The lofty goals of our training -- and then, everything else...

After our first major performance of Beethoven’s Opus 18 no. 5 last Thursday, Chicago Q got the wonderful opportunity to perform it again last night, as part of Kate’s final DMA violin recital at Northwestern. It’s always great to perform a major work for the second time — knowing for certain that you’ve done it before, successfully, is a liberating feeling. (P.S. That’s right — Kate is (almost) done with her doctorate! Major congratulations! We may start calling her Dr. Carter in rehearsal, just for kicks.)

On the ride home, Liz (our cellist) and I were talking about quartet intonation. Liz had been listening to some recent performance recordings, and feeling like we still have significant work to do in the intonation department, and learning whom to tune to at crucial moments. (Hint: she’s a particularly interested party because the answer is almost always, to the cello!) I completely agreed with her, and I mentioned how my own rush of adrenaline often compromises my ability to adjust tuning during performances. We talked about ways to address this: speaking with experienced quartet cellists, reading others’ ideas on tuning strategy, and — of course — continuing to rehearse and train our own ears at the highest possible level.

We both (well … almost, in my case!) have Master’s degrees in music performance and have spent the bulk of our lives immersed in highly technical matters such as these. In fact, Liz spent her MM degree at Wisconsin as cellist of the graduate quartet-in-residence. Yet amazingly, in the car, Liz said: “I feel like we’re still new at this!” And I knew exactly what she meant. Our entire education is spent in deference to the masters, the great ones who came before us — from Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms to our revered teachers and conductors. It’s pretty hard to feel like you’re EVER ready to call yourselves professionals, to put yourselves out there, and to proudly display your artistic work in public. I’m super proud of Q’s ovarian fortitude in this department.

Then, this morning, I was checking out the live-blogging summary of the TEDX Michigan Avenue conference. We’re so bummed we had to miss this. Our awesome Chicago arts colleagues presented on all kinds of urgent matters: arts funding, audience building, audience/performer interaction, keeping ourselves relevant.

Questions like these are VITAL — and they’re the “other side” of Chicago Q Ensemble’s mission. How can we engage our audience? Which pieces will move the average listener? What makes a concert experience fun, accessible, meaningful for people? (At our most recent concert, we experimented with costumes, video elements, and audience-interaction.)

Then I realized these two things aren’t separate at all. Because of something else Liz happened to say last night. “When I know the audience is REALLY with us,” she said, “that’s when I feel free to play.”

She’s right. When the audience is engaged, the artists are free to do their best work. I never thought of it like this before. But in front of a sea of smiling, excited faces, I can relax. I can breathe. I can hear. And I probably do play better in tune.