One of the great mysteries of chamber music to the nonmusician is How the Hell Do They All Play Different Stuff and Stay Together? No conductor, no click track, no drum set – but they speed up, slow down and jump to unrelated tempos in complete agreement, without hesitation.
The simple answer: rehearsal.
The more complex answer has to do with a synergy of senses: watching, listening, feeling – even breathing as one.
And then there are the “tricks.” There’s an extended passage in my fifth string quartet in which each measure is two seconds long. I was amazed at how cleanly the Emerson Quartet found the tempo of this passage in the first rehearsal. Last week, they let me in on the secret: “Stars and Stripes Forever,” said cellist David Finckel. “It’s exactly the same tempo.” They all imagine a few bars of JP Sousa’s tune, then play my passage in perfect tempo.
So here it is, the Dream-Prelude from the third movement of my quartet. Listen, and hum “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and you’ll hear how the pros make it work.
And here’s a shot of Emerson rehearsing my quartet in the Kimmel Center hours before the performance: