Updated: Mar 1
Arguably one of the biggest challenges facing students when they leave music college is how to keep the structure going. You graduate and then poof! Rent, bills, student loans, and just the pressures of what's expected hit - no wonder so many of us feel like fish out of water!
The simple truth is that just because our course is over, it doesn't mean our development is. We still crave that space in our day to sit with our instrument and work. We need it, if we're to achieve the career goals we set ourselves.
See a career for yourself and your chamber group and the challenge of conflicting diaries, real life pressures and finding a practice space can feel insurmountable. So how does a quartet build a career once they've all graduated? Can it really be done?
This fortnight I am joined by the RNCM junior fellows in chamber music, the Elmore Quartet. Winners of the Tunnel Trust awards, RNCM Nossek and Hirsch awards, and were awarded second place in the 2021 CAVATINA Intercollegiate Chamber Music Competition in Wigmore Hall; I met up with Xander, Pijus, Ben and Felix before they headed off on tour to hear* what they've learnt navigating their way through their first year as a graduate quartet.
You're about to go on tour! Tell me a little bit more about that. How did the opportunity come about and is this a new programme for you?
Xander: In 2020, we were winners of the Tunnell Trust Award. The Trust pays the fees of young groups to play in music clubs across Scotland, bringing valuable experience to the musicians, and music to small and remote places, as well as in the major centres.
Our programme for the tour includes a number of works that we have performed regularly in recent years. Both Beethoven’s Op.132 quartet in A minor and Benjamin Britten’s 3rd quartet will feature heavily in the tour.
Ben: Unpredictable Covid guidelines led us to prepare different programmes, varying in length so that we would be prepared for all outcomes. Some of the performances will feature works by Schubert, Mozart and Brahms.
Ben is new to the group, how difficult was it trying to find a new member without the comfort of all of you in full time study? How did the process work?
Pijus: It was extremely difficult. [Xander and Felix nod in exhausted agreement] We looked everywhere and auditioned many artists from different parts of the world, all based in the UK. Some of them were from London, others were based in Scotland. We had to find a person with whom we could agree on musical ideas, also our characters and personalities had to match too. They had to be technically proficient to be able to do the job. They had to be able to commit to certain hours… It was very tough, especially because of time constraints - we had only weeks to find a new player before we were meant to take the position as Junior Fellows at the RNCM.
Ben: At which point they looked in Wigan!
Ruth: And how has it been for you coming in?
Ben: Oh a baptism of fire! I had about three weeks to learn nearly two programmes whilst still teaching full time for two weeks and then having two concerts to perform. But the others were very warm and welcomed me in. I've loved it ever since.
All being graduates, how do you juggle the quartet commitments with outside work?
Xander: I suppose that this is partly what made finding a new violist difficult. We all share the ambition to go as far as we can with string quartet playing - so it was important to find somebody that shared that passion. There are some decisions to consider. I personally try not to take on any more work than I need to. We spend several hours a day together as a group, rehearsing and traveling etc. I love what I do, and it’s exciting to try to build something from nothing. It isn’t always possible to avoid juggling different things, but if you can target work that is relevant to your primary focus, you can keep developing even away from your instrument or the rehearsal room.
Felix: We don't juggle a lot, we try not to take on too much work outside of the quartet and we always make sure our rehearsals come before anything else. We have a small bursary as junior fellows of the RNCM which enables us to concentrate fully on our quartet studies.
Xander: We're kind of taking a hit for as long as it needs until the quartet takes on enough that we can make a living out of it. We've been trying as much as possible to change our mindset from being students, where a lot of our work was found for us by the college, to now trying to get our name out there to try and find ourselves work.
We are proactive in contacting music clubs and chamber music festivals. We find this is a great way to make contacts and let festivals and clubs know what we can offer. You only need one of them to come back to you with a yes, and then suddenly you have an opportunity that not only gives you a little bit of financial stability in the immediate future, but it gives you vital experience, and gets your name out there.
Ben: Yeah. I mean, I went from basically full-time teaching to full-time quartet and I now only do a day and a half a week of teaching. Which is just about possible. Financially, if I could, I would certainly cut it down to just one day.
What would you say is the best way to tackle musical differences/ sticking points within the group? How do you avoid getting stuck in having huge dialogues about the music which can waste rehearsal time?
Felix: We have made musical decisions where two of us agree and two of us don’t. Everything has to be tried, even if you don't agree with the musical decision. One idea must be perfected even if you decide to change it later. You can't afford to spend precious time arguing about one option in rehearsal. After many hours of discussion, we might realise that actually the idea we didn't like really works, so each one should be tried.
Xander: I think actually it's important to remember that we'll be doing this for many years. Our opinions will be changing and evolving all the time. Every time we revisit a work it will be different, more influenced by our experiences and the people we meet.
I think it's important sometimes to accept that in certain situations it's worth just saying, this is what we're doing, for now, try to avoid getting stuck. Things change and when we come back to it, we might want something completely different. It could be that, (like you [Felix] were saying before) two of you have a really strong idea that you really love, and the others feel completely differently. For a performance you have to decide on one option, the discussion will still be there afterwards!
Ruth: On that note, how do you avoid getting stuck in huge dialogues that take away from the actual planning time within a short rehearsal period?
Xander: Try to turn up to each rehearsal with a game-plan, or even a schedule to avoid getting stuck and to maintain efficiency. If you can discuss the character or the story of the music away from the instruments, that can help to create a more unified idea from the first rehearsal. Your rehearsal method will always evolve, try to keep an open mind, and listen to all possibilities.
Felix: I would say it’s important to always remember that what happens in rehearsals stays in the rehearsal. There has to be a limit to what can be said and how far it can go, but you will have disagreements and you will clash. It's just important to remember that it's not personal and you all want the same thing for the group. You want it to be successful and you have to be able to say if someone is talking too long - that's enough.
Musicians are under increasing pressure to have a social media presence to engage with and build audiences. How valuable have you found social media and how do the four of you decide who posts what and when?
Ben: Well, Pijus and I aren't great at Instagram so we pretty much let Felix and Xander take the lead on that. They will usually show us the posts that they'd like to put up and we go, yeah, it looks great or maybe change this or change that, but mainly they will take the lead on it and they're doing a rather good job.
Xander: We gave a very informal performance last week to a friend of ours and her guests. Having never come across us before, the first thing they did when they got home was Google us. It is important to have a social media footprint as it’s becoming the primary way that people find you. Once you’ve established your online presence, it is vital to ensure that the content you post is content you are proud of, it must present you in a positive and professional way.
Felix: Social media is definitely aimed towards the younger generation. Music societies and venues that we get work from aren't as interested in social media. However, it's a trend that will only get more popular.
One of our coaches is a member of the Elias String Quartet, the quartet has only recently joined social media. I believe for younger groups, Instagram can be a very useful way to showcase your work. However, for an already world-renowned group like the Elias Quartet, its main use is to stay connected with your audiences when not performing.
What's the next step for the quartet? Do you have any big plans in mind for the coming year?
Ben: Get good! I'm joking. I'm joking. Don't put that in... (sorry Ben!)
Xander: Apply for as many trusts and competitions as possible. There's no one thing we want to get at the moment.
Really we are just trying to get lessons and to keep learning as much as we possibly can. We're competing in the semi-finals of the Royal Overseas League, which will be amazing, it's a great opportunity, great exposure. So in terms of an immediate goal that we're working towards, I suppose it would be that, but in terms of the next step, in a way ironically, you saying get good Ben is exactly right!
What is the best piece of advice you would give to a quartet trying to stay together after graduation?
Xander: Watch as many concerts and listen to as many recordings as you can! It will hugely influence and inspire. Apply for as many courses and workshops as you can, and remember that everybody has something valuable to offer. It’s a competitive environment, but allow yourself the time and space to always retain your love for it!
Pijus: I wish them patience. The journey is very long and it could be exhausting, but you can make it if you persevere. Finding financial backing to support you on your journey is essential. In our case, if we didn't have financial support from the RNCM we would struggle, maybe we couldn't continue at all.
Felix: Never get put off if you don’t get the results you want, whether that’s being successful in an audition, or not achieving a goal you really wanted. Don’t compare yourself to others and don't get disheartened if you’re not achieving what others are. Be inspired by other groups and do your own thing. Everyone gets to where they're going in a different way.
Ben: It's the resilience of it which comes in so many other aspects of the music, musical life. In work, there will be setbacks, you won't get everything, but you are patient with yourselves and your group and you are resilient and you keep trying your best. And if you do have that common goal and aim, hopefully, you will make it!
The Elmore Quartet's next performance will be on the 4th March at Buxton Opera House.
The quartet's performance of Beethoven's String Quartet no. 15 in A minor op. 132 third movement had the room entranced. It's been a long time since I've seen a group captivate an audience with such goose-pimpling control. Their phrasing of the solo upbeats passed around the players evoked a true sense of longing almost reminiscent in character, harping back to better times. Their choice of vibrato speed (minimal, if at all) fit the character perfectly. It was a movement that took everyone, audience and performers, a while to snap out of going into the fourth movement. It will be interesting to see where graduate life takes these four musicians.
Until next time,
*interview taken before they went on their recent Tunnel Trust tour that ended on Monday 24th. All answers have been modified by the quartet post tour.