

But it’s more enjoyable to approach a performance with that kind of commitment behind it. I always enjoy performances where the quartet is really prepared—especially performances on pieces that we’ve had time to live with. I’m much more a fan of that than first performances, although first performances can be exciting.

How do you balance family life with frequent travel?

It’s a challenge for sure. We often bring our kids with us; they’re with us now, and they’ve been traveling with us all summer. We try to make time for fun and interesting things on the road. The best times we’ve had as a family have been while traveling—having time on the morning before a concert and going to a children’s museum with my daughters, for instance. Now that my older daughter is 8, when we’re in France, she’s interested in some of the history. Especially when the kids are young, the traveling is extremely difficult—but as they get older, it gets easier. We’ve had some great experiences on the road with the kids.

How do you divide quartet-related responsibilities among your colleagues?

That’s something that’s evolved over time. And it’s a real challenge—something you don’t learn in school. A quartet is like a small business. People will ask questions of the quartet and expect an answer right away, but we have to consult as a group before we can answer. So we’ve developed responsibilities. I do repertoire, Sibbi mostly deals with the managers, Masumi does publicity, and Simin deals with the business side. We each have responsibilities, but we also have regular business meetings. Sometimes you can’t make decisions on your own—you need the input of the others. We have many representatives (American, Japanese, European, etc) and a publicist, and lots of others who we deal with. We’ve put a lot of our energy into that, it’s what any quartet has to do.

What is currently on your iPod’s most-played list?

Normally, I’m downloading stuff I’m about to play. Right now, the most played are things like Elmo—I spend a lot of time listening to that. [laughs] But I also recently played the Schumann piano quartet, so I’ve been listening to that as well. I use it as a tool to prepare to play new repertoire.

Do you have any pre-concert good luck rituals?

Not really. I don’t have any superstitions about performing. If I am too relaxed (lounging or laying down) I lose a little focus—so I try to be up and about, practicing or moving around. I try to keep my energy level high. Sometimes, if I’m really nervous, I’ll breathe—do slow breathing exercises to deal with the performance anxiety.

What is the most memorable experience you have had onstage with the Pacifica Quartet?

That’s a hard one to answer, I’ve had a lot of great experiences. Early on, when things were so new and incredibly exciting—playing at Alice Tully Hall after the Naumburg competition, with Bobby Mann [Robert Mann, longtime first violinist in the Juilliard Quartet] in the corner of your eye—that was so exciting, and so new at the time. That’s what I remember the most—the early experiences that were very intense and very nerve-racking. You don’t know how you’re going to handle it. We were very prepared, almost too prepared. And we learned something through that—what we needed to do to get ready for concerts.

What is something your fans don’t know about you?

I don’t have any big secrets, I’m pretty simple. In my spare time, I follow Minnesota Vikings, I like to watch football on Sundays. Also spending time with my kids, movies, good food –it can be fancy, or a roadside burger joint, it doesn’t matter.

If you were not a musician, what else could you imagine yourself doing?

I don’t know. I think about that a lot. It was always a scary thought. I never know if I ever had such a passion for anything else, or a proclivity or talent for anything else. I was always practicing, and never pushed myself in another direction, so I don’t really know. I like psychology a lot, and history, and so I like to read books on historical happenings and events. Certainly not math or science!

How do you stay sane while traveling?

I don’t know if I do! It can be frustrating! I’m getting better at it. When things happen, like a cancelled flight, it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. It used to take a lot out of me if we missed a rehearsal or barely made the concert. Sometimes it’s just out of your control, and I’ve gotten better at just letting it go. The worst experience was travelling with our first child, and we brought too much stuff, and I remember going through the airport with a cello and 200 lbs of stuff—Masumi would take pictures of me. [laughs] We’ve gotten much better at determining what we need, and sometimes we’ll pay a bit more money for ease and comfort. We try to make traveling as easy and painless as possible.

Any recommendations for finding good food on the road?

It’s getting so much easier—all these web sites like Yelp, and the “Best of” lists. But you can’t always trust them. The best way is just asking the presenter and people who live in town. Sibbi is keeping a list—that’s the way to do it. We’ll find great barbeque in the South, great sushi places by the ocean…I wish I kept track. I think I’ll start doing that to remember the places we enjoyed. Other musicians blog about it—that’s another way to do it. Right now, we’re in Napa [August 2013]. Here, you really can’t go wrong. We’ve experienced unbelievable restaurants and great chefs, and there are always new places to find.

Who do you most admire?

A lot of musicians have been mentors—certainly my teachers. Paul Katz was a big influence, he played in the Cleveland Quartet. Menahem Pressler is amazing for his energy and dedication to music. I’m always impressed by great athletes, too. I’m impressed by a lot of people.

What is the best advice you have ever received?

Someone once told me, if you’re going to have a career in music, if you’re not having fun, why do it? Make the best of it, enjoy every moment. When things get hard, remember how lucky you are to do something like that—all the experiences you get with the traveling and the repertoire. That was really great advice.

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