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‘As you grow older, you have to get smarter and more efficient’

Edward Dusinberre describes the benefits of ageing, offers advice to students about how to find their own sound and explains why talking is over-rated

I spoke to Edward Dusinberre, first violinist of the Takács Quartet, for an article in the August issue of BBC Music Magazine that offers different perspectives on the ageing process for classical musicians. There was too much to include, so here are some of the extra insights he offered. I’m going to start calling this strand of interviews ‘Outtakes’!

Edward Dusinberre, leader of the Takács Quartet. Photo: Wolfgang Schmidt

How do you feel your playing now compares with when you joined the quartet?

I think – I hope – that I play with more flexibility now, and that my sound has more variety and colour. You can’t be in a string quartet for more than three decades and not learn flexibility. When I joined, I had to make a strong statement and be on top of the sound. People were looking at me to see if I could sit in that chair. I’m not complacent because that’s never good, but I don’t worry in the same way now. I’m more interested in how I can emerge in the sound and then retreat, and how my sound can facilitate the sound of other people, or draw the attention of the ears away from me to someone else. Those weren’t much on my mind when I was 28.

What are the physical differences of performing as you get older?

In the past we did a couple of Bartók cycles in a day, and I wouldn’t do that again now. It’s not so much that I couldn’t get through it, but I don’t have the interest in it. I don’t want to jump through that particular sort of Olympics, whereas many years ago, it felt like a fun challenge. As you grow older, you have to get smarter and more efficient in the way you play.

With the Schubert G major Quartet I got to a stage about 15 years ago where I found it hard to play. It’s so demanding that while I was happy to play it once off, I didn’t want to tour with it because it was too much maintenance and too taxing on the system. But in this formation of the Takács, the new conversations and interplay of musical ideas have caused me to change my mind. I find the piece easier to play and manage physically now than I did back then. I still wouldn’t necessarily play it ten nights in a row, but I never thought we’d record it again and doing so has been a real joy. I’ve come out the other side of the recording not feeling too sore.

How did you do that?

It’s how you distribute your energy. It relates to the bowing arm, because there’s an enormous amount of repetitive fast action in the first movement – a lot of semiquaver triplets, often very loud. Then in the second movement, where you might think you get a break, there’s an immense amount of tremolo and a lot of very fast filigree, short legato strokes. I have realised that you can use slightly different mechanisms for each of those strokes. In the first movement, if you’re playing quietly, you can play the triplets very high in the bow and if you’re playing loudly, you can shape them so you’re not playing every single triplet fortissimo.

I do preparatory exercises, like an athlete – for example, scales in tremolo with crescendos. I won’t do it for hours, just five minutes. Similarly, with the spiccato strokes in the last movement, I do preparatory etudes. It’s a no-brainer – an athlete doesn’t just stand up and run a marathon. They train, and I was aware of training for this Schubert project in a way that wouldn’t have occurred to me when I was much younger.

What advice do you give students?

One of the things I tell our students at CU and Music Academy of the West (where we run an intensive quartet seminar in the summer) is simply to play more chamber music. Often in the curriculum chamber music gets squeezed. Individual lessons and orchestra are important and sometimes it’s hard for young players to see how a career might come from chamber music. But just do it anyway, because it’s so good for you, both as a player and as a human being.

What I see with our students – and it’s not a criticism, it’s the time we live in – is a lot of anxiety. Students wonder and worry about the future. There’s so much emphasis on jumping through hoops at conservatoire, to follow your teacher’s advice and to be ready for this and that. It’s all important, but it adds to the anxiety. It’s such a precious time to explore and find what your own interests are.

With student groups, we’ll get to the end of a movement, and I’ll say, ‘Let’s go around the group and I want to hear what each person’s favourite moment in this movement is, and why.’ Then we’ll work on getting the most out of those moments. I do that because students aren’t always encouraged to feel unique, that each of them can do something that I can’t do because of what they bring to the music. That can help to alleviate anxiety.

When you’re coaching a young group, are there specific things you find yourself saying a lot?

One of the things that’s hard for young groups is a concept of sound because they’re often playing in small spaces, having to struggle with instruments that aren’t great. With our groups we work a lot on giving them strategies to develop a good group sound. Sometimes they might need to change instruments and there are very good instruments that are relatively inexpensive, but it’s more understanding your role within a group.

Some groups could spend longer practising at an 80 per cent tempo. They practise very slowly and then at full speed, but we find that 80 per cent is where you have the extra time and space to hear how your sound is working in the group.

Listening to music on iPhones and MIDI files is so tinny, and sometimes students need to broaden their imagination of what’s possible in terms of the warmth. Brass players often use an expression about ‘spinning the sound’. As string players we spend a little too much time talking about contact points and being close to the bridge. Of course, you have to play close to the bridge sometimes, but I like the word ‘spinning’ because it suggests you’re reaching out into a space and trying to create resonance – unleashing or releasing the sound of an instrument rather than pushing it out in a rather driven, tight sort of way.

With our graduate quartets at University of Colorado Boulder we often talk about rehearsal techniques, and once they get to know me a little, I try to find a slightly bigger room and sit in and ask them to rehearse and forget that I’m there. I find it fascinating. Language is very unreliable, especially when you have different languages within a group. I encourage people to try to communicate their ideas through musical demonstration and less through language. I remember Peter Salaff, second violinist in the Cleveland Quartet, said to me, ‘You know, someone has an idea. All you need to do is try to understand what it is and have them show it to you and then just play. Don’t talk about it, just try it, because you waste so much time talking about it.’

Edward Dusinberre and the Takács Quartet are Artists in Residence at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and run a quartet seminar at the Music Academy of the West


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