Beginning February 22 and through the spring, I’m giving a series of seven lectures for the prestigious Daria Book Club on subjects ranging from the Mormon forgery murders to Native American artifacts.
The first book I’m presenting is Indivisible by Four, a wonderfully insightful view of what it’s like to be a member of a great string quartet, written by Arnold Steinhardt, the first violin of the famed Guarneri String Quartet.
To assist me with my presentation will be a young up-and-coming professional quartet here in Salt Lake City, the Rosco String Quartet.
Steinhardt’s writing, like his violin playing, is warmhearted and thoughtful, and connects with the same directness to readers as his playing did with the Guarneri’s audiences. The book is equally a collection of touching anecdotes as it is a valuable primer for young musicians who aspire to a career in music.
There’s one particular story that I’m glad Steinhardt didn’t include in the book. When I was a student at the Yale Norfolk (CT) Chamber Music Festival in 1974, Arnold was my chamber music coach for the Beethoven String Quartet Op. 59 #2. During the course of our coaching sessions, he found out that I played tennis. Both he and violist, Michael Tree, were keen tennis players as well, and they happened to be looking for a fourth in order to play doubles. So they invited me to join them.
I couldn’t believe my good luck! Here I was, a 21-year-old, scraggly violin student, rubbing shoulders with the big boys of the concert world. Calling them by their first names! We set up a time to play, got to the court, and started warming up. Arnold Steinhardt, the first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet, was my partner. Michael’s partner, if I recall correctly, was his wife, Jani, but my memory could be wrong. I also seem to recall that Arnold had been having some arm issues, so, being ambidextrous, he was playing tennis with his other arm. (I don’t remember whether he’s a lefty or a righty, but in any event it was impressive.)
Here was my dilemma. What if I was a lot better than they were? Should I do my best? Would that impress or irritate them? What if they were a lot better than me? Would I end up wasting their time? The implications for how this might affect the rest of my professional life were profound.
We started playing and after a short while, like a good string quartet, we got into a groove. Rallies got longer, pace increased. Everyone seemed to be on about the same level. Camaraderie was setting in. All good signs.
Someone hit the ball to me. I saw Michael approach the net. New dilemma. Should I pass him with a cross-court shot, which I could easily have done? Should I lob over his head, another easy option? I decided to be generous. I hit the ball right to him so he could comfortably volley at the net and win the advantage, if not the point.
Smart, right? Wrong. Michael was expecting anything but a direct shot. The ball glanced off the frame of his racquet and hit him squarely in the eye, knocking him to the ground. Game. Set. Disaster.
My life passed before my eyes. I would end up flipping burgers. And what about the Guarneri? Had I nipped their legendary career in the bud? We helped Michael to his feet. I apologized profusely, which he kindly accepted. But, oh man, what a shiner!
As it turned out, life went on. Michael recovered. The rest of the festival went without mishap. I eventually became a professional musician and the Guarneri String Quartet continued its illustrious career for decades.
But we never played tennis together again.
To get an insider’s view of life as an orchestra musician, you can now enjoy Symphonies & Scorpions as an eBook or in paperback.