Friday, December 2, 2011

The Devil Is In The Details

The process of “study” is a wonderful journey. As familiarity with a subject becomes more intense, its meaning becomes clearer and richer. And as performers work into the details they find the essence of the style, structure and coherence that lies within every great work! I always took that saying “the devil is in the details” to mean that the most challenging part of playing a piece well lies in getting the details to speak and be heard!

I have equated this the experience, on some more simple level, to doing a jigsaw puzzle that replicates a great work of art or a photograph of an intricate scene. When I begin, I am primarily just matching color schemes, or connecting the most obvious and distinctive lines. But, as I get further into the process, I find myself studying the subtle nuances of the subject and getting to know the painting or photograph in great detail. My appreciation for its elements increases and my understanding of it becomes more complete. I see things to which I was initially blind – textures, figures, lines, shades of color.

Studying and mastering a musical work has something in common with this process. As I get to know a work and become more and more familiarized with the details of its elements of construction, it jumps to life at a whole new level! The process of understanding a work more and more in its intricate detail is enormously gratifying!

It is as if time slows down and I can hear the piece with more and more attention to the smallest figures. It feels as if my ears get bigger in the process – equivalent to seeing something through a magnifying glass - and I hear the elements in greater detail and I tune-in more keenly to the turn of a phrase, the articulation, the intonation of chords and scale patterns, and the unique structure and inflection of each motive and line.

Whoever it was who famously said, “the devil is in the details” (and later someone modified to say “God is in the details”), they made a compelling point. I think this is the “artist’s comment” about how attention to the intricacies elevates one’s experience of studying, playing, performing and/or listening to music! The sharper and closer is one’s perception of its elements, the more intimately we “know it”, the more deeply we experience all that it has to offer.

When a teen-ager listens over and over to his favorite song, I am sure it is not with the idea that the song is being “studied”. But I would maintain that it is exactly what is happening – with the result that the more one intently listens, the better one hears! The better one hears, the more one experiences the universe within a single musical selection.

Whether formal and “serious” or casual and for the “hobbyist”, “study” is what leads to a more and more thrilling understanding of a work of music. Familiarity is key to comprehension. So – the moral of the story is: listen often and listen intently - with your ears wide open! And, enjoy the journey to the center of each musical universe!!


Friday, October 28, 2011


As musicians, we often spend 95% of our effort on how we sound.  But for the average audience member, a concert consists of both a visual and an audio experience.  When this involves a small ensemble looking coordinated is also a challenge.

What you wear says a lot about you. To some people, wearing jeans and a T-shirt to a performance says you do not care about the concert. But to other people it might be a “hip” statement. Pianist Awadagin Pratt often soloed with major symphonies in jeans and a T-shirt (however, he did not do this until after he won the Naumburg Competition). The Kronos Quartet also wears “non-traditional” clothes such as leather jackets and jeans. In the case of Awadagin, his fame at winning a major competition took some (but not all) of the edge off of the criticism of his dress code, and gave him a persona of an “edgy” performer. In the case of the Kronos Quartet, their dress really reflects their choice of programming, which is mainly contemporary music.

Whatever you or your group decides to wear, there are two important things to remember: 1) It needs to look like you care and 2) It needs to be true to the individual and/or the group. I personally despise performing in a tuxedo or even a suit. For me, it adds a barrier between me and the audience that I strive to remove. However, there have been times that I do perform in a suit with my quartet, because as groups there are times we want to portray a very conservative look. At other times we might perform in jeans, because the venue is different and we want to portray a different feeling. But whatever I wear, if I think I look good I will go into a concert with more confidence and security then if I am embarrassed by my dress.

-Tim Schwarz

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


In my last blog I talked about the power of silence. Another powerful tool is listening. Like silence, there are different levels of listening. Think about two people having a conversation. Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and feel like they are really hearing you? Contrast that with someone who is just waiting for you to stop talking so they can say what they want to say. Or talking on the phone with someone and knowing they are typing an e-mail to someone else while “listening” to you.

Music, and especially chamber music, is very similar. If I am sight-reading a piece, I spend most of my effort counting to make sure I am not off rhythmically. While this basically keeps me in the correct spot, obsession with counting can actually make me listen less. Likewise, when I really begin to listen, then it is possible I might miss-count a phrase at first. But the rewards are much greater in the end.

In order to truly listen, you have to have some knowledge of what your partners are doing. Are you with them rhythmically or tonally? What is the function of the chord or rhythm? Are you the most important voice? If not, who is? Going into a rehearsal with all of that knowledge can free you to hear the individual style and playing of the instrumentalist. And then you are truly free to communicate with each other in a meaningful way.

-Tim Schwarz

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


On September 9-10, Serafin String Quartet held “quartet camp” at the University of Delaware, which was a series of seminars and playing exercises for quartet training. Our new violist, Molly Carr, talked about some of the things she does to prepare for a quartet rehearsal. One of the first things she mentioned was circling all of the tutti rests. I thought this was a fantastic exercise and really got me thinking about the power of silence.

All silence is not the same. The silence after a dissonant forte chord is going to be very different from the silence at the end of a piano phrase in Mozart. One of the most powerful silences I ever heard was with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the end of Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6. That moment of complete stillness and awe in a hall filled with 2,000 people is something that can never be reproduced on a CD.  And the silence before a piece begins is equally important, and can also vary tremendously. 

One of the reasons silence is so powerful is it is something both the audience and the performers participate in equally. The performers have to set up the silence well, but the audience has to participate in it fully for it to be truly effective. Silence is always the time that I know if the audience is “with” me or not.

So the next time you are performing a piece, don’t just think about the notes. Think about those moments of silence which are so incredibly powerful.

-Tim Schwarz

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Truckin' Through the South

Long time, no blog.  Well, after a long, crazy couple of months, we're back online, and will be sharing some fun tidbits about our upcoming southern US tour!

We'll be spending a few days in beautiful and bustling Atlanta, Georgia, for two performances at Emory University.  Our concert on Friday, April 8, will be introduced by Atlanta Symphony Orchestra maestro and new head of the Aspen Festival and School, Robert Spano.  We'll also be playing a children's concert, on Sunday, April 10, featuring the animals Webster the Musical Spider and Ferdinand the Bull, at Emory's Carlos Museum.

From there, we travel to Spartanburg, South Carolina, for a Monday evening concert (April 11) at Wofford College, presenting some meaty repertoire of Dvořák and Beethoven.  Then we'll be on the way back home.

So, stay posted, as we'll hope to blog about our travels, with some fun pictures to boot.  Okay, off to go pack and put gas in the car...

Larry & SSQ