An artist’s workspace in many ways defines the musical experience: This is the site of true musical growth, and having the right resources at hand can give that growth a boost. We asked cellist Maya Beiser, violinist Lara St. John, the Ulysses Quartet, and violist Drew Alexander Forde to imagine their ideal workspaces, and describe the gear that would help take their playing to the next level.
Cellist and recording artist Maya Beiser has performed both standard and eclectic repertoire as a solo artist throughout the world in major venues, such as Carnegie Hall, London’s South Bank Centre, and the Sydney Opera House, and has collaborated with artists across many disciplines, including Brian Eno, Philip Glass, and Shirin Neshat. Her work can be heard on ten solo albums, many studio recordings, and film-music collaborations. Her latest album, TranceClassical, debuted at No. 1 on the Apple Music classical chart. She is a 2015 United States Artists Distinguished Fellow in Music and a 2017 Mellon Distinguished Visiting Artist at MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology. Beiser is a graduate of Yale University and was a founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars.
When I built my home studio a few years ago, I wanted to create a space that would inspire me every day, stimulate my mind, and allow me to evolve and grow as an artist. My work is dedicated to reinventing solo cello performance in the mainstream classical arena. There is nothing wrong with interpreting the old masters, but I want to be involved in the creative process on many levels and invent new ideas in music performance.
There are many layers to this, beginning with the fact that performing music has a kind of sacred, spiritual quality for me. I love the ritual nature of the performance and I am interested in every aspect of that ritual, not just the music itself. I never felt connected to the many rules that permeate classical-music performances. I try to free my mind so that I can think and approach any music in the most direct and honest way. In my work, I strive for the whole—a performance that is profoundly powerful, life changing, ecstatic.
I live in New York City in a 1920s house overlooking the Hudson River, surrounded by lush nature. My music studio is connected to my yoga/dance studio and gym. I planned every aesthetic detail. The floor is bamboo throughout, the walls a mixture of sea grass and stone. The lighting is soft and indirect. A large window looks into a garden of hydrangeas. Another window looks west over the Hudson. The sound is pleasing but not too reverberant. It is not a perfect recording studio—when I am ready to record a new album I would choose the appropriate place based on the music—but it has everything I need to record tracks and experiment with electronics, and it’s a perfect rehearsal space for me.
One of the reasons I am so interested in technology is that it allows me to dream big. I feel so lucky that we now have such advanced technology that I can incorporate into my performances in seamless ways. I love the interplay between the energy that happens live onstage and the technological elements that allow me to expand my vocabulary in so many different directions. However, I never want to lose that human, intimate thread. Many people think of classical music as an isolated and concentrated discipline—you could dedicate your entire life to working on a single Bach suite—but I am passionately interested in the connections between music and many other disciplines, and how it fits into the greater tapestry of human curiosity and inquiry. In my studio, I strive to create the environment that will propel me forward to create new art with my cello.
Here is some of the most important electronic equipment I have in my studio:
- Speakers: DynAudio Monitors
- Amp: Hartke KickBack
- Microphones: sE Electronics sE 4400a, DPA 4021, DPA 4099
- Pedals: Boss BD-2 Blues Driver, Boss OD-1 Overdrive, Boss GE-7 EQ, Aguilar Tone Hammer, Line 6 wireless instrument system, Behringer Line Switcher
- Computer: Apple MacBook Pro
- Interfaces: Digidesign 002, FireFace 400, Universal Audio Apollo Quad
- Software: Sibelius, Ableton Live, Logic MainStage, Qlab
- MIDI pedals: Keith McMillen Instruments SoftStep 2, Apogee GiO
Lara St. John
At the age of two Lara St. John picked up the violin, and by the age of four she had already performed as a soloist with an orchestra. The Canadian powerhouse violinist is known for tackling both unfamiliar works and standard repertoire, and for her love of Bach and reptiles. She began her studies at the Curtis Institute at age 13, where she eventually went on to earn her degree, and in 1999 started her own record label, Ancalagon, which she named after her pet iguana. St. John has performed with world-renowned orchestras, including the San Francisco Symphony, the Seattle Symphony, the Boston Pops, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, China Philharmonic, and many others. She performs on the 1779 “Salabue” Guadagnini violin.
Most importantly, since I am not a fan of artificial reverb, my ideal studio would likely exist in a medium-sized deconsecrated church, or a building of equal size. Most churches are built along a shoebox (cross) design, so a small to medium one creates a perfect natural acoustic of about 1.8 seconds of decay. (I’d be OK with a deconsecrated mosque also—round can be amazing for sound.)
The “fiddle of honor” in the studio would be the 1779 Guadagnini I presently play on. Not mine of course—it’s on loan from an anonymous donor and Heinl of Toronto. It would also include my Mezzo-Forte carbon-fiber violin (which has been great for outdoor shows) and my “Schidl Fidl,” an early 19th-century German violin, which sounds great for Klezmer.
Right now, I have a few Brian Johnson bows from Saskatchewan, a Forrester from New York, and a bow John Corigliano Sr. used to play on, loaned to me by John Jr. In my studio I would also have my Peruvian pine-walnut cajon and my 1905 Steinway D piano.
They are certainly keepers.
But there’s always room to dream. The “ideal” part would be an 11-foot Bösendorfer piano, a drum set with Sabian cymbals. (I spent a while at the end of Istiklal street in Istanbul once learning about cymbals and now I prefer Sabian, which are coincidentally made in Canada!) I’d also want to stockpile a few guitars, mandolins, basses, and just about every percussion instrument known to (wo)man. And quite a few traditional wind and brass instruments. And, of course, at least one accordion. And a bandoneon. Also a pedal harp and a Celtic harp, and a floor for dance.
Obviously, this has become a large studio—and rebuilt for recording! So, it would need a main pair of Neumann M50s microphones and maybe some Neumann KM56 spots. But, then again, RCA 44 mics can sound incredible, especially for violin. Since it’s fantasy, well, then all of the above! I’d have ATC50ASL Pros for speakers and Horus preamps and converters. There would be baffles for natural sound manipulation. And of course I’d need Pyramix, Protools, and Logic.
A few more necessities:
- Gorgeous wooden music stands hand-carved by Nancy Romalov in Iowa
- A De’Longhi espresso machine for before sessions, and a wine fridge, where the reds are at 60 degrees, and the whites at 40 degrees (for after)
- Many comfy couches in the control room!
- A little jungle corner for my music-loving iguana
I have just realized that I’ve basically described Skywalker Sound, except for the iguana bit. Well, I guess it’s a fantasy studio in every way!
Founded in 2015, the Ulysses Quartet—Christina Bouey and Rhiannon Banerdt, violins, Colin Brookes, viola, and Grace Ho, cello—are the winners of the grand prize and the gold medal of the 2016 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition (senior string division). The quartet offers interactive programs and workshops for all ages that demystify traditional repertoire while introducing new and exciting works. Their programs invite participants to learn about the inner workings of the string quartet, and explore connections between the music and the modern world. Violinist Christina Bouey polled her quartet-mates about designing the group’s ideal studio space.
Musicians get used to the idea of practicing anywhere you can make noise without getting in trouble, in any space you can fit into. This includes hotel rooms, cramped practice rooms at school, stairwells, or even a bathroom when no other rooms are available. (I’ve done it.) Sometimes artists are so busy thinking about the music, we forget that enhancing our surroundings helps us focus and practice more efficiently. At the moment, we (the Ulysses Quartet) rehearse in the living room of my apartment, which, for a New York apartment, is spacious. We have some plants that add a welcoming touch, and overall the acoustics are pleasant. However, if we were able to design our own space, the ambiance would be quite different.
The ideal practice space for us would be in a peaceful, natural area, perhaps with a small creek (not a noisy one) or pond close by—though we would like to also be somewhere near the hustle and bustle of a city. We imagine a space large enough to have intimate chamber concerts—almost the size of a small recital hall—with high wooden ceilings and a grand piano. One wall might be decorated with copies by Claude Monet and Wassily Kandinsky, juxtaposed with another wall of nature photography by Ansel Adams and Frans Lanting.
Our setup would include an Adjustrite Musician’s chair by Vivo USA for Rhiannon, and three Wenger Cellist chairs for Colin, Grace, and me. While black solid stands are very sturdy and dependable, we feel they don’t allow us to send our sounds to each other and create that perfect string-quartet blend. Thus our stand of choice is the Konig and Meyer Robby Plus. This wire stand is durable, and able to expand so that four pages of music can be read at once.
Preserving the perfect temperature and humidity is always a problem for string players, and can make quite a difference in sound production and how often our strings go out of tune. This is why a central air and heating system (humidifier/dehumidifier) would be most important.
In addition, one feature beginning to materialize more frequently in schools is the Wenger VAE technology, which simulates the acoustics of nine virtual acoustic environments, ranging from a small recital hall to a cathedral. Given the varying venues that we play in, it would be incredibly beneficial to rehearse this way. Instead of having to resolve all issues at the venue, such as balance, projection, and articulation, we would be able to work out some of the kinks in our rehearsal space, which would save considerable time. The Wenger VAE also includes recording and playback capability, which only adds to the genius of this invention. Musicians should always be recording themselves and listening to themselves, as it’s an invaluable tool when practicing. To go along with the playback portion, we would also like high-quality speakers.
While having all of the latest gadgets is great, a space isn’t your own without some personal touches. So our ideal studio would have some plants that are adept at filtering the air, making it a healthy practice environment. Some of our favorite air-filtering plants include the pygmy date palm, the bamboo palm, the flamingo lily, and the Chinese evergreen.
Happiness is very important toward health as well. This is why last—but not least—we would want the Gaggia Classic espresso maker for all of our morning rehearsals, and a well-stocked fridge with seltzer water and snacks. Just to keep us cheerful (we are not morning people).
Drew Alexander Forde
Well-known by his online handle thatviolakid, Forde started playing the viola at age 12 and went on to solo with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra during his senior year of high school. He finished his undergraduate work in viola performance at the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University, and earned his master’s degree in music from Juilliard. Forde uses social media to share the hidden side of a musician’s sacred art: the humor, the heartaches, and the human moments.
On a recent tour to four American cities, Forde served as principal violist for the Zelda Symphony. He also recently collaborated with the critically acclaimed Nathan Chan, and their first pop-music cover, “Hello” by Adele, is available on iTunes, Amazon Music, and Pandora.
Workspace is everything. Having only graduated from Juilliard a short year ago, I still sometimes yearn for its cramped, carpeted, sound-deadened practice rooms, framed by blue curtains. It was an environment I grew to love. And although I haven’t yet had the ability to build my ideal workspace, I think it will be a fun exercise to dream and imagine what it would look like! There would be five essential elements: absolute seclusion, professional-grade equipment for content creation, cathartic mechanisms, high-quality tools, and a refueling station.
Absolute seclusion has a twofold meaning to me. Not only do I want to be away from the world and all of its noise, but I also would love to have my practice space be in a place so remote that it discourages unsolicited visitors. I hate interruptions. I imagine my space being on the side of a mountain in the Appalachians, on the shores of a hidden beach, or tucked into the penthouse of a high-rise apartment building.
Now, in order to get my work done and create content, I need to have solid equipment to support my endeavors. To facilitate my everyday practicing and woodshedding, I would arrange four sturdy Manhasset music stands in a corner. Typically, I would only need one; however, I love to have friends over for a string-quartet jam session every once in a while, so having four is imperative. I would also need a loud metronome in order to maintain my rhythmic integrity and assist in tempo scaffolding.
To produce video content, I would create a lighting grid on the ceiling that would house half a dozen professional-grade lights with diffusers and gels. That way, I wouldn’t need to rely on daylight for adequate lighting during recording sessions. For audio production, I would soundproof the walls and ceiling to create a dead space. Not only would this be healthier for practicing, but it would also minimize the number of audio artifacts created during the recording process.
I would have an arrangement of dual ribbon microphones to pick up the silky smooth sound of my viola. Finally, I would acquire two Sony Alpha a7SII mirrorless digital cameras for recording crisp, beautiful video in 4k. I would also install tracks on the floor, for simple, seamless moving shots.
With me, practicing can get extremely intense. I am invested in the fruits of my labor, and if I’m not achieving my goals, frustration begins to settle in. To fight this, I need catharsis. I need tools—or “cathartic mechanisms”—to release a bit of the tension that I build up. This means a few things to occupy my time and allow my brain to rest: Internet access (for cat videos, of course), a large fan to cool myself off, and a nice couch for lounging and power naps. I’m not a very complex human; I have simple needs.
For tools, I would need my viola (duh), an iMac, Logic Pro X, Adobe Creative Cloud, electric keyboard with weighted keys, a looping pedal station, a Fishman Loudbox amp for my electric viola, a cajon, an acoustic guitar, a printer for sheet music, and Sibelius.
Probably most importantly, I would need a refueling station to make sure that I can stay fed and energized through my working hours. I love snacking on homemade spinach and kale smoothies, so I would need a fridge stocked with fresh and frozen fruits, vegetables, and juices. I’m also a fan of my mother’s carrot muffins, so there would need to be a steady supply of those. She makes them with pumpkin spice, carrots, raisins, and cinnamon, with powdered or brown sugar on top.
Anyone who has been fortunate enough to taste these bundles from heaven would easily understand why this is nonnegotiable.
At the end of the day, my practice space has to be a place where I can undergo spurts of hyper-productivity, maintain high levels of energy and happiness, recharge my batteries, and get away from the distractions of living life in the big city.