Family Quartet Alchemy

Posted on February 15, 2013


Quartetville had the chance recently to talk with a whole family of musicians. They are the Greenebaum family from Amherst, MA, whose four daughters comprise a quartet. Sally, who plays cello, is the oldest, followed by Katie, who plays violin and viola, Debby (violin and viola) and Susie (also violin and viola).

Their parents, Linda and Michael, are both musicians. Linda came from a musical family where her sister was a child piano prodigy and later a concert pianist. In the light of her sister’s talents, Linda, herself a very fine violinist and violist, found her parents supporting mainly her intellectual pursuits (she attended Harvard). Michael was the one in his family who cared most deeply about music; he played double bass, recorder, conducted from an early age, and added the cello in college.

The Greenebaums raised four daughters who all still play and continue to lead very active lives in music. What alchemy is at work there? How do you get that far? Why do parents organize that many lessons, insist on that much practice, create and support opportunities for ensemble playing?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKeeping it going: “There was a lot of ensemble.”

Starting the girls on instruments was just the beginning: Sally and Katie started piano at 5 and 6 respectively. Sally began cello at age 7, Katie started viola with her mother at age 9, Debby began violin when she was six and it took another six years for her to ask her mother for any advice “or at least not stomp my feet every time she said anything…” Susie who, according to Linda, “maybe we started too early (at 4)” was already quite proficient on violin by age 6 or 7.

Michael, the girls’ father, says that there was not really the thought that they would concertize, but that they’d be able to play together, without “always having to dig up other people to play with.” When asked how they started the girls playing together, he said: “I don’t know that I can point to anything in particular, except that it was always the case; even before they could read music, they were playing together, or Linda would play a duet with one of them. It wasn’t necessarily all four of them together all the time, but there was a lot of ensemble.”

All six family members independently remembered the Brahms G major sextet (Op. 36) as their signature piece. They recalled different aspects: the matching long dresses they wore, performing in nearby cities, a performance of an abridged version (made by one of the parents) at the Amherst library so that Susie, the youngest, could also play, and, as grown women, making Michael play with them as a surprise at his retirement party.

Quartetville200square2How did playing together become the family culture?

Katie & Matteo“It’s funny, I don’t quite remember not doing it,” recalls Debby. And Susie said the same thing. She wrote her college essay about “How music was the way that my family could communicate… It was a non-verbal way of connecting, a non-conflictual language.” Non-conflictual that is,  once they all finally sat down to play.

“There were no answering machines yet,” Debby recalls, “and Mom would not let us answer the phone during quartets, that was pretty much horrifying… We fought it every step of the way, but when we were actually doing the music, we enjoyed it. It was that struggle of getting us all in the same place at the same time.”

Linda, her mom: “I guess I was the perpetrator. It wasn’t that they didn’t like it, it’s just that they would not have been autonomous enough to organize it on their own.”

“I think it’s pretty remarkable that all of us play and that my sisters are trying to get their kids to play. It’s not easy. It is so much about who they are in their relationship to each other,” says Linda’s youngest, Susie.

“I think it was fun for them,” their mother recalls: “It was what we did as a family. You could almost call it a religion. I know the girls did mention that they thought it was our religion. Now I wonder about all that…I wouldn’t say they loved every bit of it by any means, but they did think it was our characteristic as a family and the concerts were fun for them. We were known for it.”

Persistence: “It’s hard to get a perfect moment with a group of people.”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Quartetville200square2 Does the family play together now? “For Debby’s 40th birthday,” says Michael, “ I wrote a string quartet for them all to play. I remember that fondly. Once they started dispersing to college, playing together was associated with the holidays and was something very precious, because it didn’t happen so much.”

“It’s usually because I make a point of it,” says Linda. “At Thanksgiving I kept saying ‘Now when are we going to have a quartet? Now when are we going to have a quartet?’ and Debby kept saying ‘It will happen, it will happen.’ She was not going to be rushed, and by golly it did take until almost to the end. And then she did sort of look at me with that self-satisfied look: ‘See, we did it!’ I think they still feel the pressure.”

“It takes some effort and I commend my mother,” Debby says. “And I have to say, I felt like her this weekend when we were at a friend’s house, because I sort of made it happen that all the kids played together, groups of them, in combos …”

“You know, there was always some sort of irritation when my mom would try to make it happen, because it always felt like it was just at the wrong moment but, you kind of realize that it’s hard to get a perfect moment with a group of people who are sometimes doing something else, so you just make it happen, and then everyone has fun, you know?”

On not taking it too seriously:

Quartetville200square2 When did it start to become fun? Michael: “I sensed that it was always fun. One of the things that I sort of regret was that we were not taskmasters as far as practicing was concerned. Because they were so good at sight-reading and they had sort of an innate musicianship, they got away with murder. They didn’t do a lot of practicing. And that is one of things that may have made it fun, I suppose.

Quartetville200square2 And maybe why they are all still playing? “Yes.”

Linda remembers that her daughters, “were not music nerds: their social lives were much more important to them – and their academics.” She remembers going to their lessons as much as she could. “I always went; sometimes I slept through the lessons. I took it very seriously, but with a sense of humor because that is the way I am. I think that may be why they all turned into players – that I wasn’t a slave-driver. I noticed that my example was not too intimidating, and their father as well. We were good musicians, but not great.

I compare it to my sister, who is a concert pianist and her husband is a concert violinist. They have two daughters. They didn’t try to drive them too hard, but the example of their parents being professionals and working as hard as they did – which was incredibly hard – those kids didn’t want to have anything to do with music. They lasted until they were 10 or 12 and that was it.”

Quartetville200square2Do you feel like your parents worked really hard to take you to the level where it would be fun to play?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADebby: “I realize now that it’s a big deal just getting four kids to practice…! I do remember that we had to practice and it was one thing they were very disciplined about. And I see now, that it is really hard to do. Everyone agrees that it was quite a feat.”

“Sometimes when other kids were doing other things – that’s the hard part now, I can see it as a parent. Kids Mateo’s age (Debby’s son, age 9), not many of them are doing this. He likes playing cello, but it’s hard when you are the one who has to come inside to practice.  I’m not so good at doing that…”

A means to an end:

“I remember pretty early on,” says Debby, “getting together with other families with kids who played music.”

“When our parents went to chamber music parties,” says Katie, “we went with them. The nice thing about growing up in Amherst was that there was a really good community around playing strings. My friends were in that community. The school had a really good string program; everyone in my family played strings – there was never any question about whether I was going to do it or not. And I had a quartet at school. Two of my best friends would come play music one afternoon a week.

For a couple of years, I helped my mother run a chamber music camp at our house. We had at least four quartets – so 16 kids.” They played duets, quartets, but also a lot of outside games and, “I remember my mother made up new words to the Barcarolle:

‘Amherst rings with singing strings from 203 Rolling Ridge,

We are playing on some things with pegs and neck and bridge,’

– and it went on from there, incorporating the names of all the kids who were there.”

Quartetville200square2 Did you enjoy playing? Katie:I remember Milkyway and Snickers bars at the break in elementary school orchestra, my crush on the trumpet player in youth orchestra… I was not “Oh my god I love chamber music!”

Going to music camp, was the most fun, the most influential. I first went when I was 12.  It’s the one time I remember hearing my friends play where music came into the foreground. Until then it was social and just sort of what we did.”

Susie: “For me as the youngest it was a huge threat that I wouldn’t be able to take lessons anymore- it felt like I wouldn’t be able to be part of my family.”

Now the sisters are geographically scattered: Sally is an occupational therapist living in Santa Barbara, CA; Katie teaches English at a private school in Nashville, TN; Debby teaches violin and directs a summer chamber music camp in Massachusetts; and Susie is a therapist and social worker in New York City.

Yet they share a life-long passion for music. Sally is on the board of the Chamber Music Society of Santa Barbara, which organizes weekend-long retreats for amateur chamber music players. In addition to teaching English, Katie directs a chamber ensemble at her school and finds herself jamming with other Nashville musicians. Debby is a professional musician who teaches violin and is the new director of Junior Greenwood Music Camp in Cummington, MA, and Susie, who played with a Mexican orchestra after college, most recently played for Amore Opera in NYC.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA What is the significance of chamber music to you, Sally?

Sally: “It has always been my social thing, what I enjoy doing with friends. It’s a social and emotional high for me.”

Quartetville200square2 What distinguishes this from meeting a friend, say, for coffee?

“I think you’re sharing this music, this beautiful [music]. The emotional connection of both loving the music, both sharing an understanding of the music – a life-long attachment to this thing – sharing all the work that you’ve done to be able to get to this point – to share it together.”

Quartetville200square2 The length of time invested is a really significant piece of this and it presents its challenges. What’s the reward, why are you tenacious?

“To me, chamber music is the reward.”