I still remember when I saw Spektral Quartet’s poster for their first concert. It was around the practice rooms at DePaul, where I was getting my master’s degree. When I saw the poster–four mysteriously empty chairs bathed in yellow light–and realized who the quartet’s members were, I had a feeling I was looking at something serious. I was right.
I’ve been watching them closely ever since. Their career has grown by leaps and bounds, from getting their graphic design noticed by Alex Ross to landing a residency at the University of Chicago. But that’s just the view from the outside. What’s been happening behind the scenes?
As a chamber musician, I always wish I had access to the processes of other ensembles. Every group of people has a different approach to the musical, personal, and organizational challenges of running an ensemble. How does the Spektral Quartet do what they do–namely, learn enormous piles of music and give consistently excellent performances, all while apparently retaining their sanity and continuing to actually like each other?
I decided that I needed to know. It was time for me to go into the lion’s den. So I emailed the lions and got permission to visit. But when I arrived, I suddenly felt nervous and lingered in the bushes outside Russell’s apartment. Should I even be here?
That’s the thing: rehearsal process is kind of personal. Sitting in on another ensemble’s rehearsal is fascinating, but also makes me feel squirmy. My inner monologue during this rehearsal would impress no one:
Should I laugh at the rehearsal jokes? I’m just supposed to be a fly on the wall! Don’t make eye contact. Wait, is it really obvious on my face which version of measure 75 I prefer? That’s so cute how they rehearse in their bare feet, I do that too sometimes! Man, they must get tired rehearsing at this pace. Ooh, so Russ has a cat?
I visited the Spektrals because I was looking for some insights into effective rehearsal. After observing their work on Mark Anthony Turnage’s Slide Stride, which they performed earlier this month at PianoFest, I have some ideas about what makes their rehearsal process work.
1. The way they criticize each other is really funny.
a. “Can this part be more chill, tempo-wise?” Austin asked of Doyle.
“Yes. I will have just finished having an aneurism the bar before,” Doyle said evenly.
b. During a frenetic passage, Austin caught Aurelien improvising a series of up bows. “That was the most amazing bowing I’ve ever seen,” Austin declared.
“I got lost,” Aurelien replied weakly.
c. Austin and Doyle worked to tune a long, gnarly passage of sixteenth notes. “It’s the
A-flat that’s really out,” Russell said.
They played it again. My ear caught a few more pitch disagreements.
“Well, the A-flat is better,” Russ deadpanned.
“Die in a fire!” Austin cried.
d. During Austin and Doyle’s nastiest passagework, the second violin is given a rather sexy cabaret-style solo. As his colleagues toiled in unison, Aurelien punched the melody out with a burnished sound, lots of panache, and not a care in the world.
“I hate you so much,” Austin said afterwards.
So you can see why I spent a good portion of the rehearsal trying not to laugh. Mathias Tacke, longtime second violinist of the Vermeer Quartet, once told me what he thinks the secret of long-term quartet success is: “If you can still laugh together, you’re okay.” And if you’re going to get relentlessly criticized by your colleagues, you might as well laugh while it’s happening.
2. They’ve developed a shorthand that lets them rehearse quickly and efficiently.
When deciding how to proceed with a difficult section, it’s almost as if they’re selecting from options on a menu–a menu that, obviously, has been developed over years of intensive work together. “How about mezzo piano and slow?” Everyone nods and the work begins. Done.
When talking about balance, there’s a default option. “Can we make sure it’s most, middle, less?” Doyle asked, pointing around the quartet to demonstrate the desire for more cello and less violin. Done.
When tuning, there’s a clear sense that they’re been through certain issues before and are simply revisiting them. “That’s just higher than we like putting that C,” Austin told Russell as they tuned a scale. As in any good marriage, no one is necessarily wrong, but there’s an understanding of each individual’s flaws and tendencies.
3. They often criticize themselves first.
As the group began to rehearse an important crescendo, Russell waved his hand and stopped the music. “I started too loud.”
Aurelien frequently checked in with his colleagues, asking: “Was I rushing? Was that on time?” Whatever their answer, he accepted it readily and without defensiveness.
I was impressed with the way the way they communicated accountability, and respect for each other, by constantly “checking themselves” before criticizing each other.
4. They balance between short-term problem-solving and long-term musical development.
For every group in a long term musical relationship, there are multiple senses of time. There’s right now (How quickly can we solve this problem? Also, I’m hungry), there’s lately (Billy’s been busy lately, so he’s a bit less prepared. Is it me or is she playing that slower today?), and there’s long term (How is our group sound evolving? What are the ongoing issues we need to address?).
For the Spektrals, I thought this was most clearly evident when they decided to stop working on something. After drilling a rhythm for ten minutes, Austin might say, “We’ll keep working on it.” There was a collective understanding that through time, individual practice, and continued work, the passage would get better–and that everything didn’t have to be fixed immediately.
5. The truth is, there are no rehearsal secrets–they just work really hard.
“You guys rehearse at an intense pace,” I said during a break.
“Yeah,” Austin agreed. “By the time we’re done, pretty much all we can say is ‘sandwich’.”
And that’s the truth I walked away with as I left the lions in their den, taking a brief break before they hunkered down with James Dillon’s the soadie waste. There’s only one way to achieve the ease, efficiency, and enjoyment that the Spektral Quartet has developed: by working extremely hard, together, day after day, year after year. It’s a truth I know in my own work, and it’ll be my pleasure to watch the Spektrals continue to share the benefits of that work with us in Chicago.