New Release! Elena Ruehr's Six String Quartets out Feb.17 2018

I'm excited about this one! Elena Ruehr is a great composer, longtime faculty at MIT, a wonderful person and good friend of mine and the Cypress Quartet's. We had recorded five of her six quartets over the years before we disbanded in 2016, and those 5 plus one other (her 2nd, a work for string quartet plus voice) recorded by the Borromeo Quartet with Stephen Salters, are being released as an awesome two-CD set on February 17 2018 on Avie Records. Check it out HERE.

From the Avie site: "For Guggenheim Fellow composer Elena Ruehr the appeal of the string quartet lies in the ability of four instruments to express an infinite range of emotional possibilities, to communicate across time. Her six string quartets attest to her enthusiasm for musical time-travel: echoes of Perotin, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvořák, Schoenberg and jazz are there, but the musical language is purely her own. Elena’s Six String Quartets are a magnum opus, three of them commissioned by the Cypress String Quartet, two by the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, and one an ASCAP Award winner."

Reviews of the CSQ's earlier album featuring Elena's quartets nos. 1,3, and 4:

"It's a brave move by the San Francisco-based Cypress Quartet to devote its new disc entirely to a contemporary composer, and a little-known name at that. But the music of Elena Ruehr, raised in Michigan and now teaching at MIT, is so appealing, and the performances by the Cypress players so persuasive, that the project brings rich rewards.Ruehr's music hovers between a resonant neo-Romanticism and more cerebral contrapuntal techniques, and it's full of rhythm, life and colour, immediately accessible to the listener but rich enough to repay repeated listenings. It's hard to imagine it being given more committed performances than these by the Cypress players."
--Strad Magazine Review (April 2010 by David Kettle)

"Here is the fine young Cypress Quartet's cellist Jennifer Kloetzel explaining to Saint Paul Sunday’s Bill McGlaughlin how the San Francisco Quartet's close relationship to 46-year-old MIT composer Elena Ruehr came about: "A few years ago we decided to champion the composers whose music we like—by playing their music a lot and playing a lot of their music. We commission and recommission them and really get into their world, that's become something that's very important to us— Elena's become a real part of our musical lives." Her music is "infectious," says the ensemble's violist, Ethan Filner. You can say that again many times over after hearing the Cypress Quartet's recordings of Ruehr's Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 4. The result of the quartet's immersion in Ruehr's musical world is one of the most appealing contemporary quartet discs in a very long time. The disc's title, "How She Danced," (Ruehr is a trained dancer as well as musician and composer) comes from the allegro third movement of Ruehr's Third Quartet and, as with so much of this, it sounds like the strongly tonal meeting point of Philip Glass' minimal-ism and the pan-ethnic folk-influenced music of the great early 20th century experimentalist Henry Cowell. In other words, it's where country reels and hoedowns and Hindu ritual and Balinese gamelan all somehow come together with the restless unison ostinatos of what was once "downtown" new music. A beautiful disc. ★★★ 1/2"
--Buffalo News - Listening Post (March 2010 review by Jeff Simon)

"I was enchanted with this, my first acquaintance with the music of American composer Elena Ruehr, and I think you will be, too. A strong, engaging personality suffuses her music. She was born and spent her early years in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, an area of much natural beauty that is said to have the most beautiful fall colors in America. Her music reflects a variety of traditional and world influences in addition to her formal education under mentors William Bolcom, Milton Babbitt and Vincent Persichetti. The daughter of a mathematician, she admits to a fondness for solving intellectual puzzles such as 12-tone rows, but she decided at an early stage in her career to leave the complicated stuff beneath the surface of what people hear, incorporating it into the musical form (For the record, Mozart did much the same thing).As a result, her music, of which we get a good sampling here from String Quartets 1, 3 and 4, written between 1991 and 2005, is both accessible and challenging. We sometimes forget, in analyzing the art of the string quartet, how sensually beautiful the sound of these four strings can be. Ruehr reminds us. Her art consists in large part of long melodies, long intonations and exhalations, gorgeously swelling tones and smartly struck pizzicati. The members of the Cypress Quartet – Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violins; Ethan Filner, viola; and Jennifer Kloetzel, cello – attest to the challenges they encountered in performing these works in an interview with radio host Bill McGlaughlin, excerpted in the program notes. They speak from experience of the 17-bar melody with a canon in 3 parts, with all four players playing fragments of it here and there, in the slow movement of Quartet No. 3. In this movement, entitled "The Abbey" and taking its inspiration from the style of 12th Century Abbess Hildegard von Bingen, the chant-like melody is supported by a catchy rhythm derived from it. The trick, which the Cypresses bring out with deceptive ease, is to make the music sound as simple and natural as possible." Review (Feb 2010 by Phil Muse)

What a summer - what a year! Part 1

A year ago I wasn't quite sure how this would all work out. Now, it would appear, I know.

July 6 2017 I flew with my family to Toronto from San Francisco to start anew in my wife's home country and leave the familiar stresses of America behind. The CSQ had had a great run and we managed to finish on just about the most positive note we could have imagined. Moving away from the Bay Area for me felt a bit too much like we were blindly jumping off a cliff, having chosen the direction to fall but without looking to see where we might land, or what might actually be down there to catch us - or not. A few mutual friends had generously offered to connect us with some key Canadian colleagues-to-be, theoretically laying the groundwork for the beginnings of our new careers as freelancing musicians in the greater Toronto area. But it was impossible to know what would ever actually pan out in terms of real work - would we find enough of this and that to make ends meet in this new existence?

We actually moved to Kitchener-Waterloo in June 2015, my wife and children living temporarily with my sister-in-law in Waterloo before we found a nice house to rent in the central Fredrick Neighborhood of Kitchener, just a few blocks from the Centre in the Square, home of the KW Symphony. The area was and I think still is known as the “musicians’ ghetto” because so many players live within easy reach of each other and, of course, the concert hall. But I was only a periodic visitor, flying in and out for a few days at a time every month or so depending on when I had been able to carve out extra away time in the CSQ touring schedule (thanks to the compassionate understanding and generosity of my colleagues), so I didn't really get to know the area until a year later when my wife had flown out west with our kids to witness the big Farewell Concert in SF and bring me back across the border with them, for good.

It was just a day or two after they'd landed in California to collect me when Elisabeth first felt the lump under her left armpit. We didn't realize it yet, but that was when everything changed.

I won't go into the nitty gritty about her breast cancer battle and recovery experience here - she has written many fantastic posts on a free blogpost blog I encourage you to check out - just make sure you're in the mood for gory details, physical and emotional. She's a wonderful writer, even about such terrible stuff as cancer. It's here: - find the oldest posts and start from the beginning of her story.

What I will continue on about here is more about what I found myself doing professionally (this is, ostensibly, my professional website after all!) over the past year - where did I end up landing, and what caught me?

But before I get to that, I have to catch a red-eye flight back to Toronto in a few minutes. So, stay tuned for Part 2, perhaps within the next week or so, if we're all lucky. We'll see...

Let Playing Be Play!

Knowing the Score:

How Coaches Approach A CMNC Day

In this series of articles, a number of our recent coaches responded to a series of questions from The Chamber Musician. TCM asked what they most enjoy about coaching adult amateurs and what they find most challenging, how they approach a one-day coaching situation, and what advice they could offer us to improve our chamber music experience. 

“Let Playing Be Play!”

by Ethan Filner

 I have coached countless young chamber music groups in summer music festivals and at all manner of schools over the years. But my participation as a coach at the Cal State Hayward CMNC workshop a few years after joining the Cypress String Quartet was my first experience working with adult amateurs. Simply put: I really enjoyed it!

As I guided the players through several hours of rehearsals in preparation for the masterclass performance at day's end, I found myself fascinated by the adults' interactions and general behaviour in this musical context: No matter what professional career they were pursuing or had spent a lifetime in, they each seemed to revert in character and attitude to the younger, “student” version of themselves when in the presence of their theoretically all-knowing coach.

How intimidated I expected to be, facing a trio of brilliant brain-surgeons who happened to also play stringed instruments! Here I was, not yet 30, thinking “These guys literally save lives ---- I just play music!"

But then I began to talk about the music, and they hung on every word. I asked a few probing questions about musical character, direction, articulation -- and suddenly the brilliant minds sitting before me became rapt children at story time. (Or whatever age they had been when they stopped studying music as kids before going on to med school -- I have often witnessed the sort of petty bickering and goofiness you'd expect from nervous teenagers on the first day of school.)

It was eye-opening, my little epiphany being that I, having studied and played music since the age of four, was as much a respectable expert in my field as any of these esteemed doctors were in theirs.


Thanks to my background in string quartet playing, I am perhaps more comfortable working with string groups than with winds or other mixed groups. But as soon as I write that, I object to the notion! -- No matter the instrumentation, music is music. Virtually any musical idea is readily translatable - transposable? - from string to wind, or brass, or even percussion language, and back again. Indeed, I usually speak in terms of “voice” and “breath,” and often conjure visualizations of different instruments or natural sounds the written notes might be echoing, or downright imitating.

As a chamber music coach, I'll touch on many different things, in roughly this order of priority: overall feeling of the piece, sound of the group, rhythm, and intonation (unless it's really bad!

In a situation where we have very limited time, I'll typically focus on helping the group explore the character(s) in and of the music. Then, come performance time they'll at least have a clear and unified idea of what they're shooting for, so that regardless what minor blips happen along the way, they have the larger picture in mind, and everybody in the room can feel that they're striving for something beyond the notes on the page.

Musical ideas of expression like character, mood, and feeling are closely connected to, and mutually impacted by practical issues like a group's sound, rhythm, and intonation, of course.  I have confronted an unfortunate plethora of situations in which one or another player in the group (young or old) has serious trouble with rhythm, and this necessitates extra time spent on, shall we say, rhythmic cleansing. As for intonation, it is sometimes clearly worth going over some spots carefully to check and try to fix particularly nasty intonation problems, ensuring the players understand, for instance, the different roles and responsibilities of perfect vs. imperfect intervals within the harmony. I do prefer, however - when possible - to make any comments on intonation as a part of more general advice about the group sound, in order to not get bogged down in a coaching as short as they often are. (Working with a younger student ensemble who may be rehearsing more regularly, with more hours to spare, and perhaps with loftier public performance career goals, is a different game entirely: good intonation is a critical, key ingredient for a successful presentation of any music, and time must be invested in learning how to manage intonation issues within a chamber group.)

It's important to be able to get through the piece you will be performing, so I like the groups to play through their assigned bit of music several times throughout the day. This helps to ensure the group's collective self-confidence when it comes time to perform in public.

I also encourage groups to be more and more creative as the musical character is developed. It's most interesting for the players if they each contribute as much as possible to the creation of a collective, group plan for the piece. I take the approach, “There is no Right or Wrong Answer - All ideas are Valid.”

What would I suggest to help your own chamber music experience? It's amazing what even only occasional practice with a tuner and/or metronome (depending on what you want to work on, rhythm or intonation) can do for your playing. Want to get better at reading so you don't get lost in a new piece? Sight read more! Go the library, visit and download a random piece for your instrument, and crash through it. Tomorrow, find another one! 

But above all, have fun! Have a good time. Be an explorer, an experimenter, a tourist, an adventurer - and enjoy the fact that you're not expecting to make a living off of your playing. Let playing be play!

(This post has been edited and updated; the original, published in 2005, is at

Rehearsal Break - from the Nov-Dec 2016 "Music Times"

Rehearsal Break - from the Nov-Dec 2016 "Music Times"

"Rehearsal Break" - a conversation published in the November-December issue of Music Times in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.
by Heather Taves with Ethan Filner

published in advance of our December 7 2016 viola+piano duo recital on the KWCMS series

published in advance of our December 7 2016 viola+piano duo recital on the KWCMS series

Before Ethan Filner and I rehearsed the other week, we brewed some coffee, plunked a laptop down on the living room coffeetable, and recorded our conversation.

H: Have you seen the PR?

E: In the newspaper? Yes! It’s a nice kind of “welcome to the community,” which is what I’ve been trying to do - begin to be part of this community. My brother-in-law texted me, “You’re in the paper! Like Fonzie!”

H: Ok, so Fonz. Do you have a motorcycle?

E. No. Never.

H: Huh. What kind of car do you drive?

E: The Family Car is a Kia Soul inherited from my father who passed away a few years ago.

H: I’m sorry.

E: It still smells like his dog.

H: What kind of a dog was it?

E: An Australian Shepherd named Tripper, who got his name because he would run endless circles around my dad, making him… trip.

H: ahaha…

E: And the reason my dad had an Australian Shepherd is because I’d had one as a kid -- when my parents separated when I was in high school, my dad moved across the country to Baltimore area and he missed the dog, so he got his own.

H: And you were, meanwhile, on the Left Coast, where you’d grown up?

E: I grew up near San Francisco, a little further inland on the other side of the Oakland Hills - I was a Valley Boy.

H: So you must have learned to drive early then.

E: Yup.

H: Your mum is still there?

E: My mom is still there in Danville, living in my childhood home. She teaches adult education at the West County Detention Center - the county jail - in Richmond, about 40 minutes north. So she’s helping convicts, and also people being held who are awaiting trial, work toward a G.E.D.

H: My mother worked in the prison system for some years.

E: Yeah? My mom has been there for a long time. I think it’s amazing, the work they do to help these guys, so many crazy stories (not to tell here) - and my mom keeps at it…

H: And whose idea was it to give you music lessons?

E: That happened in East Lansing, Michigan, before we moved to California. My older brother David started violin when he was six, I think he’d had a friend who had also started. Then I wanted to be like my brother and got started a year later, when I was four.

H: In Suzuki?

E: We started with, basically, a “pure” Suzuki method, but when we got to California a year later, our lessons began integrating score reading sooner than was normal, I guess. I made it through to about Suzuki Book 5 or 6 before other rep took over. I played violin for ten or eleven years before I started viola.

H: Many of my university students tell me that around age 12 or 13, things changed for them – I think it’s kind of a watershed moment for music students, right?

E: Well, what happened for me at 13 was music camp. So absolutely, that was a turning point, in terms of discovering a completely different population of kids who were interested in music the way that I was.

H: I played cello in my public school string program in PEI. And my sister played violin, and the boy down the street played violin, but when we all walked to school, the boy insisted on walking a block behind us, because he was getting so much flak for carrying a violin case around. Did you get any of that?

E: You know, I don’t remember any teasing or bullying for being in music like that. It was more generally about just being nerdy.

H: And this can be a kid’s own choice or identity, right?

E: Well, we apparently had a deal with our mom, when we got instruments and started lessons, that we would continue through the school years -- not necessarily having to reach a certain level, but to keep at it at least until graduation. Music turned into such a constant part of our lives, even with everything else we might have been doing as we grew, it was never really a question of whether or not to keep going, but of how to manage our time to fit everything in.

H: How connected do you feel with Danville now?

E: It’s my home town. It’s maybe a quarter the size and population of Kitchener, and the main drag is just a few blocks away from our house. I stay connected with a handful of people from there, not necessarily musical friends, Facebook is great for that of course.

H: You and I met at our local food club, Bailey’s Local Foods. I use “local” in its most loaded context, right, we’re talking about locally produced foods, the “100 Mile Diet.” And there was Rachael Ward who runs it with Maryrose Ivanco, and she led me over and introduced me to you, who, I assumed, was another local food aficionado. And then, as the conversation progressed, I realized: Ethan is actually a classical musician like myself. Similarly trained. At “international caliber” institutions, would you say?

E: Yes!

H: But we don’t talk about “international calibre” food, though, right?

E: No, I suppose we don’t, not in the same way. But - simply, “international food,” certainly! Exotic flavors...

H: So are you a local musician now, here? Because I wrote an article for the Music Times last year, about how I proudly label myself as a local musician - but I still wonder what that means.

E: Let’s see. Am I a local musician. I think this is where the second half of my career begins and is looking like it’s going to be - that I will be a local musician.

H: Are you feeling like that would be locally-based, or is there more to “local,” some kind of commitment to a scenario?

E: I want to have a relationship with my local community, to try to bring something beneficial to it, which I may or may not be unique in my ability to do. But coming off of 15 years of touring internationally and having home be where I catch up on what’s going on but I’m not necessarily part of it, well, my wife and kids have grown a lot while I’ve been busy. Now I’ve been two months at home here and already, I’m loving being more a part of the development of everything going on in our house. And I’m fortunate to have made some friends in my previous quartet-life who live in the GTA, who have introduced me to some of the local players, who have been introducing me to their friends… and who so far are these very talented, experienced, fun-to-play-with people.

H: Community involvement is such a deep question, for instance, when the symphony is looking for a conductor, should the conductor live in the community? When I got the job at Laurier, 20 years ago, I remember an interview question being, “You won’t live in Toronto and commute out, will you?” Nowadays, of course, I have many Laurier colleagues who have to commute to several communities because they’re contract instructors. I myself could not bring my experience back to my home town in Prince Edward Island because there are no jobs there. Some of my students could not go back even to their home countries - Iran, for example. So I guess “local” comes to mean “where you find yourself,” rather than going back to your home town. I’m wondering, what will that mean for you? Of course, we have to do whatever we can get, but how do we prioritize making connections with local musicians, as opposed to say touring – how are we thinking about this in the music sector?

E: That’s a tough set of questions! I am a strong believer in the value and validity of a certain sense of individualism, as far as different people having different ideas that might be “right” for them but not necessarily for others, and that the cultural beauty in our world emerges from the existence of those distinct and countless differences. And that somewhere - somewhere - there is, in the broadest sense, a place for every person... a key for every lock. As I learn more about where I am now and take some time time to consider what feels right as a “what’s next?” for me, I’m first of all trying to reach out to every new friend I make to build myself a foundation for a local career, whatever shape it eventually takes. You mentioned touring: I do enjoy traveling -

H: I do too! Let’s go, forget this local stuff, right!?

E: - but No, I happy to have a break from that now.

H: Me too, I have stayed home to raise my kid here.

E: One thing I learned in my time with the quartet is the importance of building and maintaining a strong, dedicated support base in your home town. It was vital for the survival and success of our group, and I think it’s equally important for an individual artist. Settling down at this point, in this new area, I have a bit of a developing fantasy of building something in the community, where I wouldn’t necessarily just be a player.

H: Oh, a utopian vision! I have lots, what’s yours?

E: These days, my utopia would be if there was a place where, when people were done with their workday, they could go to a place to play music for fun, old-fashioned salon style but not necessarily someone’s house. It could be like a weird merging of coffeeshop/bar/music venue/lounge/library/music studio. A safe place to experiment, or to “work out” in a different context than your practice studio at home. I think I would love to direct or host something like that. To remind people - fellow musicians - that what we can do is not limited to what we might currently be getting paid for, but that there’s so much fun and enjoyment to be had.

H: That strikes a chord with me. I’ve had former students talking in those terms. One dreams of buying a piece of property and building an artist community on it. Myself, I’ve always wanted to have a coffee house or salon – or a travelling caravan –

E: Food truck, music truck –

H: Ya, so many of us have thought of that! I remember about fifteen years ago, there was an experiment in Halifax with a venue called the Kyber Café. Indie musicians will remember it, Joel Plaskett came out of that. You would go in, it was a bit like the Working Centre in Kitchener. But upstairs there were recording studios. Downstairs there was a stage. It was a central headquarters, it’s passed into the annals of Canrock history now.

E: But it was vibrant. Or just experimental?

H: It was both, it was foundational to the East Coast indie music scene which is still one of the great scenes in Canada, many great artists coming out of it. So are you hired at Bailey’s Local Foods?

E: My wife Elisabeth has been working there since last year, and I started helping out when I moved here this summer. And she’s been sick recently, so I’ve been doing more. [Ethan’s wife was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer in August and is currently undergoing chemotherapy.]

H: So you and Elisabeth and I all support Bailey’s Local Foods, and now we have a concert together at the K-W Chamber Music Society. They are also a “local” endeavor – much longer-lived than the Kyber Café in fact. I believe their recording library features every notable classical musician in Canada over the past forty years. We’re talking longevity of an experiment in local community, continually drawing new members but with a core audience as well. And now, we’re about to connect into that community. But do the Bailey’s Local Food people know the K-WCMS people? Should they meet and could they meet?

E: I’m trying not to generalize here, but I think they would find each other fascinating. It’s a wonderful, diverse crowd I’ve been getting to know at Bailey’s. A few customers are already K-WCMS regulars, and say they’re looking forward to our concert - and it’s nice to recognize them at some of the other concerts I’ve attended. But sure, it would be interesting - always great! - to see more crossover, sell out more classical concerts... It’s never going to stop for me, this need to feel like there’s relevancy for the music you and I are playing.

H: Greg Sandow calls it “the crisis in classical music.”

E: Yes, given the contemporary competition for one’s ears, the noise all around, how people feel stressed out, and how there’s not enough time for anything.

H: You must have been dealing with this during the fifteen years you were with the quartet. Did you see changes in audiences during that time?

E: Through the years, yes, sometimes it has seemed like the audience is getting older – though not without exception: there were plenty of concerts where it was noticeable that more young people were coming to listen. Sometimes it all hinges on whoever’s the immediate authority: what’s the school teacher’s attitude during an outreach presentation, are they engaged, asking questions to model good behaviour for their students, or are they grading papers while we babysit their class? Does the concert presenter have a realistic sense of their audience’s tolerance for new music, or are they suffocating their own series by restricting the programs to only music written before 1900 because they think their patrons won’t like anything more “modern” than that? This problem has so many layers. Not least is the generation’s worth of funding cuts to school programs so many of us suffered through and are still trying to fix. Thankfully, there are a lot of younger musicians searching for solutions with a lot of positive energy.

H: What would you say to somebody who didn’t normally go to this type of concert? How would you sum up what you love and what your specialty is?

E: It’s our business to move people. To bring people to a different state of being than what they maybe ever thought was possible before. And I love the idea that in any given audience there is at least one person who’s hearing this music for the very first time - it’s an incredible responsibility, and power, we have as performers. We’re not trying to sound like a recording we’ve heard. We’re telling a story, without words. We’re painting together, in the moment - something we’ve discussed during rehearsals, but which doesn’t have to translate exactly. Anybody can have a different sense of what it is. It’s not going to be all beautiful all the time, because music is reflective of dissonance and loss and pain as well as happiness and joy.

H: The question we get asked all the time is “Who’s your favourite composer”?

E: The answer we give all the time is “Whoever’s on our stand right now!”

H: hahahaha okay, I don’t care. You can’t have a favourite musician!!

E: Nah!

H: That would be so snotty!! Okay so listen, let’s just geek out. On a very technical level, what’s in your musician brain right now, what are you trying to work out?

E: Reprogramming myself to work as a freelance chamber musician, without wanting to lose everything I learned operating as a full-time quartet musician for so long. Our quartet had made a commitment not to take outside work. We lived in the same town and rehearsed four hours, five or six days a week, and on the road for maybe a third of every year. Intense work for fifteen years, trying to make a unified statement.

H: So you were an “intentional community” yourselves, a sort of “commune.”

E: Yes. We probably spent more time with the quartet than we did with our own families. So yeah, I’m trying to find myself. I still sometimes imagine what their voices would be saying, but –

H: But now you can say, “But no!”

E: Yes, “Well, Now I’m going to do it this way!”

H: And you’re exploring working with various pianists, other musicians, but more open-ended.

E: I’m excited about the general feeling of learning how to freelance, playing a part of a different group every time, to find this other way of “doing” music, and, hopefully, to make the most of it!

H: What about playing contemporary music?

E: Happy to! And maybe I’ll rope some of the composers I worked with as part of the quartet into writing music for groups I meet here, as we figure things out.

H: Will you be doing outreach concerts?

E: In the quartet, we did a lot of outreach activites, in schools, libraries, community centres, both at home and wherever we toured. And we didn’t have a scripted show. Knowing the kids had to be moved, we wanted to reach them individually, interactively - not just talk at them. So, I’m ready to help, like volunteering to help here with my son’s high school music association.

H: What do you want to be doing in ten years time?

E: Lots of concerts!

H: All over the world?

E: I don’t know why I hesitate with that.

H: Are you tired of being on the road?

E: A little bit, yes. The thing is, if there’s an opportunity, I’m sure I’ll say, sure, I’d love to!

H: It’s harder for us all to plan five or ten years ahead now, not knowing about so many things like climate change and so on.

E: I think we have to be idealistic. Shoot for the stars, and make adjustments - course corrections - along the way.

Why Music?

I didn’t know that I was going to be a professional musician – or even thought seriously about trying - until well into my college career. I had begun violin lessons when I was 4 and switched to viola when I was about 13, and I always (mostly?) enjoyed playing but I had never felt like doing it professionally was necessarily my destiny.

When I first arrived at Indiana University-Bloomington, I registered as a double major in telecommunication studies and viola performance – they had a new sort of double-degree category called “Bachelor of Science in Music with an Outside Field,” or “B.S.O.F.” This choice enabled me to take many other kinds of courses outside of the music school that I thought sounded interesting. As you can imagine, music programs tend to be heavy on the music classes - most students aren’t able to take many courses outside of their discipline. 

The combination of the double-degree program plus enough Advanced Placement credit from some classes in high school to exempt me from certain remedial classes allowed me to be a little more creative with my extra-musical coursework. For me, the variety was a lot of fun. I also got to meet a lot of students and professors who had nothing to do with the music school. It was like having a not-so-secret secret second-life at the university, in addition to my musician friends. I studied advanced American Political Science, took a philosophy course, became a late-night D.J. on the student-run campus radio station, learned how to direct a TV news segment, taught myself how to code in HTML... I felt like I was getting everything that I could out of IU. (On the other hand – and the absurdity of this still baffles me - I never did attend a single IU basketball game, and this was still during Bob Knight’s tenure as their (in)famous coach.)

I remember a couple of moments that have really stuck with me, turning points where I was encouraged to put a stronger focus on my playing. The first was when, early in my freshman year, I took a break one late-morning after practicing for about an hour in the old Music Annex building. I sauntered into the student lounge area and a good cello-playing friend of mine was there. I told her how great and proud I felt for having just practiced for “a whole hour.” As a kid, I sometimes might have gone the better part of a week (the time between my private lessons) with barely 30 minutes a day, if that. When my teachers eventually learned I was considering applying to music schools for college, they were completely shocked. Managing an hour - on my own, without persistent nagging from my ridiculously patient mom - was a big step up for me.

So as my friend sat on a couch in the student lounge drinking coffee, she looked up at me and said, “Oh, that’s nice Ethan. I’ve been here since 6 am.” It hit me that I could and should be doing a whole lot more than I had been. I eventually started keeping a practice journal, learned to plan my practice and to keep track of what I needed to work on, how long I’d give for each thing each day, and how much time I actually did spend… It was a big shift for me, and I definitely started practicing more, and of course it made a difference.

It was extremely motivating to be around a lot of young, seriously driven musicians. I spent a lot of time hanging out with friends in that student lounge, but only because I was spending a lot of time in the nearby practice rooms, too.

The other significant turning-point moment for me happened at the end of that first school year, during the annual performance juries. As a violist at IU, I had to play for a mixed group of the string faculty, not just the pair of viola professors. There were several well-known, legendary musicians there, like violinists Miriam Fried and Paul Biss, cellists Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi and Janos Starker. All brilliant musicians, and all intimidating in different ways.

On my jury I played a few different short works– a movement of solo Bach, a movement of a sonata with piano accompaniment, and Quincy Porter’s Speed Etude. The Speed Etude is a blazing-fast showpiece featuring blazing-fast triplets zipping up and down covering the entire range of the instrument, and it apparently made an impression on Starker. A few minutes after I'd finished and left the room, my teacher Atar stepped out into the hallway to talk to me. He described that after I’d left the room Starker had looked down at my school transcript and asked, “What is… ‘B.S.O.F.’?” When my double-degree status was explained to him, Starker looked confused and said, "Why?"

With that particular comment coming from that particular man, Atar suggested it might indeed be time to put all my eggs in one musical basket – and after some more thought, I agreed. I changed my degree goal to a Bachelor of Music with a Minor in Telecommunications heading into my Sophomore year, and throughout the rest of my time at IU I sought out and took as many opportunities to perform as I could.

My experience in that jury with Starker’s reaction was a key ingredient in my musical development after high school – a pretty substantial boost to my self-confidence as I was trying to figure out what to do with myself and whether I really belonged there studying music.