Youth quartet dynamics

Gretchen Spinnrade said: Jun 15, 2019
 Violin
6 posts

Hello all,

Looking for some ideas/advice/context about issues involving a youth string quartet.

Background:
These are 4 precocious Suzuki kids ages 10-14. The youngest, age 10, is my daughter and in her solo repertoire is playing the Mozart D major concerto. So these are all accomplished, experienced young players and have been together as a quartet for the last 3 years.

The issue:
Yes, it’s the violin I vs violin II issue. Recently my daughter, who has been playing in the violin II position for three years, has expressed a desire to play violin I. In my view, it’s a reasonable request. She has beautiful intonation in upper positions, has good rhythmic accuracy and prepares very avidly. This is a professionally coached quartet, so many of the issues surrounding the traditional leadership role of the first violinist are probably muted by the presence of an adult coach who controls many of the interpretive aspects.

In any case, my daughter asked the coach about the potential for alternating violin I and violin II. Again, perfectly reasonable. The coach then turned to the first violinist, and asked whether that would be OK with her. Well, unsurprisingly, she demurred and that was the end of the story. The parents of this child are extremely competitive and have reacted very badly toward any hint that their daughter would be “demoted” in this, or any other setting. The mere act of asking about the possibility of alternating has stirred up quite a ruckus. I’ve had conversations with both the quartet coach and the director of the music school and am on good terms with both. They both see the merits of alternating the violins; but seem reticent because of how vocal/interventional the other parents have become. How can anyone possibly discern, at this young age whether a child is destined to be a first or second violinist?

Questions/advice:

  1. Is it unreasonable for a qualified young violinist to expect to alternate positions in the quartet?
  2. If you have coached young quartets, how have you dealt with this issue? Alternatively, if you’re the parent of a violinist in a quartet, how have you dealt with this?
  3. Leaving isn’t a simple option because my daughter enjoys the quartet experience and it would mean travelling 2-3 hrs to a conservatory in a large metropolitan centre to find another quartet of this calibre. Of course, if there were no other option, we would do that.
  4. In the meanwhile, what other advice would you give? I’m an experienced chamber player, I know that the role of the 2nd violin is critical to the ensemble. But among kids, perception can be quite different.

Oy.

Ruth Brons said: Jun 15, 2019
Ruth Brons
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
West Orange, NJ
150 posts

Quartet dynamics are ….yes, a thing. The revolving door of the Violin II chair in so many pro quartets speaks volumes…..
A smart move some programs have made is to have the violins & viola learn and practice/rehearse all the violin & viola parts, then assign final seating prior to performances. The benefits of more leadership experience, and better understanding of the different roles in a quartet team are quite valuable. Good luck!

Best Wishes,

Ruth Brons
www.Things4Strings.com
www.Brons.us

Kelly Williamson said: Jun 15, 2019
Kelly WilliamsonTeacher Trainer
Institute Director
Suzuki Association Member
Flute, Suzuki Early Childhood Education
Cambridge, ON
294 posts

I am a flutist and not a violinist, but we have exactly the same dynamic in between the principal and second flute in the orchestra. In preparation, when I do arrangements for my students, I split the melody between all of the parts so that even the third or fourth flute gets some of the glory! Also, the first part players have to take the supportive role some of the time. Of course this does not happen in orchestra, or in a string quartet, where the roles are defined by the composers.

But I think I have some perspective to offer. In answer to your questions—no, I don’t think it is an unreasonable thing to ask. Although people become more secure in their role when they reinforce it (i.e. practice being a second violinist), they can also get much better at the role by trying a different position and gaining a different perspective.

As a teacher or coach I would not raise that question in front of the group, or let a child make the decision. I would make the decision myself, based on the good of all participants. I don’t think it benefits the first violinist to be put in that position, and to choose to refuse. And as you say, it upsets the dynamic of a group which has been working well together. But that said, if I were your daughter’s violin teacher, I would probably say to you and her that there is no rush to push the way to the first position. She has a lot of time ahead of her! And she is gaining very valuable experience where she is.

An ensemble that I coached had a flute student of mine, his older sister (a violinist), and their brother, a pianist. At one point the violinist was auditioning for the conservatory—she was offered a position on viola but wait-listed on violin. I encouraged her to take the viola spot although she was demurring because she said she really loved violin. I suggested that she would have more opportunities on viola. She later graduated with a master’s degree from Juilliard on viola…

…sometimes what seems like a second-choice position ends up being your starring role.

This is only one such case among my extensive acquaintance—I could list a bunch of others. I encourage you and your daughter to celebrate where you are! Other opportunities will come, and in the meantime she is growing and preparing. Having good relationships with your colleagues—even the difficult ones—is also a good things practice. We need a lot of that as career musicians. Best of luck!

Kelly

Gretchen Spinnrade said: Jun 15, 2019
 Violin
6 posts

Kelly—

There’s certainly Solomonic wisdom to be gained from the experience of “sprouting where you’re planted” even if the circumstances of “planting” aren’t exactly meritocratic, no doubt. I appreciate your perspective.

Ruth—

This is brilliant—we are familiar with other youth quartets that work in this way. It was heartening the first time I saw a group function this way. Maybe one day…

Mengwei Shen said: Jun 15, 2019
Mengwei Shen
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Piano, Cello
Jersey City, NJ
183 posts

I think the ideal situation would have been for the coach to make an executive decision as an educator that violin 1 and 2 would be rotating seats for the developmental interest of the young players, have the conversation privately first with each family, then implement at the next practical performance cycle. As you said, the mere act of asking has rocked the boat, and perhaps it can be salvaged, or perhaps not. Even if the director and coach tried to use timing of a new (after summer) school year to frame the approach, would they be risking, or willing to risk, the possibility of the other violinist leaving the group?

Suppose they decide to keep the status quo, I would agree with Kelly’s advice to embrace the valuable experience of your role. The other parents are apparently the ones showing poor sportsmanship (musicianship?) but you don’t have to follow that example.

Maybe this blog post will offer some ideas too:
Fighting the Toxic Inferiority Complex of the Second Violinist
https://www.violinist.com/blog/laurie/20191/27634/

As an aside, in the 2012 film A Late Quartet (rated R), one of the sub-plots involves the 2nd violinist wanting to play 1st (and because it’s Hollywood, the character relationships are a lot more complicated than just this matter).

Susan Beth Barak said: Jun 16, 2019
Susan Beth Barak
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Violin
Newmarket, ON
11 posts

These days it seems the norm to rotate, and to just list all violins alphabetically, besides principals. Everyone should rotate sections as part of their training as there is much to learn and benefit from being exposed to a variety of challenges and persepctives. In some smaller groups violins and violas can rotate, as well. It has become mandatory for violins to take at least a year of viola in most post-secondary schools in my area. Isn’t it sad that this topic is on a Suzuki thread? It seems the gap between Suzuki and traditional training has narrowed, and not all for the best….

Amy said: Jun 16, 2019
 
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
67 posts

Before the coach makes a command decision to sometimes rotate violinists, it’s probably worth him/her consistently making a case for the value of the 2nd violinist and also the value of everyone having the experience of playing that role. When coaching chamber music, I make a big deal that it’s the job of the accompaniment to inspire the melody, and therefore we spend a lot of time aiming to make the accompaniment as beautiful and inspiring as possible.

Also, many pieces do not give the melody exclusively to the 1st violin. (2nd mvt of the Haydn Emperor Quartet comes immediately to mind. Many other pieces will give melody to different instruments just a phrase at a time.) Maybe you could ask the coach to choose more repertoire that features v2, vla, and vc so that there is a greater sense that the chamber music is being played among equally valuable musicians.

Gretchen Spinnrade said: Jun 16, 2019
 Violin
6 posts

Susan—many thanks; with a little forethought, the quartet should probably have been set up years ago with this expectation built-in. To be fair and accurate, the chamber music program in which these students play isn’t strictly a Suzuki-based program. They come from different private studios and backgrounds. And I wouldn’t necessarily ascribe bad behaviour to traditional training and generous behaviour only to Suzuki training. I can only say this from having spent about half of our time in a pure Suzuki program and now in a pre-conservatory environment. I’ve seen good and bad across the board. In our solo work, as we’re going beyond the books now, I do miss the sense of equanimity that infuses Suzuki philosophy. Partly, it’s just about having a mindful generous spirit; and that doesn’t depend on what you play or what you call yourself.

Amy—thanks; I’m hopeful that constructive conversations with everyone involved will set the stage for ideas such as yours to take root.

Mengwei—also, thanks for your perspectives. I had read the referenced blog post and also saw “The Late Quartet” a while back. Fortunately, we’re dealing with somewhat less drama here! Yes, agree, no need to follow bad behaviour with more of the same. We’ve told the director, we will accept anything that’s for the good of the school, broadly defined. Lots of opportunities in the future…

Barbara Rylander said: Jun 17, 2019
Barbara Rylander
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Saline, MI
29 posts

I’m going to respond as both a mother, Suzuki teacher and gigging musician who has played violin one and two extensively.

So, here is my takeaway on the interpersonal dynamics of precocious 10-14 year olds: They are immature emotionally compared to intellectually. And that comes from reading on gifted children, and raising 5 daughters, who were in the gifted range. So quite good players on various instruments.

But the other interpersonal dynamics here are between the hesitant coach, the pushy mom of the first chair violinist, and you.

I think that to accept these dynamics as status quo is to allow not only your daughter but you to be put in a one down position. I would personally deal with that in some way, as a mother.

And I would be concerned as a musician in having my daughter play only second violin quartet parts over the course of 3 years. I just see a great deal of value in the leadership position of first violin, in most of the literature. And again, not that second violin is inferior. I know this well from playing weddings where I had a second violinist under me who was a better player, and that solid base created great music. And I know it from having second violinist cluncking along on eighth notes in Mozart, and being unable to politely ask for spiccato (or realizing my professionally trained 2nd violin actually did not possess a spiccato per se)

But having said all of that, might there be other options for playing those first violin parts? Like another quartet? Or, Music Minus One? And do you own a full set of parts for the quartets? I would purchase them, so that a serious student, such as your daughter would have them for a lifetime, along with the score to study. That way, she could learn the first violin parts, and at very least, maybe could ask to read through the music playing first. Or learn other quartet music on the first violin part.

In summary, I would not consider it a good option to deny her the experience she seeks, both on a personal and on a musical basis.

Best of luck! Barb

Gretchen Spinnrade said: Jun 17, 2019
 Violin
6 posts

Barbara -

Many thanks for your frank and thoughtful comments. I’m particularly appreciative of the idea to shadow-learn the opposite violin part and to explore Music Minus One—which I haven’t thought about since my own student days.

And there’s always more that one can do to listen better, sculpt phrases communicate musical intention more effectively, etc. regardless of how this all turns out.

Kelly Williamson said: Jun 17, 2019
Kelly WilliamsonTeacher Trainer
Institute Director
Suzuki Association Member
Flute, Suzuki Early Childhood Education
Cambridge, ON
294 posts

I am going to go out on a limb here, with no desire to attack anyone personally. I must say that I am surprised by the tone of some of these comments, considering that we are hearing one side of the situation. With all due respect to the original poster, I believe it is important to remember that this is a public forum and any of the other members of the quartet—and the coach—might come here for information. Such comments as:

“…But the other interpersonal dynamics here are between the hesitant coach, the pushy mom of the first chair violinist, and you…”

might be very surprising to the coach, or to the mom of the other child. Maybe she thinks that her daughter is in a position that she has earned, and the 10yo and her mom do not want to wait their turn! (Just one interpretation… but quite a possible one, judging from my 30 years of working with children and parents.)

Also this:

“I think that to accept these dynamics as status quo is to allow not only your daughter but you to be put in a one down position. I would personally deal with that in some way, as a mother.”

I am not a mother. But I am a professional musician as well as a teacher. Just because we ask for a promotion or position—or feel entitled to it—does not mean that we will get it. There are many factors. It is one thing to defend your children when they are being victimized, and another to teach them that when they are denied a request which they and we think is reasonable, that they are being “put down”. Heavens—there are kids all over who would love to be able to participate in an ensemble such as the original poster describes! And the other mother likely thinks that she is defending her daughter’s best interests, with the same zeal that is being recommended to the original poster.

It is too bad that it appears that the other mom/parents aren’t interested in opening a dialogue with their child about sharing opportunities. It could be so easily done! And it would be so valuable for their child. One of the biggest things that makes people want to hire us, is when we are supportive of our colleagues and easy to work with. Sometimes it actually is in our best interest to be denied an experience that we are seeking (or holding on to!)… That said, I think the original poster is wise to have told the director and coach that they will go along with whatever is deemed to be in the best interest of the school. Holding a grudge is unlikely to yield anything but more bad feeling.

Kelly

Gretchen Spinnrade said: Jun 17, 2019
 Violin
6 posts

Hi again Kelly,

Just to respond to concerns about confidentiality, I’ve endeavoured to obscure many of the less relevant details out of those concerns. I’ve also omitted many details about the situation that don’t shed light on the questions that I was posing. Apart from that I’ve tried to present it as objectively as possible. I’m sorry; my intent wasn’t to create any more controversy than there already is in this situation. I suppose, that the way through this is both practical and philosophical. We (my daughter and I) can work to accept with gratitude the circumstances as they are; but that doesn’t preclude approaching the coach and director (both of whom we respect enormously) and talking about best-practices for young ensembles. The status quo wouldn’t be my first choice because the goal of the group is educational rather than focused on attainment; but my child and I work well together and she understands that playing in a group of this sort is a privilege however it ultimately works out. So it’s really a side-show in the big picture.

Kelly Williamson said: Jun 17, 2019
Kelly WilliamsonTeacher Trainer
Institute Director
Suzuki Association Member
Flute, Suzuki Early Childhood Education
Cambridge, ON
294 posts

Hi Gretchen,

As you say! And of course it doesn’t preclude approaching the coach and director. Nor does it preclude asking others for opinions.

I also think it is easy in on-line forums to forget that we aren’t in a coffee shop with interesting people we’ve just met! Nor is it always easy to put aside our subjective lenses (mother, teacher, musician) and look at a situation objectively.

In any case it is food for thought. I have reflected a lot about this question—past experiences I had as a teenaged and working musician, parents I’ve worked with long ago in my studio, and parents I am working with now! Sharing ideas is valuable.

All the best to you and your daughter!

Kelly

Lydia said: Jul 8, 2019
 
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
7 posts

In some professional quartets, the 1st and 2nd violinist trade off, and they feel they are better off for that diversity of playing experience. Some professional quartet players are adamant that sticking to a strict role is better, so that each players develops a high degree of specialization. Personally, I believe that for students, the diversity of experience and understanding from playing both 1st and 2nd is important, and if possible, violin students should also get quartet experience playing viola.

This is a place where the program should intervene to maximize the educational experience for every student. All of the kids in the quartet will benefit from playing with a different leader. If possible, the violins and viola should learn all three parts, and there should be occasional readings where they trade parts, even if normal rehearsal is focused on the performance configuration.

In my semi-pro quartet, we rotate. For a while, the members of my quartet generally played violin, viola, and cello (thank you, string methods classes in MusEd university programs), and sometimes we’d switch off instruments in rehearsal to solve tricky coordination problems, so everyone got a proper viewpoint on everyone’s perspective and really understood how it all fit together.

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