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Dover Quartet finds unexpected teacher during Northwestern residency

Podcast explores the celebrated quartet's sound evolution

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It’s a new take on classic art. The Dover Quartet brings a unique energy to chamber music during their residency at the Bienen School of Music. In this podcast from Northwestern University, the brilliant young musicians explain the unusual rehearsal technique that has resulted in a tone unmatched by any quartet – at least in this century.

Of course, we’ll be listening to a ton of their music, and we’ll also find out how members of the Dover Quartet got their start in music. Plus, they’ll tell us about the unexpected teacher who has influenced their sound evolution over the course of their time at Northwestern.

We became blinded by our love for chamber music and didn’t think about how hard it would be to make a career in music. We just followed our passion.

Milena Pajaro-Van de Stadt

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: By the time we finally felt like we were starting to succeed, we didn’t realize how hard it had been.

Over the course of their two-year residency at the Bienen School of Music, the Dover Quartet has dazzled concert audiences, selling out halls in major cities all over the world. But they always return home to Northwestern, where they pass on their skills to students who also dream of one day filling concert halls around the country.

Link: A lot of credit is due to the students and their love for what they do and the care. That makes it so much more fulfilling, so it’s a very rewarding experience

In this podcast, we’re talking to two members of the quartet.

Link: My name is Joel Link, and I play the violin.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: My name is Milena Pajaro-Van de Stadt, and I play viola.

Bryan Lee on violin and Camden Shaw on cello round out the Dover Quartet. These musicians are young – really young – but already they are one of the most celebrated quartets in the country. They catapulted to fame after winning the Banff International String Quartet Competition in 2013, and just this year they were awarded the prestigious Avery Fischer Career Grant, administered by the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Link: You can’t stop. You have to keep focusing.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt:  It's a constant search, so just enjoy it as a journey, and don’t think too much about the goal points.

Members of the Dover Quartet say they’ve continued to learn during their residency at Northwestern, but their teacher isn’t who you might expect.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: I’ve really learned so much from being here, especially because of coaching the students.

Northwestern: Would you say the act of teaching has informed your own practice in any way? Does it make you think about things differently?

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: It does.

Link: For sure.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: Especially when students are asking questions like, 'How do I fix this problem?’ or ‘What would you do in this situation?’

The whole idea of how concerts are presented and the kinds of venues in which they happen – that's starting to change.

Joel Link

Milena says having to verbalize techniques for her students helps her solidify them in her own practice as well.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: It's adding another layer to what your instincts are, being able to explain them. I start explaining it, and then I realize – you know what? I could actually use this method myself more often.

The members of the Dover Quartet teach Northwestern students more than just the technical skills necessary for a career in music. They serve as mentors, helping guide students’ choices in college and beyond.

Northwestern: What would be your advice to young musicians who are interested in a professional career?

Link: There could be so many things to say. I feel like most of the things I would think of would be on the more cliché side.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: That's just who you are (laughing).

Link: Yeah, I'm just a big cliché (laughing). I think being realistic about what you can accomplish day by day is really important.

Set small goals on the path toward accomplishing a bigger task.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: What he’s saying makes me think of that five-minute problem or a two-month problem kind of thing. Being able to recognize what types of issues you’re dealing with and not get demoralized by trying to set impossible goals, like Joel was saying. But my advice would also be… It’s kind of on the same, along the same lines that…

Link: Copy cat (laughing).

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: Being a musician or an artist of any kind, you’re always a student, no matter what, even if you’re in our position. We’re always learning. We’re always trying to get better. It never ends. It’s like the hilarious story that Joel has of a friend of his asking him if he was finished learning the violin yet. He thought, or his teacher said, he would be finished learning piano in about a year or so (laughing). It never ends, and that’s something that you can take in a frustrating way, but it's much more exciting to think of it as a positive thing – that you can only continue to get better.

The Dover Quartet proves that music is an evolving art form. These four musicians have a shockingly large repertoire of music, and part of that comes from the way they practice – a trick they turn to when music starts to feel like a job instead of a passion.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: Let’s say we’ve been playing the same program over and over, or we’ve been rehearsing a lot, and everyone is tired – traveling a lot. Finally, it's time to rehearse.

At this moment, in order to keep the passion alive…

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: We'll sit down and read pieces that we’ve never played before. No one feels like they have to be prepared with their part, so no one is judging anybody. Ideally no one ever is, but you know, it's a quartet.

Link: Ideally (laughing).

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: But that's been really great is when we just – no pressure, no anything – just read a piece for fun and for the pure enjoyment of playing music.

Another Dover practice technique could be the source of their unique sound – a sound that has been compared to musicians of old who played their music on strings made from animal intestines.

Northwestern: Your tone is really distinctive from many other string quartets today. I think it was the Wall Street Journal that wrote that it sounds like you guys are playing gut strings. I wonder what makes you want to bring back that style.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: It's interesting. Yeah, I remember they said that, and after that article came out, a lot of people asked us if we did use gut strings, which we don't.

Milena says they’re not trying to emulate the sound of gut strings exactly, but she says they are drawn to that sound quality.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: So vocal and almost more vocal than instrumental, in a way.

They’ve adopted an unusual technique in practice in order to draw that rich, vocal technique from their instruments – singing.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: One of our favorite rehearsal techniques – and that saves a lot of time in talking and arguing about the way that you're wording some point you want to get across – is that we sing to one another in rehearsal all the time. That's what we’re trying to get to come out of our instruments, and I just wonder if that's maybe part of what gives it that different sound quality that people are responding to.

Members of the Dover Quartet also draw inspiration for their sound from other contemporary quartets.

Northwestern: Who have been your biggest musical influences?

Link: Oh man, so many.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: Yeah, there are a lot. It was before we were in school that we were listening to recordings of Guarneri, Cleveland, Vermeer – all these fantastic groups with that, I think, also a similar sound aesthetic.

And if you’re wondering about their influences outside the world of classical and chamber music…

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: Do you mean like pop music?

Northwestern: Yeah, more mainstream.

Link: I’m notorious.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: He doesn’t (laughing).

Link: They’ll put anything on in the car and be like, 'Come on do you know who this is?' It'll be someone famous.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: It'll be Bohemian Rhapsody.

Link: Or it'll be The Beatles, and I’ll be like, 'Uhh, I don’t know.' I don’t know anything. I don’t listen to a lot.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: I really like to listen to jazz a lot and The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel.

Link: I do, too, when I know who they are. They’re great (laughing).

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: You know who they are now.

Link: Woohoo!

They might not listen to the kind of music that gets people dancing in the bars, but the Dover Quartet has their own way of reaching out to that very same audience.

Link: There are so many things going on in classical music right now, and I think the whole idea of how concerts are presented and the kinds of venues in which they happen – that's starting to change.

Northwestern: How so?

Link: We’re looking at a lot more places where it's not that the music is secondary, but there are other things going on.

For instance, at a bar, people are…

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: Having drinks. They’re more relaxed. If they’re really into the music, you can feel it instantly.

Joel and Milena say playing in settings like this helps to draw in a younger crowd and bridge the gap between young audiences and the typical chamber music crowd.

Link: With classical music, it's like, 'Oh the people show up in tuxedoes and tails' and all this stuff, and it feels like it's not for everyone. I think the sense is to show people that what we do speaks to everyone, so I think that's amazing.

Let’s take a step back now to when Joel and Milena were just kids, experiencing music for the very first time.

Link: I'm the youngest of three, so my brother and sister had already started before me. Apparently when I was very young, I stood up at the end of one of their recitals and started yelling about how it was my turn to play, even though I did not play.

At that point, he picked up the violin, and a few years down the road…

Link: I suppose when I was 12 or 13, I was really into playing soccer and playing music. I remember there was a car trip, and my mom was like, 'Well what do you want to do with your life? What do you want to focus on?My parents were like, 'You should think about either one, (whispers) but you should really do music.' So I listened and obeyed (laughing). I've always really loved music, and it's always been such a big part of who I am, so I decided to pursue that more seriously.

For Milena, playing the viola was a small – very small – act of rebellion.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: When I was very little – 3 or 4 years old – my dad, who is a heart surgeon... He’s not a professional musician, but he’s a great pianist. He taught me piano lessons.

But, Milena didn’t really want to play piano.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: I apparently told him that I wanted to play something he couldn’t teach me. They said, ‘Okay fine. You choose your instrument.’ So I chose violin, almost a little bit random, because I was walking down the street with my mom and saw someone playing violin in the park with their case open.

Milena started taking lessons from a teacher who wasn’t her dad and eventually made the shift to viola. And then…

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: When I found out that being a string quartet was an actual job possibility for some people, that people did that as a career, it seemed too good to be true. It was my dream to be in a quartet.

She really started to pursue that dream when she met the other members of the quartet during their days as students at the Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: We became blinded by our love for chamber music and didn’t think about how hard it would be to make a career in music. We just followed our passion.

Things didn’t always come easily…

Link: It did feel a lot like banging your head against the wall.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: Not getting auditions, not making it into competitions, being waitlisted for programs and that kind of thing. It took years of that before we felt like things were starting to stick, and we were being noticed, and we were getting concerts. We got our management.

Northwestern: What was it like the first time you saw your album? Your physical CD.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: Oh, that was at Banff.

Link: It was very bizarre. It's like, ‘Wow, I can hold something.’

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: It was cool.

Link: It’s something I can give to people or do something with. Yeah, it was kind of amazing.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: It was weird because the CD… Maybe it’s because we’re on it. I’m on this CD that I can hold in my hand…

Link: It seems not legit.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: It seems like, 'Oh, that’s just my CD. It's not a real CD.'

Link: Yeah, it feels very weird.

Well it’s not just CDs. The Dover Quartet sells out concerts all over the world.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: New York, Philly, Chicago, Paris, Berlin, Norway, Israel, Prague.

And Evanston. As part of their residency, the Dover Quartet plays multiple concerts each year on Northwestern’s campus. They say there’s something very special about that experience – that the concert halls at Northwestern feel intimate in a way they can’t replicate on the road. It’s like playing for family.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: It's almost like a home town audience where you keep coming back to the same majority group of people who are out there. It feels more like a familial experience than going to a concert in a country we’ve never been to and playing for a giant audience of strangers, which is a very different experience.

When they play at Northwestern, they have a very personal connection with the audience – partly because they know their students are there to listen.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: We know that they’re listening with discerning ears. You can feel their investment in the performance.

Link: Yeah, it always adds a little extra energy to know there are a multitude of discerning ears in the audience.

Pajaro-Van de Stadt: We better play well (laughing).

If you’d like to be part of that hometown audience, check out the Concerts at Bienen website or the Northwestern Arts Circle website. And if you liked this podcast, subscribe to NorthwesternU on iTunes or SoundCloud. You can find all kinds of stories about the arts at Northwestern as well as research and campus events. You can also find all of our stories on our website, Reporting from Northwestern University, this has been Kayla Stoner. Thank you for listening.

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