ChamberStudio coach David Waterman, cellist of the Endellion Quartet for its 36 years, offers his advice on everything from rehearsal technique to protecting the future of chamber music and being realistic with students about their futures
The pendulum effect and how to fix it
Pendulum rehearsing is when, for example, two of you think something should go faster, and the other two think it should go slower. You try it faster and two of you don’t like it and you try it slower and the other two don’t like it, and it’s pointless. You can get out of this by finding other factors that aren’t just about metronomic tempo. You can open the argument up to include other factors that might be the cause of the problem. You might say, ‘Let’s start by playing faster than anyone wants.’ Then the two who want the slower tempo try to be more specific about what they don’t like. They might think it’s breathless or unclear, that you can’t hear the phrasing, or that the character is flippant. Then you might say, ‘Let’s not make it slower, but let’s deal with these things within the faster tempo. Maybe it needs to breathe in two or three places with a slight breath rather than slowing down.’ Or ‘Let’s make the phrasing clearer because it’s faster.’ Or ‘Let’s make the texture clearer so it doesn’t sound rushed. Let’s make it stop sounding flippant by not dancing with the bow so much and keeping the bow on the string.’ There are various things you can do apart from changing the tempo to make it not sound so fast.
Then do the opposite: play it more slowly than anyone wants and ask the two who want it fast what they don’t like. They’ll say it’s stodgy or there are too many beats in the bar and it’s grinding to a halt, and again you deal with that. You can try to keep it one in a bar even though it’s slow, or let it roll forward in certain places so it’s not always the same tempo. If you work like that, on a good day you find if you then stop and have lunch and play it again, and suddenly everyone’s happy because you’ve found a way of dealing with the problems of both slow and the fast. But don’t start talking about who was right or wrong!
Democracy is not always the best model
Sometimes a musical decision might be three against one but it’s not a good idea to squash the one because there’s a majority. Democracy is not appropriate – you want to try to convince everyone. The Endellions’ rule is that the primary voice should have the casting vote even if they’re in the minority. It’s more important for the main voice to be comfortable and convinced about how they’re playing than for the accompanying voices to like it. If someone’s got the primary voice, they’ve listened to all the criticism and to other ways of doing it, there’s a concert in an hour and they want to do it like that, you accompany them the best you can.
Conflict resolution sometimes happens when you stop trying
In practice there are many times when we don’t end up resolving something in rehearsal. We have long discussions and try out many things but we don’t push it to the limit. Sometimes the process of synthesis happens when you’ve slept on it and come back less entrenched in your position and there’s no problem any more. If you try to bring every disagreement to a resolution in every rehearsal everyone ends up entrenched in their positions and when you come back the next day it’s too open a wound for that wonderful synthesis process. So we don’t always push ourselves to the ultimate.
Sometimes there’s a concert and you haven’t resolved something but the resolution happens in the performance and no one knows how or why. It happens under the pressure of performance, but you need a reservoir of good will for that to happen.
The benefits of experience
As you get older as a group there’s less talking and more playing, because more happens just through listening, responding and thinking. The less said the better. If you’re playing through a new piece, you might notice things – someone’s phrasing or vibrato – but you wouldn’t say anything. A lot gets cleared up by the person noticing for themselves, which is much better. In the end there’s a residue of things that have not been cleared up and then you start addressing them. Some are familiar concepts and old arguments. You don’t need to debate how to do a certain sort of sforzando in Beethoven every time, but you debate it if you feel it’s different. There’s a fundamental language you’ve learnt to speak together.
Playing with strangers
This summer I’ve done a lot of festival work, where you get together with people you’ve never met before and you have five hours’ rehearsal. You have to be incredibly quick and to trust things are going to come together – you can’t rehearse every corner. The performances are a little unpolished, but it’s remarkable how quickly things come together, and there’s a freshness and excitement on the platform. I like both experiences, but coming back to the quartet there’s a feeling of familiarity, which is satisfying too. When you do nothing but quartet you’re aware of the things you disagree about, but there’s masses you agree on that never gets discussed, which you realise when you play with other people.
Bring your party piece to the masterclass
Groups ought to bring their party piece to a masterclass. It’s a mistake to bring something that they are in the process of learning, although students do that sometimes. When the coach says, ‘This is good, but think of this and try that,’ it opens new windows and raises players to their highest level, affecting everything they play. If the piece is something they’ve hardly looked at, they could improve it themselves easily: all I do is get it to that level a bit faster. If they’re stuck or satisfied and I can help them improve, then I’ve done something useful.
Try everything at least once
Go to a masterclass in the spirit of trying everything. For the duration of the class, try to make what the teacher says work. Afterwards you go through the process of discussing what you like, spitting out what you don’t like. I wouldn’t engage in dispute, because you lose time. I’m happy for people to question what I mean and why I’m suggesting something – I should have reasons and be clear – but if it’s clear and someone still has an issue, they can save it until afterwards. I’m quite verbal and with six years’ philosophy training I don’t mind arguing, but some coaches are more instinctive and don’t engage in argument as readily. If you don’t try to do what they say you’re missing what they can offer. If you’re trying something out you have to try it with good grace, not in a sulky way. You have to do it to the satisfaction of the person making the suggestion.
Sometimes things get worse before they get better
Some of the most fundamental, far-reaching teaching does not result in people immediately thinking, ‘Wow, yes, of course, that’s fantastic.’ Very often it makes everyone play worse. It’s so basic that people question everything they’re doing and realise they don’t have the technique. You’ve opened their ears and it sounds worse. It should be clear that this might need six months of work to master, but it’s taking them to a completely new level. One shouldn’t worry about impressing an audience and getting the quartet to play better immediately. Sometimes you do and that’s nice, but it’s important to say that things are not going to be doable there and then.
For example, I often see a lack of control of vibrato in phrasing. Players vibrate most freely on the least important note of the phrase – often the last note. In an appoggiatura, where the strongest note should be the upper note, the lower note gets the most vibrato because the upper note is on the fourth finger, the resolving note is on the second, and there’s a big rest, so you’ve got time and a good finger to vibrate. I come across this often and alert people to it, but it’s not something you can fix straight away. Either you think about it constantly and everything else goes out the window, or you forget about it and your fingers go back to doing what they were doing. You have to work on it slowly for months. Things like that can be disruptive and revolutionary, and create havoc.
When is the best time to start a quartet?
You should be virtually formed as an artistic individual before you start your quartet. Everyone should play quartets from an early age, but not with the idea it’s going to be their professional quartet, because you don’t know how you’re going to develop. If a group feels right when you’re 8, 14 or 19, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be right when you’re 25. You should do it, but not to begin your career. The career of a group should start when the players have reached a stage when they don’t need individual lessons.
Why competitions are like the lottery
We won the Portsmouth International String Quartet Competition (now the London String Quartet Competition) and got an agent through that. We were very lucky because early on we did 140 concerts a season so we were constantly on the platform together and rehearsing, doing very little other than quartets. We learnt our trade like that.
I am deeply uneasy with the concept of competitions, but in terms of building a career they help. I like schemes such as Young Concert Artists Trust, which is a semi-competition: they don’t rank the winners and the prize is having an agent rather than money, which is useful. As long as you don’t take competitions too seriously and don’t think there’s any relationship between who wins and who’s any good, you should just do it. It’s like doing the lottery: if you win, great; if you don’t, don’t worry about it. It gives you a focus to work for and a lot of people hear you who are not be jury members but who might be helpful.
We need a new model
It troubles me that we’re training many people in something for which there may often be hardly a career. There’s an enormous amount of help for groups and individuals in their 20s but they reach 30 and just when they need a mortgage or an instrument or they’re having babies, they fall off the cliff. They can’t get help or auditions, and grants and schemes don’t apply. Everything stops, so they’re completely dependent on commercial success. The model used to be that you helped young people like crazy and they’d grow to stand on their feet by 30, so you’d stop. If they hadn’t learnt to stand on their own feet then maybe you shouldn’t be helping them anyway. But that model isn’t working. There aren’t enough promoters who can provide a good enough fee, which you need to be an adult, so everyone’s facing an issue about how to survive. One answer is to have a lot of work abroad, but you have to get the work and it also means you’re away a lot, which creates issues about the intensity of the quartet experience and how to combine it with any sort of life.
I think we could do more to expand opportunities for quartets in the UK. String quartets are relatively cheap compared with a symphony orchestra, opera, play or dance. All you need is four chairs. If you get 350 people in a hall, paying £15 a ticket, it should pay for a reasonable fee, hire of the hall and a bit of publicity. Publicity doesn’t have to be expensive these days, and ticketing can be done online. Orchestras are subsidised handsomely, but chamber music gets nothing, other than indirectly through festivals. The Arts Council could fund regional arts associations so that anyone who books a British string quartet over the average age of 32, for a good fee, would get help with publicity and with the venue, and there could also be an incentive to get people in. They could also train local people in how to start a series.
The responsibility of music colleges
We have a system where the number of people accepted into our music colleges as far as I know has no relation to any assessment of how many string players we need. Colleges have their own pressures to take in a certain number of students. That means they’re accepting people who have little realistic hope of making a living through playing chamber music or in orchestras. In some ways that doesn’t matter because learning an instrument is as valid and as good a way of educating yourself as studying English, History or one of the many university subjects not directly connected with a career. However, I think it must be made clear to these students that this is going on. I don’t think people are told, ‘We believe you have got little chance of getting into an orchestra let alone a quartet or being a soloist.’ There should be more of that so that students can then decide whether they are happy studying playing for the sake of the general education involved or with the view to becoming involved in administrative aspects of the music profession. Nadia Boulanger talked about how we should discourage the young, that music is something you should only do if you have to. If young people are put off by an adult saying they shouldn’t do it, then they shouldn’t be doing it. There’s a lot to be said for that – maybe not for 8 year olds, but for 18 year olds.
Interview by Ariane Todes
Photo: Marc Gascoigne