By Inge Kjemtrup | From the January-February 2023 issue of Strings magazine
Who has had the greatest influence on your development as a musician? That’s a question I have often put to the professional musicians I’ve interviewed. Their answers can reveal a lot. The parent who nurtured a love of music and insisted on practice every morning. The first teacher who brought discipline to unruly talent. The musical mentor who gave the right advice at the right time. The coach who instilled a love for a particular composer.
Until very recently, I had not given much thought about my greatest influences as a violist and violinist. It is only this year, as I return to playing more regularly with others after two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, that I begin to appreciate how essential music is to my very being.
I, too, have been influenced by family, teachers, coaches, and conductors—the same cast of characters cited by the pro musicians. But upon reflection, I see that I have learned just as much from my fellow musicians about how to play, how to get the most out of music, and how to find the real joy in an artistic life.
Learning from other musicians is indirect, very unlike a teacher/student situation. My teachers tried to instill good habits, but it wasn’t until I started playing with other youngsters in recitals or in ensembles and orchestras that I noticed that there were players whose abilities far exceeded my own. As a teenager, I was fascinated by a fellow student whose playing and technique were at a higher level. His Mozart concertos were brilliant and bright where mine seemed sluggish and earthbound. What was I missing?
I started to closely study my rival’s playing, a forensic focus that a more sensible person might have applied to their own playing. How did he get his bow changes so silky smooth? How did he shift so effortlessly from first position to the top of the fingerboard? Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery, and it helped my Mozart, much to the surprise of my teacher.
Learning by observation has remained a strategy for me. When I first attended chamber music workshops, I was astonished by the range of abilities. Some were so skilled that it was a wonder a major symphony orchestra hadn’t snapped them up. Yet other players simply struggled to play in tune. Naturally, I wanted to play with the more skilled players to see what I might learn.
Soon I figured out that technical ability wasn’t the only thing I could learn. Musicality and style also mattered. I began to seek out those with that extra spark, those who could bring Haydn’s quartets, for example, to vivid life, even if every note they played wasn’t perfect.
Who’s on First?
In amateur chamber music, as in real life, there are bullies. My father once told me that everyone has a purpose in life, if only to serve as a bad example. You can learn a lot from a bad example, he told me. And I have met plenty of bad examples disguised as fellow musicians.
When I was in my twenties and still new to chamber music, I had a full-on encounter with a bully at a summer workshop. I was scheduled to play a Brahms viola quintet with players I didn’t know well. The organizers had not assigned players to first or second viola parts, so I anticipated the usual overly polite minuet of manners: “You must play first on this piece.” “No, no, no. I insist, you should play the part.”
Not this time.
The other violist simply grabbed the first viola part, saying, “I know this piece. I know the tempos.” The four of us were slightly terrified and complied with her overbearing demands for the rest of the session. It set an instant chill, and the four of us breathed a sigh of relief when it was over.
What a contrast to a later session at the same workshop, when I played a Mozart viola quintet with a group of players in their seventies. I revealed I had never played Mozart’s viola quintets and hadn’t even known about the existence of this glorious repertory. The first violinist put his violin in his lap, looked at me, and smiled. “How fortunate you are to have all this music still to explore,” he said. “I envy you!”
Lesson learned: When it comes to making music for pleasure, generosity of spirit matters more than almost anything else. Decades on from that workshop, I have tried to follow that ideal. When I am with a young player and see her eyes shine as she picks up a piece of unfamiliar music, I hand over the first part: “Here, you play it—it’s a wonderful part, and you will enjoy it.” Caveat: there are many works where the parts are equal in difficulty (I’m looking at you, Dvořák viola quintet).
The Best of All Possible Worlds
I once read a book by a music journalist who was disgusted by the ego and base motives he saw in the professional music world. He wrote that he was supremely grateful that such things didn’t happen in the amateur music world, where harmony reigns and people play music for the love of it. It was, in fact, the best of all possible worlds. “Hah!” I shouted out loud to the book. It was obvious to me that this journalist knew nothing about the amateur world, which involves a lot of love for music, sure, but also a fair amount of ego.
We are only human, after all. We want recognition and respect, and this means we will do what we can to get the attention of others. One arena where this need for recognition is most glaring is with the instruments we play. There are players who own wonderful (and sometimes very expensive) instruments. Wise owners don’t brag, but instead take genuine delight in them. They will happily show an instrument to those who express an interest.
I have been witness to less admirable behavior. Once I observed two owners of fine old Italian violins try to outdo each other as they boasted about the provenance and quality of their respective violins. I had to leave the room. Clearly, having a fantastic instrument does not necessarily mean its owner is the best (or most gracious) player in the room.
Musicians are not immune to personal conflict. In an orchestra, a skillful conductor can manage the personalities of the players, keeping outright conflict mostly at bay. She is aided in this by the section leaders and, in a professional orchestra, the management. Chamber music is a different matter. The rules aren’t always clear. At one workshop I was instructed to “leave [my] personality at the door.” That is an impossible standard, but in being kind and even-handed to our fellow players, we will learn more about the music and ourselves. I have witnessed the most self-centered player tamed by the patient, human, and firm behavior of another player. Believe me, I took notes.
Inspirational teachers and coaches set me on my musical journey, and I am forever grateful. Yet I know I have learned so much from other players—musically, technique-wise, and in practical matters too. I listen when they tell me to always bring a pencil to rehearsal and keep an extra mute in my case. I am interested when someone suggests where I can get a bow rehaired or a soundpost adjusted. I have been influenced by my fellow amateur players and long may that continue.