Originally published in April 2017.

A blurry action shot from 2010 of my quartet. We are all laughing at a page turn incident.

I’m always curious which lessons from my 22 years of playing the violin can be usefully applied to programming, and the 6-step assertive communication post that one of my cohort shared got me thinking about the ways chamber musicians communicate.

For the uninitiated, chamber music is a small group of musicians (3–8 people) who play the absolute best music ever. The dynamic is very interesting: take the most standard form, a string quartet. String quartets consist of:
1st violin
2nd violin

The old joke “What does a string quartet consist of? A good violinist, a bad violinist, a former violinist, and someone who hates violinists” may have a small kernel of truth. In some pieces (particularly in classical, i.e. music from roughly 1760–1815) the first violin basically plays a difficult solo and the other three voices accompany. But in most pieces, all parts are equally important BUT they trade importance — at one point the cello may be the main voice, then the viola, and so on.

The opening 8 bars of this string quartet have spawned (inspired?) doctoral theses.

So to function effectively in a quartet, you always have to be aware of:
1. Who has the main voice at that particular moment
2. Who will have the main voice next
3. If you’re not the main voice, how prominent should your role be/how can you add to the mixture without overpowering?

Quartet members have many different communication styles: some (like me) like to talk a lot, to intellectualize, to explain, to understand the theory. Others like to demonstrate simply by playing (and frankly, your playing should be enough in an ideal world, but sometimes you have to hash things out verbally), others are a mixture.

Quartet is very intense — if you think pair programming is intense, imagine quartet programming and you have an idea of what it’s like. String quartets have been (justly) described as a marriage between four people.

So how do you communicate?

(NB: This is my experience — not at all intended to say it’s the right or only way — and I’d be really interested to hear from other chamber musicians what their thoughts are.)

First question: Is the chemistry good or not? If your musical styles don’t have some coherence, it’s probably not going to work. Quartet is all about learning and improving, but there has to be some basic agreement or else some MAJOR flexibility.

If the chemistry isn’t good, well, smile, get through it, and hopefully the next time you’ll have better partners. (That could be a different post — how to handle a situation where the chemistry isn’t great.)

But if the chemistry IS good — things get different.
1. Fundamental rule: listen more than you talk. You’ll probably end up with an equal balance but it’s really important that the focus be on the other person’s ideas and playing. This means that the other people feel heard, and important, which means that they will contribute with 100% energy.

2. It’s clear whether you respect someone’s playing, and if that understanding is there, you can be a lot more direct. With people I really trust and whose playing I adore, I have no problem saying, “Why are you doing that? Doesn’t sound good.” They know I love their playing and I am simply trying to make it better.

3. Culture matters. Americans and Dutch, for example, are much more likely to speak like in #2 directly whereas the English might say “You sound absolutely spiffing, my dear chap, but just wondering if you might possibly consider doing it this other way just the once, although I’m sure it’s absolute poppycock?” Be aware of these differences.

4. Always try the other person’s idea with 100% enthusiasm. One of my favourite quartet memories was in undergrad when my cellist and I had opposite ideas about how a phrase in a Brahms string quartet should go. We tried both ideas with such conviction that at the end, we preferred each others’! There’s usually more than one way to do something, and trying someone else’s way means you learn.

5. If there are two equally valid ways to solve a problem or approach a situation, choose the way the other person wants. You’ll learn something, and the other person will feel validated.

Right, that’s it for now — may update more as the thoughts occur!

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