What do a 28-year-old engineer, 43-year-old symphony executive director, 50-year-old climate change scientist, and 61-year-old HR consultant have in common? We play in the same flute quartet.
After our last rehearsal, which was so exhilarating it actually left me giddy, I found myself wondering: Would the four of us spend this amount of time together under any other circumstances if chamber music weren’t involved? Now don’t get me wrong. I like these folks. I mean, I really like them. But it’s been a long time since a man in his 20s willingly chose to spend an evening with me. And, for the most part, my friends don’t hold PhDs in environmental engineering. Nor do they negotiate orchestral concerts and manage a symphony between 9 and 5.
And, yet, this disparate foursome has bonded over our mutual desire to play music at the highest level our collective abilities allow.
We all come from backgrounds that involved rigorous musical study from an early age. Our college degrees are all in the arts and music performance. Then, for a variety of reasons (financial necessity, health issues, family situations, basic disillusionment), we all moved into other careers. But when we sit in those four chairs with our instruments tuned and ready, we tap into a common language that allows us to communicate in a way that transcends the best dinner date or evening on the town — a language that is constrained by neither age nor profession.
The Language of Music
This language isn’t just about understanding that you don’t take the repeats in a "da capo" or the interpretation of a slash through a grace note’s stem. (Although I’m always relieved when I still remember the musical rules.) Rather, it’s about the gentle lift of the bow in a Mozart phrase, the subtle pause before the final cadence in Bach, the imperceptible breath after a fermata in Beethoven. The moments that make mere notes on a page turn into music.
As musicians, we’re trained to listen… whether that be to the tempo indicated in an upbeat or the heartbreak revealed in the smallest sigh. We’re trained to be open minded… whether that be in giving Schoenberg an honest try or listening to the views of one who brings forth an entirely different perspective. We’re trained to be precise…whether that be in the attention paid to a double dotted note or the focus given to a person speaking her mind. This may be the reason that in addition to wonderful music-making, we have incredible conversations.
Discussions Between the Notes
As we nourish our bodies with take-n-bake pizza and wine before we start to play, we share the day-to-day moments of our lives. The trials of juggling work and family responsibilities, the excitement of a new boyfriend who is a bonafide rocket scientist, the challenge of a 12-year-old daughter who wants to fly a drone, the complexities of a long-distance relationship, and (my current all-consuming issue) how to best see the music on the page: eyeglasses, contact lenses, readers, or some combination of the above.
To my great relief, we don’t talk politics. I’d be hard pressed to tell you the political leanings of anyone in the group. And we mostly steer clear of current events, with the exception of rather lively discussions about the latest news items posted on violinist.com. We tend to stick to topics closer to home — whatever we might be wrestling with at the time. And then we turn our attention to the music.
In a Class by Itself
The experience of playing in a small ensemble stands solidly within its own category of musical expression. At the beginning of 2018, I vowed to play more chamber music and it started with the formation of this flute quartet. Now I have a second outlet that complements my regular string quartet and stretches me even further. I've moved up to the first violin chair (scary), my regular first violinist is playing viola (a challenge she finds stimulating), we’re joined by a new cellist (a facile player who's rock solid), and we've added a flutist (a wonderful musician who’s as comfortable playing the first violin line as the flute line).
There is a freedom that comes when the musical expectations are set solely by each individual player. We are each personally working to become more proficient. Any judgement passed comes only from within one’s own self. As the weakest link, I can honestly say that I feel nothing but support from the other three chairs. We have tremendous respect for one another and truly appreciate the desire we share to keep music in our lives. And that’s not always easy.
I know how hard my quartet partners work. I know how early they get up for work, how many swim meets they attend each week with their kids, how much preparation went into the climate change presentation, how far they have to drive to be with a loved one, how bad traffic was on the parkway getting to my house to rehearse. And they know I’m dealing with the emotional aftermath of losing a beloved family member. If they know how much our time together has kept me afloat, they are kind enough not to say.
While it might be easier to simply spend an evening, at best, getting ready for the next day or, at worst, giving in to the pressures of daily life, we don’t. We get our instruments out and tune up. Because we know that when we do, we will feel a vital and inextricable connection to ourselves, to each other, and to that indescribable phenomenon we simply call music.
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