The BISQC 2013 first prize-winning Dover Quartet’s violist, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt offers career advice for the hoards of young quartets just starting out. It turns out she had a lot of practical tips to offer, including the top three things to pack on tour (chocolate is high on the list), and some tips on how to sweet talk grumpy flight attendants eyeing up your prized cello for the cargo-hold.
1: Running rehearsals
The best rehearsal is when everyone is already warmed up. We usually like to start with something moderate that allows you to sink your teeth into it without having to completely go all out.
2: Finding the right repertoire
Pick things you love and keep a good enough variety so that every aspect of your playing stays at its highest level…. It’s almost like a food menu. When we started out, we had a love of the standard, old school repertoire, but now we’re starting to get into commissioning. For us, the biggest thing is the lineage and connecting things like Haydn quartets all the way up to pieces that were written this year. If we specialise in anything, it would be to maintain that varied menu.
Each recording can be slightly different depending on the timing and the repertoire. It is always good to know well in advance so you can incorporate the piece into your repertoire beforehand. There is nothing more frustrating than to be recording something that you don’t know as well as you could have…. The fewer questions in your mind as to interpretational things the better.
Also remember, as much as people idolize and immortalise recordings, it is really just that one single moment. Even if you have a recording that didn’t go as perfectly as you envisioned, it’s just that day!
Locate people’s strengths and be aware of them. If you can capitalise on them, you can create a well-oiled machine.
In the Dover, we each have our specific business roles. Bryan [Lee], our second violinist, is our travel guru. He organises all of our itineraries in conjunction with a representative from our management. He’s very savvy. Camden [Shaw] is our PR Liaison, and does our Facebook and website, and is the one who is mostly in touch with our publicist. He’s very charismatic and is a great talker. Joel does a lot of little but important jobs. He is our number one driver for long trips and recently drove us 11 hours in one day from Toronto to Mount Desert Maine. He is also our Librarian and our “financial guy”. I’m the contact person in the group and do all the emails, liaise with presenters, managers, as well as repertoire organisation. I’d go so far as to say I’m a bit OCD!
5: Dealing with stress
That’s a learning curve. We are still learning how to deal with that. Something we’ve found to work well (especially being on the road together so much) is being aware of how much personal space everyone needs, and not taking offence. Everyone has a different necessity for recharging.
6: Competition preparation
Perform the pieces a lot, and perform them for other people. Also, always start early. This could be a few months, or a whole year — depending on how much time you have. If you’re rehearsing every day, a few months could be enough. But you don’t to get to a point in a competition performing pieces you feel have somehow become stale. Start with a big picture; play through the piece and get a sense of it, then go really into the minutia and get all the details. But then, as it becomes close to the competition, back way up again, and stop micro-managing things at that point because then, it is really just about the performance.
People think if you win a competition it will make your career, which is true, it can and did that for us, but it doesn’t break it if you don’t win. It’s a great networking tool.
7: Three most essential things to pack on tour
- Book: Even if you don’t end up reading it, it nice to have one there.
- Chocolate: I always have chocolate for those craving moments.
- Computer: Bring a computer or iPad so you can do business.
8: Plane travel
The most important thing is to be really nice to airline employees. They won’t want to help if you are unfriendly. If you seem stressed, worried, agitated, or impatient, they are much less likely to help you. Camden [Dover’s Cellist] is the only one I’ve ever meet to get a cello onto a WestJet flight.
For violinists and violists, try not to travel with a big bulky case. When [airline employees] see something that doesn’t look sleek, they are going to worry that it won’t fit.
Another good trick is to ask the flight attendant if they have a closet that they could put the instrument in to help free up some room. They appreciate that.
Also, if you always fly the same airline, you will get [frequent flyer] status, and that’s a huge plus. They will treat you better, and you get to board early. This leaves you with a better chance of fitting your instrument on the plane without hassle.
9: Achieving a unique sound
To create a specific sound is a conscious thing, but to have a unique sound is the nature of being in a quartet — it’s like a chemical reaction of the four members. A member of a quartet is so much more than 25% of the group. If we were to change a member, the quartet would be a completely different animal. This is because everyone responds to one another differently; their intuition gets shifted. I would say on one level, that chemical reaction is the beauty of finding a quartet you want to play with — a unique sound that you want to be a part of. The other one is just to be unanimous in the specificity of emotion and sound concept, which contributes to the unique sound of any group.
*Interview answers have slightly edited for the sake of clarity.