Quartet playing was quite different from solo practice. Now I had to concentrate on three other instruments’ emanations besides trying to perfect those of my own, integrating their notes with mine. It wasn’t easy. But when it worked, the swelling sounds of many more vibrating strings were richer and more vibrant, creating a brand new dimension for the final effect.
I learned how my cello must converse with the viola and violins, as each of our individual parts interwove, merging together for a few bars then diverging out again. Solo practice now became more serious than before, with responsibility to the entire quartet. Aside from aiming toward individual virtuosity, each of us was forging a bond — between four instruments, four musicians; the sum of our efforts was indeed greater than any of its parts.
Our little group attended cello concerts at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. We sat entranced, listening to Yo-Yo Ma showing what a cello could really say.
“How does he do that?” we asked each other.
We went to hear chamber music at Juilliard, where even very young students played superbly. We met and chatted with performing artists in various stages of their careers, learned what music-making was like for them. Interwoven with hopes and dreams, they told us, were fears and frustration, disappointments alternating with euphoric highs. One violinist talked about “baring the soul” while he played. We listened to a renowned soprano at the Met describing stage fright that never went away, no matter how many perfect performances she gave. Another told us about his muscle aches and strains from practice and performance. Many confessed the ever-present stresses of competition.
“What keeps you from quitting?” I asked.
“Quitting? Impossible … music — it’s who I am,” each said in his or her own way.
More months passed, seasons changed. Cello lessons continued interspersed with practice; our quartet playing progressively improved.
“You’re ready,” our teacher announced one icy winter afternoon. Our group had just completed the final notes of a Bach sonata.
“Let’s plan a spring concert at the Manhattan Y,” she said.
We all protested. “… need more time … not good enough …”
But our teacher persisted, and the date was set.
We performed a Beethoven sonata, then some Haydn, finishing with Schubert. Despite our fears, the concert went very well, rewarded — at the end — with a standing ovation. Our little group floated out on a euphoric cloud. It was late May, the spring night balmy, a bright full moon shining overhead. We lingered on the sidewalk, rehashing our performance, lamenting an errant note here and there, a sloppy stretch.
“It was almost perfect,” our teacher said. “… practice over the summer … another concert in the fall …”
“Maybe …” we said, yawning. It was almost midnight. My three fellow musicians hailed a cab.
“I’ll get the car,” our teacher said to me, “Take you home.”