The Vaughan Quartet: open house rehearsal

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I recently went to an interesting event that, honestly, I didn’t know existed until now: an open house rehearsal. In this case, it was the rehearsal of a professional string quartet, something that I don’t really know much about yet learned to appreciate as the hour went by.

The concept is pretty simple: the quartet advertises that they’re going to be having an open house on such and such date and then, if you want to come by and watch them practice, you can. The open house was literally that: a house with a sign that said “come in and sit down” on the door. At first I was skeptical because I assumed it was just going to be a recital and not an actual rehearsal (many of which I can remember from my grade school concert band days), but we were planning on meeting someone there regarding other business, so we went anyways. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Instead, it was an actual practice.

Now, I’m not in a band at the moment nor have I ever been serious about any kind of band since I was a teenager, but one thing that people maybe don’t realize is just how painful rehearsal of any kind can be, especially when no one is overtly “in charge,” like the conductor of a symphony is at orchestra rehearsals. Usually, it’s a group of people who (hopefully) can agree on the general direction of the practice, but there always seems to be some friction, some dissonance. Maybe it has to do with how someone is speaking to someone else or maybe they just genuinely disagree with the direction that the music is taking. Either way, I’ve never seen/been involved with a rehearsal that was 100% civil with no egos involved. Maybe that’s just the type of people I’ve hung around with, who knows.

The open house was a different story. Even though there was a “first violinist,” everyone seemed to have the opportunity to talk, to voice something that they had a problem with or to just stop and say “you screwed up, let’s start again.” No egos involved.

A second surprise, which was maybe the whole point of the open house to begin with, was the way the musicians communicated what they were doing with the audience. I got random mini-lessons on what a Fugue was, the importance of dynamics and playing triplets over a 3/4 time signature, and even the relationships between the four instruments (two violins, a viola, and a cello). These mini-lessons usually occurred just after they stopped to correct something that went wrong like the cello missing her entrance or the violins playing too loudly when it wasn’t their turn. These mistakes were always acknowledged by all and even communicated to the audience, sometimes in a charmingly sheepish way.

Witnessing able musicians who obviously take their craft seriously make little mistakes and grind their teeth at their own screw-ups was, for me, surprisingly refreshing. There always seems to be an air of perfection, almost to the point of snobbishness, when I see or hear these kinds of musicians play, as if the very fact that everyone considers them to be a vessel for “high” art deems them superior. That wasn’t the case here. I got to see a more human side of this kind of music which only made me want to learn more.

I got my chance to educate myself further when the rehearsal was done and everyone was chatting. The cellist offered to let me play her instrument, something I’d always been too nervous to ask a music store clerk to let me do. I won’t say that I immediately picked it up and was fantastic, but it was definitely eye-opening, even with her hand guiding my own over the strings. It’s amazing how tactile string instruments are when you actually get your hands on them. From afar, it seems like the bows are just gently gliding over the strings when in reality you have to apply a fair amount of pressure to get that rich sound out of them. I found myself making far too many scratching cat noises just because I wasn’t being assertive enough with that bow.

Anyhow, I suppose the lesson I got out of all this is that I really enjoy watching professionals practice. And truthfully, I’ve always been a sucker for the “making of” featurettes they have on DVDs and all over Youtube. It’s almost as if watching how something is made makes it more accessible, more susceptible to understanding and maybe—given the right amount of time and effort—to mastery.

To see more about the quartet I saw, visit www.vaughanquartet.com

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