I recently returned from a wonderful week coaching chamber music on the intermediate course at Pro Corda. Set in a ruined abbey in the midst of Suffolk, home to the most beautiful skies in England, a week of string quartets and wonderful students is always one of the most beautiful experiences in my life.
One of my groups was playing the fourth movement of the Schumann a minor string quartet. This movement is very fast, with lots of tricky notes to play. Throughout the week, we came across a recurring problem: all four musicians could play the notes when practising alone, but when in the group, they just couldn't. We did lots of slow work building up with the metronome, but inevitably there came a point where, at full tempo, either the notes would fall apart or the music would just hang together but feeling frantic and on the edge of falling apart.
So I suggested something I've never tried before - a five-minute meditation. Actually, in the interests of full disclosure, I bashfully suggested one minute and then talked myself up to five. After all, it's hard to know how a group of teenagers would respond to the idea of sitting still and paying attention to the breath for five minutes. It could be quite embarrassing.
Fortunately, however, these were four very mature and committed students. So I set my insight timer app for five minutes and we all sat together in silence, eyes closed.
In fact, this was the first time I had ever done any group meditation and it was a very different experience from the private meditation I've done pretty much daily since May. It was beautiful to connect with myself while other people were doing the same. It was fidgety to start with, as we all settled into our bodies and giggled at the thought of what the passing course director might say if he looked in the window. We all sneakily opened our eyes at various intervals, I think to check that no one else was making faces at us.
After the five minutes passed, one student couldn't believe how quickly it had gone. I asked them to play the Schumann, and it was very different - much more controlled, much more sense of a longer phrase. I could see the students start to panic, and then re-ground themselves.
Quartet playing is completely different from solo practising in one crucial respect: suddenly, instead of only receiving input from ourselves, we receive information from three other people. We have to listen and respond to much, much more information than we do practising. This is one of the most important aspects of rehearsing - that we are able to communicate and process in a different way than when practising alone. And of course, the more you can remain calm and in a listening state, the better you will be able to communicate!
The quartet meditated on their own before the two concerts they played in. In the first concert, there was a moment of instability near the beginning - but instead of falling apart, I could sense a group moment when they chose to listen and be aware and they pulled the performance back together magnificently. The second performance was simply marvellous. I am very proud of them for their maturity and willingness to try something new! And I will definitely be trying meditation more often for my quartets.
I am an Irish-American violinist living in Cambridge, UK. I perform with the Philharmonia, the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, and many other top groups, and am also the Business Developer for Encore Music and am on the Makers Academy course for programming.