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Quartet in Lockdown

Updated: Jun 13, 2020

We're used to making music together and travelling to perform for audiences around New Zealand and overseas, but the COVID-19 crisis has meant huge changes for us all. In New Zealand, we are currently into the fourth week of lockdown – a position many of you reading from around the world will also be experiencing. As we wait for the opportunity to perform for you all again, we're performing more solos than ever here in Wellington, and using digital tools to play and stay together.  Come inside our 'bubbles' and see what we're practising and getting up to.

Gillian's stand includes several sonatas, and she says, "despite no concerts and no rehearsals at the moment, there are still not enough hours in the day! I’m spending time practising viola pieces at the moment – perhaps not quite up to concert level but certainly getting to know a lot better from the inside...

There are many pieces I’ve taught over the years to my university students that I haven’t actually had the time to play myself to a high level and this is an opportunity to study them more. I spend enough time on each piece till it starts to feel like it’s really getting into my system physically and emotionally – I reckon I’m building up to a viola and piano recital at some point in the future when we’re allowed to perform again. It will be so interesting to feel the preciousness and privilege of that experience. 

Gillian's music stand

I'm also taking advantage of the extra time to look in more depth at different technical exercises from the multitude of violin and viola technique books I’ve collected over the last 40+ years…

Apart from practising a lot, my goals have been still doing my online teaching and meetings, phone calls and exercise, to do research on all sorts of thing - teaching, great players of the past, composers’ lives etc. And then there’s the house, paperwork and garden. The research amount hasn’t quite been up to my expectations, nor the paperwork or house as I have to confess that I’ve been completely over-indulging myself by working in my large, always-messy garden. I usually always crave more time to spend in it, so It’s been a huge and unexpected luxury to be able to stay home and attend to it and try to knock it into some resemblance of shape. I know how lucky I am to have this form of escape and satisfaction – I simply never tire of being in it."

Over to Helene, from her and Rolf’s bubble: "There’s quite a bit of musical noise going on as Peter, now 17 (celebrated with a Zoom party last week!) has ramped up his violin practice hours considerably – especially with school holidays underway.  One piece that we are all using to warm up on and keep the fingers limber is the Perpetual Motion by Paganini.  Rolf plays it on the cello in the same key as we do on the violin, so he does even more flying around the instrument than we do! It’s quite fun to compare metronome speeds, and sometimes we even play it together.  We are working our way through the string trio version of the Bach Goldberg Variations and are also discovering some beautiful trio sonatas. Then there are also duos if one person is busy with, say, cooking…!

Helene mentions, "I have been baking my own bread (and more recently also grinding my own flour for it) for years so my most important lockdown online order has been a 25 kg bag of wheat grain!  (Luckily that counts as an essential service) So every time I make a batch of bread these days, I turn some of the dough into pizza base/s."

Helene and Rolf's lockdown cuisine

For her own practise, Helene says, "The other day I made little practice cards for myself, each with the name of one Beethoven quartet movement on it.  I’m not giving up hope that we can get back to our Beethoven Cycle concerts later in the year, so need to keep all those tricky passages under my fingers!  Each day I will draw a card or three at random and work on those movements.

I’m also making practice videos for my students. We aren’t allowed to teach in person, so are trying to make best use of all the online resources - lessons on zoom, sending recordings back and forth, and little inspirational titbits here and there.  We will hopefully come out of isolation with our techniques at a new level, not to mention an unequalled eagerness to finally make music together again."

Like Gillian, Rolf has been spending time on research, discovering the wealth of documentaries and performances on YouTube. Among watching recordings of and interviews with 20th-century master string players,  the focus on Beethoven’s 250th anniversary this year means he’s delved into programmes we think everyone may enjoy, such as the BBC’s three-part Beethoven series, which he says is "just the beginning to the rich collections of documentaries on YouTube."

Rolf's music

Rolf has been rotating the music on his stand, and takes us into his music room in this video below.

Monique expresses that "in New Zealand and globally, all of us are at home in a state of shock as we confront the immense challenge of containing the virus which has had such devastating health and economic impacts on communities here and around the world. As a performer, I found myself going through several stages of reaction. At the beginning, I experienced an utter sense of helplessness, with all concerts cancelled into the unforeseeable future and no way to rehearse with my colleagues. The next stage, I found myself searching for motivation and finding a sense of purpose. This required a new perspective on how to approach music - particularly chamber music.

On my music stand (and floor) pictured sits a standard set of violin studies, caprices - the Bach “bible” - and some new works I am taking this time to look at. Of course, the complete set of Beethoven string quartets lie prominently. These are just some scores I’d take selections from for daily practise...and indeed there are many other works stored on my tablet including a great deal of Bartók.

Monique's stand

But the focal point of this photo may very well be the tablet...on which I have been recording multitrack videos. I have spent countless hours trying out various violin ensemble pieces, string quartets and even tried my hand at some Jazz arrangements. This has opened up a wave of musical exploration and also heightened a deeper sense of listening and awareness. 

Multitrack recording is nothing new, having existed since the 1940’s...but during these uncertain times there has been an outpouring of this recording technique from many musicians, which has been inspiring. Today, it can be as simple as downloading a mobile ‘app’ and pressing ‘record’ (as you may see in the photo). This most certainly does not substitute the need or desire to play with my colleagues - it merely provides a temporary satisfaction until we are reunited.

In one of my recent projects, I recreated the string quartet in order to satisfy a deep craving. In order to achieve this, I played viola and both violin parts with a slightly altered cello part - also played on viola. Being able to video-record each line and feel the gradual emergence of a full string quartet - one line at a time - is a strangely gratifying experience. I found it also developed a hyper-awareness of listening and observational skills. One is focused on every single element...harmonic intonation; sound quality; colour; bow speed; the physical gestures; the breathing; pulse and rhythm; the musical direction both within small phrases and the larger musical direction of the entire piece. These are just some elements which are frankly considered in a regular quartet rehearsal...but it’s more pronounced when one is ultimately responsible for all parts and elements that shape the piece being recorded. Perhaps a relatable analogy can be found in cooking, baking or gardening…when one person is responsible for every element, each individual step, the time and patience to create or nurture, ultimately resulting in the mouth-watering or beautiful product with a greater degree of appreciation for the process.

Most importantly, it’s been an avenue to personally create and share music with people, in the hope that it may provide a shimmer of light, or some emotional comfort during these uncertain times. Like many musicians around the world - we are so looking forward to being able to share live music with our audiences. Until then - you will catch us performing in the brave new digital world as we meet these challenging times together."

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