String stars on the joys and challenges of being professional musicians today, and their hopes for the future

Compiled by Stephanie Powell and Megan Westberg

For 30 years, Strings editors have had the privilege of covering the string world, with each month’s issue serving as a snapshot of the artists, projects, instruments, and events that best demonstrate the vitality of the musical landscape. So what better way to celebrate an anniversary than to expand on this notion: What does the string scene look like today from the perspective of those who know it best?

We asked nine artists—Turtle Island Quartet cellist Malcolm Parson; violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter; violinist and Fiddler in Broadway’s production of Fiddler on the Roof Kelly Hall-Tompkins; violist, and president and CEO of the Curtis Institute of Music Roberto Díaz; violinist Philippe Quint; violinist James Ehnes; violinist and Baroque specialist Rachel Podger; cellist, co-founding artistic director of Music@Menlo, and co-artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center David Finckel; and fiddler and multi-instrumentalist Sara Watkins—about their lives as professional string players, their hopes and concerns for the future, and advice that helped shape their outlook.  —MW

malcolmMalcolm Parson, cellist

Why is this an exciting time to be a string player? 

With countless players gravitating toward different styles, it’s a great time for exploring various technical and technological possibilities as a string player. Be it infusing loop stations and pedals, or mere free improvisation, the string world is increasingly opening up to these non-[traditional] ideas and practices.

What kinds of skills do you think a string player needs in order to succeed in the 21st century? 

Today, string players must not only be great performers but great multi-taskers as well.

With the decline of past music-business practices, we are now required to take full control over our careers and create a buzz on our own. We must able to book shows, design our own sites, create marketing and promotional plans, and produce our own videos, as well as record ourselves, among other things.

What do you think audiences expect from string performers today? 

Audiences are still looking for great performances that will leave them mesmerized. Though this is normally achieved through technical prowess, audiences are now more inclined to react to performers who are connecting to them from an emotional perspective than the normal virtuosic.

Though both of these perspectives are needed to be considered a great player to some, being virtuosic for the sake of virtuosity is pointless and will show in how your audience responds.

How do you expect string playing to change over the course of the next 20 years? What changes would you like to see? 

I expect there to be a lot more string players who can improvise in the next 20 years. That being said, I would also like to see more string programs across the country create more classes and lectures in improvisation. There should not be such a small number of improvising string players when there have been so many greats who have come before us: Stuff Smith, Oscar Pettiford, Stephane Grappelli, Fred Katz, Ron Carter, and Regina Carter, to name a few.

What concerns do you have for the future of string playing? 

My only concern is that we continue to find creative ways to express ourselves as string players and composers. [I would like to see string players] continue utilizing the advancement in technology as a positive tool for our creative process and to continue finding [non-traditional] ways of music making that will inspire the next generation.

What’s the best piece of career (or musical) advice you ever got? 

The best piece of advice I’ve received was from Mr. Ron Carter. He told me a few years ago that no matter what gig or performance it is, always do your best.

If you wanted someone to fall in love with string music, what’s the first recording you would recommend? 

I would recommend one of my all-time favorites, “On the Nature of Daylight,” by Max Richter.

What is your primary instrument, bow, and what type(s) of strings do you use? 

I play a Montagnana-model cello, which is part of the Jay Haide a l’ancienne series. The bow that I play is nothing special and something simple that I bought in Boston, Massachusetts. I’m currently using Jargar strings for the A and D strings and Larsen Soloist Editions for the G and C.


anne

Anne-Sophie Mutter, violinist

Why is this an exciting time to be a string player?

It’s not particularly more exciting than it has been, you know, hundreds of years ago when Mozart wrote his fabulous Sonata KV 454, which I will perform for my 40th stage anniversary. They always had a great number of string players pushing the repertoire forward and that is what I think really counts in music history in terms of legacies and what has made the stringed instruments so interesting. This generation has really much advanced [string playing] in terms of how much further the violin can go and how much more repertoire we can look forward to.

What kinds of skills do you think a string player needs in order to succeed in the 21st century?

I don’t see any great distinction between the instruments—in order to be a musician you, of course, [need to be] knowledgeable because talent alone is a rather slippery slope and can be a rather thin eggshell to walk on. You need a deep understanding to question what you have done in the past, what you are doing currently, and where you want to go in the future. Curiosity, humbleness, an unstillable thirst for information for the different galaxies out there. Being resilient and content that your role is that of a servant to the composer. I think one should be a servant to the music.

What do you think audiences expect from string performers today?

I’m always very intrigued by an audience that knows the past as well as the present. In order to be an audience member with very skilled ears and the ability to really judge quality from the mainstream, one has to know where the great violin players and the great string-playing tradition are coming from. One cannot know just by looking into the recordings of today—you have to dig deeper; you have to go back to the last century. You have to know what Mischa Elman sounded like. What was Pablo Casals doing? So that is hopefully part of the expectation that an audience is well-informed. Other than that I think audiences rightly expect being touched—excited with a lasting memory of the music of the live performance they have attended. Hopefully that will contribute to them being hooked on music, coming back, and helping us musicians recreate music again and again in the most passionate and insightful ways.

How do you expect string playing to change over the course of the next 20 years? What changes would you like to see?

Every generation needs musicians who are bold enough to view music through their own unique set of eyes. We don’t need another generation of well-trained slick performers. We need the one who goes out there like Dinu Lipatti—he almost died when he went onstage, he was so nervous, so passionate, so burning for it. We need to keep a few of these great ideals, pillars of musicianship—of artistry. That fire we have to keep going. We always have to aim for the highest production in order to ensure that the audience and a generation of players in the future know what real quality sounds like.

What concerns do you have for the future of string playing?

I just finished a book by [Joseph] Szigeti and he was complaining in the ’60s that he was under the impression that there was only a mediocre generation of string players coming about. And that is what I am sometimes concerned about. I’m concerned that every generation has to struggle with the fact that we need people out there who commission contemporary music—who see themselves as explorers for these galaxies. We are the interpreters, and the public may not be immediately interested in [the pieces], but they need to put the quest for leaving a legacy in music before anything else. I’m concerned that record companies are struggling. I’m concerned about an array of things that has to do with the integrity of the arts and that has to be taught from one generation to the next.

What’s the best piece of career (or musical) advice you ever got?

Boy! I’m concertizing now for 40 years! I’ve gotten a lot of advice; I’m still getting advice; and I’m giving advice—I have no idea how valuable that is. [Laughs.] Anyhow one of the many things [Herbert von] Karajan told me in ancient times was: If you have reached all of your goals, you have most certainly aimed too low. The advice really is to be ever questioning, in a healthy sense, what you are doing. You have to question [your] sources of information, and the subjective [influence] of that particular period in your life—the way you look at a certain piece of music, if it has value to the repertoire, and how you could possibly evolve.

Reading Mozart’s letters to his father, one thing is recurring: First of all, composers are extremely passionate in their way of performing, not only composing but performing their own pieces. And the second point: There are many ways to interpret music—there is not one interpretation that will do the piece justice to its fullest.

And it’s interesting to talk to Sofia Gubaidulina, who wrote “In Tempus Praesens” for me. Once it wasn’t exclusive to me any more, Gidon Kremer started to play it and it was just wonderful, but very different from my view point. And she embraced both players’ viewpoints. And this is what keeps music alive and sums up the essence of music-making: [being] well researched, being bold, being humble, and never being satisfied with what you are doing because your fantasy should be miles ahead of what you are physically able to do.

If you wanted someone to fall in love with string music, what’s the first recording you would recommend?

Oh boy, that’s a very difficult question. You know when I was very young, probably the trigger of me starting with the violin was the Beethoven Concerto played by [Yehudi]Menuhin. But when I had already taken up the violin I was very intrigued by Bruckner’s treatment of the stringed instrument.

I do feel that [with] a live experience, though—no matter if it’s a stringed instrument or a piano recital—seeing and, much more important, feeling what sometimes happens in terms of magic onstage [can be] transmitted to the audience. That can be the easiest way to have this spark fly right into your heart.

So take your kids to the concerts! Go out there and experience it live because nothing—not the best recorded moment—will replicate that moment when there is this silence in the hall, this silence of awe because this great creation of the Beethoven is reappearing and it’s embracing all of us. And we need young players—we need them out there. We need them to have this Olympic fire for the next generation.

What is your primary instrument, bow and what type of strings do you use?

Violin: The 1710 “Lord Dunraven” Stradivari Bows: Benoît Rolland and Donald M. Cohen Strings: Pirastro, [D’Addario Kaplan] Golden Spiral and [Thomastik-Infeld] Dominant


kelly

Kelly Hall-Tompkins, violinist

Why is this an exciting time to be a string player?

It is an exciting time to be a string player for so many reasons! As a student, no matter where you live, an internet connection will give you access to master classes, great teachers, and concerts all over the world. I had great teachers in South Carolina as a child, but attending Tanglewood’s BUTI at 15 was my first real window into the musical world beyond my hometown. Now from South Carolina to South Dakota, I reach students by Skype. For professionals, it’s exciting that the barriers that separate different types of careers into solitary silos is breaking down, opening new opportunities!

What kinds of skills do you think a string player needs in order to succeed in the 21st century?

Versatility: Even if you have a very traditional education, there are more and more genres, styles, venues, and settings that call us to expand, evolve, and create! Vision: The ability to conceive of new and creative ways in which our art form can intersect and interact with our world. Keeping your ear to the ground: While it’s not necessary to chase after trends, it is a good idea to find the rhythm of your time.

What do you think audiences expect from string performers today?

Audiences expect to be moved and transported by string performers today. We get technical wizardry from our mobile devices (well, sometimes). From an art form, audiences crave artistry and connection, and want technique [to serve] as a facilitator to open the door to that inspiration.

How do you expect string playing to change over the course of the next 20 years? What changes would you like to see?

Through programs like El Sistema and organizations like Sphinx, I am so happy to see string instruction become accessible to so many more students. I also hope to see a return to strong public-school music education, like the one in Greenville, South Carolina, where I started playing violin. I am a big proponent of the STEM to STEAM concept for the core education curriculum: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math.

What concerns do you have for the future of string playing?

Because string pedagogy has become more efficient and seemingly technique-driven, artistry is not a quality that is necessarily developing at the same level. I hope that we will come back to a time of more artistic depth and individuality, like the older generations of players who inspired many of us to play. I think when we have that, orchestras, concert series, and artists will thrive more often than not.

What’s the best piece of career (or musical) advice you ever got?

When I was contemplating a career shift, one of the best pieces of advice I got was in the form of an image on a card from a friend—it pictured someone walking a tight rope that was fixed only on one end and suspended in midair on the other. It perfectly depicts the essence of some of my favorite quotes:

“I have adopted the technique of living life from miracle to miracle.” —Arthur Rubinstein 

“Just take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.” —Martin Luther King 

“Follow your bliss . . . and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”

—Joseph Campbell 

“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.” —Albert Einstein 

If you wanted someone to fall in love with string music, what’s the first recording you would recommend?

Oh that’s easy—for me it will always involve a piece of Brahms’ chamber music! And one of the pieces I love most in the world is the G major Sextet. I fell in love with that piece through a concert recording of my high-school chamber-music teacher Lenny Schranze at the Kinhaven Festival. My percussionist husband now knows it well because I played it so many times when we were dating. Just recently, I referred the same recording to Harry Smith during our interview for the NBC Today Show. Though that didn’t make it into our segment, he followed up to tell me how much he enjoyed discovering this piece!


robertoRoberto Díaz, violist

Why is this an exciting time to be a string player? 

The level of string playing is amazingly high—at international competitions to what we see here at Curtis. [Editor’s Note: Díaz is president and CEO at the Curtis Institute.] The level of young people’s playing to just get into school nowadays, or even to get into one of the great orchestras—the levels are getting higher and higher and it’s really exciting to see. I mean people are now playing Paganini’s Caprices effortlessly on the viola! There are wonderful teachers all over the world now, and it’s a really exciting time to see what’s happening to string playing. You see a lot of young people with a much broader sense of how to create a career. People now are making more opportunities for themselves.

What kinds of skills do you think a string player needs in order to succeed in the 21st century? 

People are realizing that when they get a job in one of the great orchestras around the world, they can also teach, start festivals, and create different opportunities for themselves. That mindset is a really wonderful thing to see develop and I think schools are really trying to develop curriculum to make it possible for people to go forward.

What do you think audiences expect from string performers today?

Hopefully the sense of excitement of the live performance is still there—audiences expect that and the excitement that anything can happen at any given time. At the same time, the level of playing has evolved and audiences are expecting more and more—really perfection. You hope that a live performance never gets replaced by the need to perform as close to what you did on your CD as possible; you hope that the excitement and spontaneity of that performance will never get lost, and I think that audiences still look for that. That’s why you go to a live performance as opposed to staying home and following a career through CD releases.

How do you expect string playing to change over the course of the next 20 years? What changes would you like to see? 

I love to see string players who can play almost anywhere. I would love to see more and more of that. I think that some of the young artists I have seen come out of Curtis—the fact that they are as comfortable playing in an alternative venue, whether it’s a coffee house or a library, as they are playing in a great concert hall, is a really wonderful thing.

What concerns do you have for the future of string playing? 

I can’t say that I’m terribly worried about it. I appreciate the fact that many institutions are now able to lend wonderful old instruments to deserving young players more and more. Moving forward, with the price of instruments continuing to rise—even new instruments are becoming very expensive—those instruments are becoming completely out of reach. They offer such an incredible experience and a learning opportunity for a young person and I hope that access to instruments like that will continue to be possible.

As far as playing itself, I think as long as we keep fostering the sense of the individual—we don’t want you to sound like everyone else in the studio or at school—there are a lot of wonderful opportunities ahead.

What’s the best piece of career (or musical) advice you ever got?

I think that sometimes when people expressed doubts about what I was doing, or how I was doing it, it actually made me sort of rethink my opportunity or my game plan. I think that we need to be encouraging—not to give people false hopes—to have people understand that diversified careers are really wonderful and a preferable way forward. Whether it was done in a positive or critical way, I was always aware of the fact that I could do a lot of different things. And I’ve always been happy that my career, even now in administration, has been very fulfilling.

If you wanted someone to fall in love with string music, what’s the first recording you would recommend he or she listen to?

I grew up in a house where my dad is a violist and my mom is a pianist, so I grew up hearing great string playing and great music. I can tell you that as a violist I certainly wore through a recording of [William] Primrose playing Harold in Italy—that was one of the things I listened to a lot. But [for] someone who doesn’t have that kind of access at home, a piece that people always respond to for obvious reasons is the Barber Adagio for strings. I think that’s the kind of piece that would encourage someone to want to make music like that. That piece has such a broad appeal I can imagine it might make someone curious about what it would be like to play it.

What is your primary instrument, bow, and what type of strings do you use?

Viola: The ‘ex-Primrose’ Amati viola

Bow: Dominique Peccatte

Strings: “I actually use [Thomastik-Infeld] Spirocore on it. Some people think it’s a little sacrilegious on an instrument like that, but I’ve had it set up like that for years and it works! It’s very flexible—whether it’s for chamber music, recitals, or concertos. It’s very stable.”


philippePhilippe Quint, violinist

Why is this an exciting time to be a string player? 

Music is the language of the soul, a path to creativity, an instigator of imagination. It’s math—it’s science. The world on four strings had always been an exciting journey for me. I consider myself very lucky to be a musician and artist. Being a violinist in particular has many perks: For one, playing on the 1708 “Ruby” Antonio Stradivari violin, which is on loan to me through the Stradivari Society of Chicago, is a little like having your own personal miracle in a violin case. Every day I open the case and can hardly believe the incredible work of art that is in my hands.

I feel we are experiencing a renaissance of string playing. The level is incredibly high. There are many great performers with unique voices.

What kinds of skills do you think a string player needs in order to succeed in the 21st century? 

The music world is full of opportunities. Whether your life path will take you toward a career as a soloist, chamber musician, an orchestra player, or all of the above, what is important is to consider yourself an ambassador for your craft and an advocate for what you love. In a world where classical music isn’t always understood with wider audiences, it is a great responsibility for all of us to make sure that we [inspire] the next generation of concert goers that are anxious and willing to experience the power of classical music.

What do you think audiences expect from string performers today? 

Audiences vary in their preferences so I would concentrate more on what string players can expect of themselves to bring to those audiences. Quality of playing is essential, memorization of the music is particularly important to develop during early years, but in the future it is important to realize that playing correct notes and following the dynamics is only the beginning. It is the musical impact we must leave the audience with—conveying the message of the composer through our own unique ways.

How do you expect string playing to change over the course of the next 20 years? What changes would you like to see? 

I see that the world of classical music and string playing is successfully readjusting to the new world. We are seeing many artists with vision and thoughtful programming that sometimes incorporates visual effects. More of that is forthcoming. In terms of actual technical aspects of playing, we will be seeing artists and composers seeking new effects and new sounds, merging genres, compositions infused with political or personal messages. My hope is that the tradition of string performers who were also accomplished composers will come back. Also I hope the ability to improvise onstage will be more encouraged and appreciated.

What concerns do you have for the future of string playing? 

My concerns have mostly to do with teaching methods and parenting. To elaborate on both subjects: I have been giving master classes regularly around the world for almost two decades now. What I frequently encounter is a student who is struggling with musical material due to the wrong path suggested by a teacher or mentor. The second issue is overly ambitious “stage parents,” who are infusing their children with the fear of making mistakes or of not being perfect. These are very serious concerns that I am now constantly addressing in my work with students and conversations with their teachers and parents.

What’s the best piece of career (or musical) advice you ever got? 

Isaac Stern’s suggestion: To always look for a meaning behind every note.

If you wanted someone to fall in love with string music, what’s the first recording you would recommend? 

This is very important: proper introduction to classical [string] music. Pretty much any symphony by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms. Hitting a newcomer with Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony might be too much to start this journey, however I have also met folks that were so impacted by Shostakovich as first-time listeners that once again it all comes down to an individual’s taste and personal affinity for a particular style.

What is your primary instrument, bow, and what type(s) of strings do you use? 

Primary violin: The 1708 “Ruby” Stradivari

Bow: Francois Peccatte

Strings: I have used, for many years now, Thomastik-Infeld Vision Titanium Solo with a Jargar E string.


jamesJames Ehnes, violinist

Why is this an exciting time to be a string player?

It’s always an exciting time to be a string player! But I would say that there are so many opportunities out there and people have learned the value of making one’s own opportunities. You see people doing all sorts of creative things as string players—playing all types of music in all types of venues—and I think that that sort of openness and that sort of creativity makes this an exciting time.

What kinds of skills do you think a string player needs in order to succeed in the 21st century?

I think it’s probably not much different than the skills you need to succeed at any other time. There needs to be that combination of things that are in your control and things that are, unfortunately, out of your control. But [there needs to be] that combination of commitment, total dedication, a certain amount of natural talent and ability—and not just the ability to do certain things instrumentally, but the ability to concentrate in an increasingly fragmented world. People’s attention spans are shorter and shorter and that’s not a good quality if you’re trying to become a professional musician. This might be more specific to our times—I think one wants to be creative nowadays: finding your own opportunities, making your own opportunities, finding what makes your voice unique, and how to bring that to people. It’s not so easy these days to say, “Well, I play my instrument really well—I’ll be fine,” because there are so many people that play their instruments well, want it just as badly as you do, and might be a little bit more proactive about getting out there.

What do you think audiences expect from string performers today?

The overall standard of playing is very high these days so there’s an expectation that if you’re paying money to go to a performance, it will be at a very high level. And with so much access to music—I mean you can get on YouTube and hear every great violinist from the past 100 years—I think that listeners’ standards are high. Listeners are looking for the types of players that play with commitment and command, and make you pay attention. One hundred years ago it was a very, very big deal because you didn’t have the opportunity to listen to music that much. Whereas now, I have more music on my iPhone than someone 100 years ago would have heard in his or her entire life.

How do you expect string playing to change over the course of the next 20 years? What changes would you like to see?

It’s hard to say—it’s hard to know where things are going to go. I think that each generation is inspired by the great players of the former generation and I don’t think it’s possible to see when you’re in the moment who those people are going to be until after it’s already started to happen. I think that there’s sometimes a danger—the music world can be very dogmatic and certain people say, “If you play this piece of music from this period, this is the way you should approach all manners of interpretation.” And I think there is a real danger with that, but on the other hand I think that there are some players that are overly free, without necessarily being respectful to the composers’ wishes.

In a more existential way, I think it’s great that there is variety out there and that there are opportunities for listeners to hear, say, a dozen violinists in a given season and all of them will have something different to say. And listeners can make their own minds up about who they like best or whose music touches them the most.

What concerns do you have for the future of string playing?

You hear kids play sometimes, [maybe] in a master class, and they might be playing something in a very strange way. You ask them, “Well, have you listened to Heifetz play the [Julius] Conus Concerto?” and the answer is no. Then you ask, “Well, who did you listen to?” And he or she says, “Well, I got onto YouTube and I heard some student from wherever play it.” Well, that’s not really taking advantage of the knowledge you have available. I think that it’s important that people with so much at their fingertips for inspiration are careful about turning to the right sources.

What’s the best piece of career (or musical) advice you ever got?

The best advice is from my dad when I was a little kid. One day I just didn’t feel like practicing and he said, “Do you like to play the violin?” And I said, “Well, yeah.” And he said, “Do you want to play the violin?” And I said yes, and he said, “Well, do you want to play the violin well?” And I said, “Of course I want to play the violin well!” So he says, “Well, then you have to practice! There’s only one way and that’s that you have to practice.” And I thought, well, that’s not what I wanted to hear, but it’s pretty iron-clad logic. There are no shortcuts.

I think if you want to be better you have to work, and if you don’t want to work you’re not going to get better—and that’s OK if you don’t. If you feel that that’s not for you, then congratulations because you’ve made a really important realization. But listening to music or immersing yourself in culture or listening to great recordings—these are not going to make you play the violin well. I think that sometimes students think that if they sip coffee and listen to the David Oistrakh performance from 1958 of such and such, it will make them play the violin better and the fact is that it’s not.

If you wanted someone to fall in love with string music, what’s the first recording you would recommend?

Wow, that’s really hard—I think you could ask me this question 100 days in a row and I’d give you 100 different answers. But definitely something I remember as a kid just loving and still loving so much—a recording that if a person says, “What is it that you do and why do you like it?” I will often give them [as an answer]—the Heifetz recording of [Max Bruch’s] Scottish Fantasy. I think that’s a good place to start.

What is your primary instrument, bow, and what type(s) of strings do you use?

Violin: The 1715 “Marsick” Stradivari

Bow: François Tourte from around 1810

Strings: Peter Infeld


rachelRachel Podger, violinist

Why is this an exciting time to be a string player? 

I think it’s quite amazing to be alive in the 21st century, whatever instrument you play—just imagine, centuries of beautiful music composed and so much of it! Living in this day and age feels luxurious to me as we have such a huge choice of repertoire, especially as string players, but even more so as violinists! We are spoilt for choice—I find it exciting that one day you might be playing Monteverdi, the next Schubert, and then the next possibly Shostakovich!

What kinds of skills do you think a string player needs in order to succeed in the 21st century? 

It’s useful and instructive to be well versed in as many styles as possible, covering Baroque, classical, and contemporary, and vital to keep interested in all you come across, whatever it may be. I was watching the third Harry Potter movie with my girls the other night and enjoyed the amazing film score by John Williams—it’s fabulously evocative and there’s some wonderful string writing there! This doesn’t necessarily mean you would be a specialist in all styles, but having a basic knowledge of the language of any style is not just fascinating and enriching for you as a player, but also, of course, makes you a versatile and flexible musician.

What do you think audiences expect from string performers today? 

Probably beautiful and expressive sounds that move the heart and soul . . . that’s at least something I hope for when I go to a concert!

How do you expect string playing to change over the course of the next 20 years? What changes would you like to see? 

I think string playing and teaching has become a lot more open-minded in the last 20 odd years, embracing changing attitudes toward different styles, and I hope this continues.

What’s the best piece of career (or musical) advice you ever got? 

To sing through your instrument and find your unique voice that way. Also, to be consistent in your self-belief—anything that goes wrong is then not the end of the world!

If you wanted someone to fall in love with string music, what’s the first recording you would recommend? 

Gosh, there are many pieces I could list here, and it’s really impossible to choose, so here are a few (with a heavy emphasis on Baroque repertoire, since that’s my passion!): Monteverdi’s Sinfonia from Orfeo, Purcell’s Fantasias, Corelli’s Concerti Grossi, Biber’s five-part string music, Vivaldi’s Op. 3, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (or in fact anything by Bach!), but especially solo Bach as it’s good for the soul, Mozart’s String Quintets, Mendelssohn’s Octet, Beethoven’s late string quartets, and Schubert’s
String Quintet.

What is your primary instrument, bow, and what type(s) of strings do you use? 

I own an Italian violin by Pesarinius, dating from 1739, which I found in a modern set-up, and had it “re-Baroqued” to its original state (i.e. smaller bass bar, shorter and straight neck, Baroque-style bridge, thinner sound post). My bow is by the late René Groppe and is a copy of a French Baroque bow from around 1720 (good for playing solo Bach!), and I use various types of gut strings by Toro, Gamut, and Aquila.


david

David Finckel, cellist

Why is this an exciting time to be a string player? 

It’s exciting for string players today because the styles and levels of string playing are all over the map. There many different markets for string players of varying skill and musical education, more places to find a niche than ever.

What kinds of skills do you think a string player needs in order to succeed in the 21st century? 

That depends on what genre one expects to succeed in and at what career level. For some kinds of music, very little systematized training is needed or even desirable; for others, it’s hard to find training rigorous enough to make it to the top.

What do you think audiences expect from string performers? 

Audiences today generally expect projection of sound, musical ideas, and personality as top priorities.

How do you expect string playing to change in the next 20 years? 

I expect to see the importance of individuality return as a criteria for artistic success, which I welcome, along with a growing sense
of supporting the composer as the performer’s primary responsibility.

What concerns do you have for the future of string playing?

My concerns for string players are the same as for the entire
classical-music industry: lack of general education and lack of support, recognition, respect, and understanding of the high arts by the media, government, and prominent figures in society. The level and number of extraordinary and worthy young artists are in danger of exceeding the number of people of understanding interested to hear them.

What is the best piece of career or musical advice you’ve received?

Career advice and musical advice can either be looked at as separate or equal; I see them as equal. To be a great performing musician you have to have the physical discipline of a world-class athlete, the intellectual curiosity of a Rhodes Scholar, and the yearning for artistic depth and excellence of the finest artists, of any field, who have ever walked the face of the earth. If you really do all that, the career will follow. It may take time, but you will not go unnoticed, and people will be interested in you because you show a love and dedication to music that is above and beyond mercenary and narcissistic concerns.

David Finckel, cellist

Why is this an exciting time to be a string player? 

It’s exciting for string players today because the styles and levels of string playing are all over the map. There many different markets for string players of varying skill and musical education, more places to find a niche than ever.

What kinds of skills do you think a string player needs in order to succeed in the 21st century? 

That depends on what genre one expects to succeed in and at what career level. For some kinds of music, very little systematized training is needed or even desirable; for others, it’s hard to find training rigorous enough to make it to the top.

What do you think audiences expect from string performers? 

Audiences today generally expect projection of sound, musical ideas, and personality as top priorities.

How do you expect string playing to change in the next 20 years? 

I expect to see the importance of individuality return as a criteria for artistic success, which I welcome, along with a growing sense
of supporting the composer as the performer’s primary responsibility.

What concerns do you have for the future of string playing?

My concerns for string players are the same as for the entire
classical-music industry: lack of general education and lack of support, recognition, respect, and understanding of the high arts by the media, government, and prominent figures in society. The level and number of extraordinary and worthy young artists are in danger of exceeding the number of people of understanding interested to hear them.

What is the best piece of career or musical advice you’ve received?

Career advice and musical advice can either be looked at as separate or equal; I see them as equal. To be a great performing musician you have to have the physical discipline of a world-class athlete, the intellectual curiosity of a Rhodes Scholar, and the yearning for artistic depth and excellence of the finest artists, of any field, who have ever walked the face of the earth. If you really do all that, the career will follow. It may take time, but you will not go unnoticed, and people will be interested in you because you show a love and dedication to music that is above and beyond mercenary and narcissistic concerns.


sara

Sara Watkins, fiddler

Why is this an exciting time to be a string player?

Every time is an exciting time to be a string player! I grew up in the non-classical world—with a few years of classical lessons, Suzuki lessons—and I was always the black sheep at recitals and things, like “Oh, isn’t that cute the fiddle player is playing classical music!” But I always felt like there was either non-classical bluegrassy stuff or classical. Obviously there’s jazz and Cajun and all these things, but it was like there were the folkies and the nonrefiners, and the refiners. And I feel like you don’t have to choose as much these days, like there’s much more in-between stylistically in terms of what people are getting out of their instruments, choices that players are making that are not overtly one or the other, but that string players are learning from the other camps and adopting things that they identify with, which I think is really good for the instruments, for the players, and for the enrichment of the scene.

What kinds of skills do you think a string player needs in order to succeed in the 21st century? 

I think a string player needs the same things that all musicians need. The more tools you have in your toolbelt the better. And I think it’s really good for string players to play all the other stringed instruments, too. It’s important for people to be able to relate to the other people in the band that they’re playing with.

I can’t speak orchestrally, but in a non-orchestral world I have found it’s really good to know what it feels like to be the guitar player in the band because that teaches you things that you need from other string players. When you are in a more supportive role you realize: Oh, it’s hard for me to accompany a string player who’s playing in a way that doesn’t gel, whether it’s timing or pitch or whatever. But then you relate, you sympathize with the plight of the other people in the band.

I think it’s really important for musicians to try and experience that as much as they can and it’ll make you a better string player, even if you don’t want to become a guitar player. It strengthens you as a musician to be able to see the other side of the stage and help them because when you help them you’re helping yourself as well.

What do you think audiences expect from string performers today? 

My favorite musicians are the ones who really feel in the moment, the ones who make me feel as an audience member like they are on the same ride I’m on. They don’t really know how the story’s going to end. Whether it’s something they’ve played or sung tens or hundreds of times, my favorite performers are the ones that make it feel like this was the first time that they’ve told this story or they’ve played this part. And they strive to get the most out of it in the moment that they can. And a lot of that has to do with your ensemble, everyone being on the same page trying to react to each other. What I hope people get from my shows is the feeling that we all went on a ride together and that we came out the other side—and something special happened that night.

How do you expect string playing to change over the course of next 20 years? What would you like to see?

I think the change I’m seeing is the most encouraging thing. My experience—at camps and in different situations where there are musicians thrown together and people are adapting and joining in—is in that collaboration and that community of players. I like to see it. I like to see when other people are collaborating and joining in, out of their comfort zone, and are really trying to appreciate this whole other angle. It’s like everything: It’s like the world, it’s like a conversation, it’s like a dinner party, playing with people, and my musical joy comes from playing with people. And I’ve been really encouraged to see that a lot of people who come from the classical structure adapt fiddly things to their world, without compromising their technique and their discipline. It’s been really, really sweet.

My friend Eric Jacobsen is the conductor at the Orlando [Philharmonic] Orchestra (he also plays in the Knights, and he conducts the Knights, actually, and he was a part of Brooklyn Rider for a very long time). He’s sort of my peek into the classical world. It’s my only peek! It seems like he’s trying to incorporate song more into the orchestral program and trying to bring a more diverse audience into the hall. I’m sure it will probably remind people “Oh, maybe I do like more stories in songs in that structure, not the traditional classical vocal technique,” or, “Maybe I do like orchestra, and it’s not what I thought it was.”

It’s opening people up to a new experience. While Eric is doing that, he’s also enabling people like me to have this incredible experience to sing with an orchestra, or play with an orchestra. I would probably not have that otherwise. In broadening his program, he’s giving me, and other people like me, a gift that we could maybe have this incredible collaboration that we hadn’t really thought possible.

What concerns do you have for the future of string playing?

None, as long as people keep adapting and trying to stay present and be inspired by what’s around them and be open to adaptation, I think everything will be great.

What’s the best piece of career (or musical) advice you ever got? 

If you can’t play it slow, you can’t play it fast. That’s advice from one of my two earliest teachers—I can’t remember who said it—Dennis Caplinger or John Moore. They were in a band together.

Growing up, Dennis was my fiddle teacher and that was sort of a mantra of theirs. Because you’re a kid and you just want to zoom through everything and bust through a passage (I’d have brackets on this section that’s kind of hard and I would just plow ahead—and hope that everyone forgot about it), they would say, No. You should be able to play everything slowly and then speed it up. That will expose the real weaknesses.

If you wanted someone to fall in love with string music, what’s the first recording you would recommend? 

That’s really hard! To fall in love with string music, oh my goodness . . . There is a beautiful Sinatra recording: My friend Gabe Witcher turned me onto it when we were talking about music that we love before this record [Watkins’ recent release Young in All the Wrong Ways]. Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely is the name of the album. And Nelson Riddle did the orchestration for it, and it’s just beautiful. Those orchestral arrangements are very moving, the way they go with the vocal and the way Frank goes with them. It’s a “sit down and listen to this” kind of record.

 

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