As a high schooler on summer vacation attending Sequoia Chamber Music Workshop in Northern California I discovered the crazy cathartic joyful buzz of sight-reading classical chamber music with friends. Every night after the daily participant concerts on the Humboldt State University campus, the music buildings emanated spontaneous and fantastically rough chamber music as we students - kids aged 12 to 20 - formed ensembles of variously bizarre instrumentation, checked out some sheet music for rare or popular pieces from the extensive chamber music library available to us, settled into otherwise empty classrooms, tuned up, joked around, and dived in. Sometimes one player knew the piece and might act as the guide. Sometimes nobody had a clue and we were the blind leading the blind. Either way the game was to do our best to figure it out as we went along, from start to finish, playing as much of what was on the paper as we could, striving for musicial characters, faking when we needed to, shouting out rehearsal numbers and downbeats to help each other stay on track and together, to get from the first bar to the last with as little train wreckage as possible. This was musical discovery - no pressure to perform on stage, in front of judgmental audiences. This was just for fun! I was hooked.
In my first days as a post-grad diploma student at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London England I was fortunate to have been introduced to a friendly circle of players involved in a street-performing group called the Sigma String Quartet. More than a group, it was an organization - founded and managed by a brilliant Chinese businessman and musician (violin/violist) named Kai, the Sigma String Quartet featured maybe 20 or more players on a sort of nationwide rotation allowing for as many as (or at least? I never really knew for sure) three or four different Sigma String Quartets to be performing anywhere in England on any given day. Based in London, we spent most of our time and I learned the ropes on the busking pitch in the Covent Garden Market, with occasional outings by bus or packed into too-small cars to busk on other cities' high streets or in popular shopping malls, or to play weddings in country castles, or a variety of other gigs where someone had wanted a classical string quartet. Our sheet music, organized in battered white three-ring binders, included classical pops like Rossini's William Tell Overture and Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Pacelbel's Canon and "that opera tune from Bugs Bunny" (pick your favorite!). My weekly schedule - always careful at least theoretically to maintain some semblance of balance between the gigging and my also practicing "for real" for lessons and my other student-y activities at GSMD - typically included at least a few days of busking for anywhere from a few to way too many hours at a time, and a gig somewhere in the countryside. I thrived on the daily variety, and on the friendships I developed with my fellow buskers (In the same way I'd felt at IU that my non-musician friends helped keep me sane during undergrad, my busking experiences and colleagues added a unique flavor to my two years of postgrad work I'll never forget, that may have had as much an impact on my musicianship sense and skills as my proper studies at the Guildhall.) Before long I'd memorized the binder's worth of busking tunes and at some point one of us in one particular Sigma busking formation suggested we could add some choreography to the set - let's dance the Can-Can while we play the Can-Can! It was a hoot. Audiences loved the show, and I was able to earn enough busking (imagine yourself riding the long escalator into the Underground on your way home after a long succesful busking day wearing cargo pants with pockets absurdly weighed down with pound coins) to cover my cost of living in London those two years of study (I was also given a generous scholarship covering tuition from the school itself, for which, as with all gifts and donations!, I am eternally grateful).
Also during my time in the UK I discovered (thanks to my teacher recommending me as a sub for someone in the late-summer Open Chamber Music sessions) IMS-Prussia Cove in Cornwall. That was an incredible experience (I think I went three times in two years) and I will forever long to return....Don't know it? Look it up. Or ask me about it later.
Also during my time in the UK I got involved in a serious chamber music group, a piano quintet of GSMD students calling ourselves the Etive Ensemble, and managed with the help of the Guildhall student/career office (whatever it's called) to land enough concerts one term to make a little tour of southern England. That experience, as well as a week-long trip to Finland with a different group of GSMD students and faculty to perform recitals at a number of British Ambassador/Consulate properties and events, were collectively my first introduction to life as a touring concert musician. The travel, the sight-seeing, the new people, the foreign audiences, the fancy and plentiful food and drink... again, I was hooked.
When I had nearly completed my "PGDipMus" at GSMD I realized I had to choose what to do next. A few busking friends and I had discussed forming a new independent group to refine an act we could take sole ownership of - but I hesitated and decided to return to the States to, yes, study some more. I figured it was time to get my proper Master's Degree, and I'd been in touch with James Dunham (with whom I'd really enjoyed studying a couple summers earlier in Aspen) at NEC in Boston. He seemed happy to work with me again. I'd go there! That was easy.
I arrived in Boston in late August, moved into my new place - an apartment on Westland Ave., shared with two other NEC graduate students - attended orientation week activities, one week of classes, and then disappeared back to England for one more IMS Open Chamber Music session, during which I forgot nearly everything I'd just learned about Boston. The old Nokia cellphone I'd been using in London barely got enough signal to make a call if I hiked to the top of a certain hill overlooking the crashing waves near our rustic/idyllic lodgings near Penzance and stood stock still in a certain place, and at some point near the end of the session I heard in a voicemail that, having missed the chamber music placement auditions that had taken place while I'd been in England, I had been placed in an oboe-viola-piano trio for the semester, to be coached by my teacher Mr. Dunham. The Loeffler! sweet - I'd played that once in Bloomington, a beautiful and virtuosic piece, it'd be fun to do again, with new and more mature musical partners. I wondered what other music might have been written for that rare combination. I had something to look forward to upon my return to the U.S.
When I got back to Boston, I went to my classes and I met my chamber music partners. The pianist was the assistant to the director of the piano accompaniment program at NEC; she had been performing concerts on tour in Asia so she had, like me, missed the chamber music placement auditions. The oboe player was a Canadian grad student from Saskatchewan, who'd come to NEC from the University of Toronto; she had broken her arm in an accident while moving via U-Haul from Toronto to Boston and so she had, like the pianist and me, missed the placement auditions. We rehearsed regularly and sounded good together, and at the end of the semester we were honored, privileged, etc., to be one of just a few groups selected for NEC's chamber music gala concert. That was fun. And we'd even found another work for our weird trio, by - oh no! I can't remember... It was a set of 5 short character pieces called Schilflieder. Klughardt! That's the guy. Anyway, then the oboe player and I roped in a violinist and a cellist to play some other rare repertoire like the wonderfully bizarre Phantasy Quartet by Benjamin Britten, and wouldn't you know, we got to play on the Spring chamber music gala concert too. Weren't we awesome.
That oboe player is now my wife! We just celebrated 16 years married. Yay us! :)
More later - by the time we played the Britten in Jordan Hall that Spring, I already knew I wasn't staying for another year to finish my M.M. - the CSQ had come calling, and I'd decided to leave Boston and the graduate program to go join a bona fide professional String Quartet!