THE BLOG
03/12/2013 12:27 pm ET Updated May 12, 2013

Vanishing Rituals

As the weeks of my final season as cellist of the Emerson String Quartet fly by, I am taking stock of my experiences during the past thirty-four seasons from a perspective of heightened sensitivity.

I am grateful that my quartet's major accomplishments - dozens of recordings of the core repertoire, landmark concerts and series, many awards and prizes - define its public identity and are widely known. But they don't tell a personal story of being in the Emerson Quartet. The career of a quartet musician is a collage of almost countless elements: faces and places, surprises and routines, pains and pleasures, shared by the members of the ensemble. Touring is made up of repeated itineraries that shape these elements into patterns of behavior, experiences and sensations that become almost ritualistic. They are a part of me. And soon I'm going to pass these rituals, along with the Emerson's cello chair, to my successor Paul Watkins, on May 11th.

There is a good deal of curiosity about the private lives of string quartets, as if they were bizarre, secret societies. Movies have been made that attempt to portray quartets from the inside (recently, Yaron Zilberman's A Late Quartet), and some of these films capture bits of the truth (I'm not sure if anyone who has been in a quartet as long as I have can watch them with a truly open mind). Many of my quartet rituals faithfully capture the essence of life in the Emerson, and even by answering a small variety of questions can I begin to give you some idea of what it's really like. My answers all come with a money-back guarantee.

Can a string quartet have fun?
Despite the serious stage demeanor of most quartet players (the music demands great concentration to play well), we actually do have a tremendous amount of fun. We meet challenges together, enjoy remarkable sights and incredible moments in each other's company, and share some of the greatest music ever written. The Emerson, since the beginning, has respected rules of social conduct that have preserved the dignity (and sanity) of each of us, allowing us to be happy as individuals, which, as in a marriage, is the true key to a harmonious relationship. Amid the tensions of concert performance, it's always been helpful when one of us simply blurts out something funny, reminding us that even if there is disaster on stage, everyone still leaves the hall alive. There are plenty of professions in which the consequences of mistakes are much more serious, and I'm glad I am not in any of them.

How does a string quartet fit in a car?
Four people with instruments and luggage can fit in a single car, but it's a struggle. For the lone soloist, space abounds, and orchestral musicians have usually been relieved of luggage and bulky instruments before entering their vehicles. However, the transportation awaiting a string quartet can be a dreaded nightmare. Will there be a van (OK), two cars (better), or a single vehicle (uh-oh) and if so, what size? The way a full-grown string quartet fits into a normal car is something akin to a circus act, especially when you add garment bags or suitcases to the two violins, viola and cello. None of the instruments can ride in the trunk, especially in winter, so if somehow four people plus a driver plus the stuff need to be crammed into a single car, it's never big enough. Car geometry dictates that one of us must sit in the middle of the back seat, often with the cello across our laps, pinning the three of us down and obscuring the view. The duration of the trip is often another unknown factor that can be an additional source of anxiety. I'm pretty sure I won't miss this drill, but who am I to say? I've never left a quartet before.

What do string quartets eat?
It's fairly common knowledge that musicians love food. Why, I don't know, but for those of us who travel to perform, food is a kind of international currency whose value fluctuates according to location. The prospect of bad or no food, especially after a grueling day of travel and a demanding concert, is a nightmare we avoid like the plague. In the absence of any possibility for my colleagues to argue, I claim the dubious identity as the Emerson Quartet's most obsessive foodie, and for those like me, our general mood, quality of performance, and even social graces can largely depend on the assurance of a good meal on the horizon. Pinning down plans for a rewarding post-concert meal is a tour ritual I personally perform with maniacal determination. When met at the airport, amidst the necessary conversations about rehearsal and other logistics, my voice will ring out on the subjects of lunch, dinner, wine and local specialties not to be missed. At that moment nothing in the world seems more important. There are many who undoubtedly think I'm totally mad, possibly my colleagues among them, and they may be right. But I know I'm not alone when I say that, after a long day and a demanding program, there's nothing a string quartet likes more than hot, delicious food, good wine and a place to sit down to eat in the company of music-loving friends.

What is schlepping?
Ask any chamber ensemble and you shall have the answer. Because we are not soloists who are usually pampered, or an orchestra transported en masse by pre-arranged charter flights with baggage delivery, we chamber musicians fall in the crack where we have to schlep our bodies and our stuff by ourselves. "Schlep" derives from Yiddish and German words having a variety of meanings, from dragging to moving awkwardly or with difficulty. When it comes to a string quartet trying to fit in a taxi, get on a train or even get in and out of an elevator, all of those definitions apply. However, there's something wonderful about being completely independent: one can be flexible and spontaneous, improvise and experiment with different ways of getting to the same place. And guess what? I prefer it that way. Maybe I've just become accustomed to it, but schlepping is one ritual I'm not leaving behind.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.