Before I became a scientist, I was a musician. I started piano lessons when I was six, despite some warnings to my parents that I was too young. My mother was sick of hearing me ask to learn, so she caved in and signed me up for weekly lessons. That I loved. Sadly, I rarely play today, but Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are old friends whom I love to visit.
Last year, we discovered Chattanooga’s String Theory chamber music series at the Hunter Museum of Art. My science geek self can’t help but love the name, and the schedule is top notch. World class musicians who I rarely could have afforded to hear in New York City come to my local art museum and play chamber music for sold out audiences. (I worry about the age of those audiences– mostly men and women a generation older than I am. I’d like to hope the classical music lovers my age are busy raising a new generation, but most of the data out there suggests that interest in classical music has waned dramatically.)
In addition to the sounds that weave together seamlessly, I’m fascinated by the relationships in chamber groups. There are subtle signals, cues, movements, the way that individuals play off of each other. Musicians learn and even intuit each other’s ticks. And it’s hardly surprising that chamber music groups often include people with close personal as well as professional relationships. In December, the String Theory concert featured sisters Ani and Ida Kavafian, and Ida’s husband Steven Tenenbom.
I experienced this subtlety when I played chamber music in my teens. Though I loved to play the piano, I disliked performing solo. Nerves got the better of me at recitals, and though working toward that performance goal was satisfying in certain ways, I rarely came out of a recital or performance feeling happy with the outcome. Then I began taking lessons from Bernice Maskin, a piano teacher who had made it her mission to create opportunities for kids to play chamber music. She knew all the local string teachers in my hometown, and she’d pull together trios, quartets and quintets, based on ages, playing level, and even existing friendships if she knew of them.
Chamber music is the essence of teamwork, where every member of the group contributes a critical component of the tapestry. Unlike an orchestra or concert band, where a weak link can sometimes go unnoticed, every member in a chamber group is vital, essential, a lifeline of the fabric as a whole. Playing in a group wasn’t easier, but it taught me to collaborate. Following a great musical plan, I learned when to charge forward and show off my part and when to dial back and let the cello, violin, or clarinet take the lead. If I faltered, I had to adjust, and my fellow players would adjust along with me. When they had problems, I covered as best I could. The music is both simple and delightfully complex as is the lesson. Keep going, don’t stop, be flexible, and enjoy the ride.
Those lessons have extended far beyond the piano bench, to the chemistry lab and the writing desk. Great relationships and collaboration make good work much sweeter.