By Sam Bergman
We caught up recently with three members of the Parker Quartet: violinist Daniel Chong, violist Jessica Bodner, and cellist Kee-Hyun Kim. You can read more about the Parker Quartet here.
Dan: Playing in a string quartet is probably one of the most intimate forms of making music. You don’t have somebody to guide you, somebody who serves as the ultimate say. You have four people coming into a room as equals. That environment promotes a lot of passion, a lot of discussion, a lot of compromising. But, ultimately, when you reach something together as equals, it’s incredibly rewarding.
Jess: Mentorship has been incredibly important in all ways. Our whole schooling, we were so fortunate to work with people who not only were great teachers but also were great performers. It was so amazing to see how they communicated their thoughts. It’s something to aspire to in our own teaching. We love to work with different people, different levels of players—not only the technical side but also on the joy of working together.
Jess: I started on violin when I was two, after seeing Itzhak Perlman on Sesame Street. I played violin until I was 11 or 12. I remember very vividly that I loved practicing in the lower register of the violin. My teacher recognized this and also something about my personality and she suggested that I try the viola. I practiced both for about a year, and then I thought, “There’s no reason for me to practice violin anymore, because I love the viola so much.”
Dan: My mother studied piano and composition and she got me to begin on violin. I think she chose it mainly because my older brother played violin and she thought consolidating us to one instrument was easier.
Kee: I started when I was six, on the cello. I was always exposed to a lot of music. My mom was a piano and composition teacher; my sister played piano. I was always attracted to the cello, maybe because I saw that they sat down all the time. I played clarinet for band in middle school. I played trombone for a year, but cello is the one that stuck.
Dan: A big place for me during the summers was Encore School for Strings, which doesn’t exist anymore, unfortunately. More recently, Yellow Barn and Marlboro have been huge inspirations for me. I love those summer music festivals because you’re in it together with a small group of people who are so passionate about the same thing. Being in an environment where all you have to do is concentrate on making music and having fun is wonderful.
Jess: For me, the first one was the Disney Youth Orchestra. I don’t know if it’s still going on. I did that when I was 11. It was so fun. After that I went to Interlochen for a few summers and then Musicorda, which also doesn’t exist any more.
Kee: When I was 14, I went to Aspen. I don’t think that was a good fit for a 14 year-old. The summers after that were all geared towards chamber music. I went to the Perlman Music Program and to Kneisel Hall and Music Academy of the West, which was where I met Dan for the first time.
: Talk a little about practicing, not rehearsing together, but the individual practice that you have to put in. Did you always like practicing? What were your strategies for powering through on the days when nothing was going right?
Jess: When I was younger, I would go in and out of practicing and my parents would have to tell me to practice. But when I got into middle school and high school, at a certain point I really felt, “This is my responsibility.”
Around that time, one of my teachers said, “You have to practice three hours a day. That is an absolute.” And so, I would say, “Okay. Well, I have scales to practice, I have an etude, I have this piece and this piece… How am I going to fill three hours?” And just the matter of scheduling how much time I was going to spend on each thing was very helpful. If I’d decided to practice scales for half an hour, I would get to 20 minutes, and then I’d say, “I’m supposed to practice this for ten more minutes.” If you set that schedule for yourself, then you make yourself find more things to do. You get better and figure out how to practice on our own.
Now, I think practicing is really special. It’s your own alone time to craft and explore what you’re doing outside of rehearsals, to formulate your own ideas about things before you meet together.
Dan: I certainly have a love/hate relationship with practicing. It was more hate in the early days. But now, I enter a practice session and think of it as an opportunity not only to learn the music that I need to learn but to hone my craft. I get in this mindset of not feeling pressured to accomplish set things, but using the time to explore and build and be constantly inspired to be a better player. It’s not just about learning a particular piece.
Kee: I was thinking about this today, actually. How practicing is like running, really, whether you love it or hate it. ‘Cause there’s days when it can be either. The most important thing is consistency. You have to keep doing it and the more you do it, the more you’ll enjoy it. I never used to enjoy practicing. I always just practiced enough to get by. But, I don’t know, I love playing. If you don’t think of it as practice and work, but as a way to—like Dan and Jess have just said—have it be your own time, where you can just fool around with the instrument and play and produce whatever sounds and be creative and just enjoy it. It’s all about the joy of creation and getting better. Why wouldn’t you want to do that?
Interviewer Sam Bergman is a violist with the Minnesota Orchestra. As a soloist and chamber musician, Sam has commissioned and premiered new works by several talented young composers. He spends part of his summers teaching and coaching chamber music at Greenwood Music Camp in rural Massachusetts, where he has been a fixture since the age of 10.