The Chamber Music Network

Love at First Note - why players chose their instruments

(From the spring/summer ACMP newsletter)

In an interview with New York magazine, Yo-Yo Ma described the origins of his relationship with the cello this way: “I started the violin when I was three, and I think I screeched away and sounded horrible, so I gave it up. My parents thought I was not talented.” He picked up the cello at age four, and it seems it was not too late to salvage a career in music.

For nonprofessional players, the relationship with one’s chosen instrument is no less complicated, and in fact the story is often more colorful.

Like Yo-Yo Ma, ACMP Treasurer Christiana Carr switched instruments early on. “There was always music in my home when I was growing up,” she says. “Most of it was piano, because my grandmother (who raised me) was a piano teacher. She began teaching me when I was five years old. We also attended an occasional symphony concert, and we always listened to the Met Opera broadcasts on Saturdays. That radio connection is what made me realize that I liked the stringed instruments, because they could sing ‘just like the opera singers’ (as I used to say). By the time I was seven, I realized that I really didn’t want to play the piano; instead, I wanted to learn to play the violin so that I could make those wonderful singing sounds.”

Carr’s relationship with the violin continues to grow. “After college (and marriage), I moved to various cities as developing careers directed,” she says. “I did cease playing for 20 years while I raised children and fostered my career…. However, my husband encountered a cellist just up the road from us whose wife plays piano. Thus was my violin rescued from darkness and my violin technique refreshed. Very enjoyable piano trio afternoons ensued. I have moved on to play with extremely talented and devoted folks in the San Francisco area, including performing in many different venues with different combinations of instruments. Life is very good!”

Charles Letourneau (Vn, New York, NY/former Outreach Council Member) took “a rather unlikely path toward the violin. My parents are not musicians or particularly musical, but they did have a subscription to the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, and my sister and I took turns going to concerts starting at age six or so. I remember looking forward so much to those magical moments, and although I did not really understand or appreciate what I was hearing, I knew that I loved classical music more than anything in the world.”


Letourneau says that he “eventually gravitated toward the violin after hearing the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, and at age 10 told my parents I wanted to start lessons. They did everything to discourage me, terrified at the prospect of hearing tortured cats in the house for years (my dad was an atrocious violinist in his youth, and the one time he pulled out his old violin, my sister and I ran out of the house with our hands over our ears).” The decision seems to have worked out for him. “Now my life is full of music as a very active amateur violinist and professional classical music manager, my wife is a professional cellist, our 11-year-old son is a gifted yet undisciplined piano student, and we have two cellos, two violins, a piano and a harpsichord cramped in our New York apartment!”

A mechanical engineer at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, Robert Ellis (Vn, Princeton, NJ/former Outreach Council Member) spends his days “trying to obtain energy from controlled nuclear fusion.” His introduction to the violin came at age six. “Somebody came to my school and played for us, and I told my parents that I was interested,” he says. “They found a violin, a bow and a teacher, and they made sure that I practiced.”

After an injury to his hand in college, Ellis says he “walked away from music for 25 years.” When he finally decided to rededicate himself, “After a year of scales and bowing exercises, my instrument started to sound like a violin again,” he says. “I joined ACMP, went to a few play-ins and workshops, met some musicians and I’ve been playing chamber music actively ever since…. In my second musical life, I have sat down to make music with some amazing people. Through ACMP, I have been able to play chamber music on business trips in places such as San Diego, Milan and Munich. The biggest difference between my first and second musical lives is that when I was young, I enjoyed being good at playing. Now I play for the love of it. And that is, in the end, what will keep you going.”                                                            

Andrea Liu (Pf, Swarthmore, PA) began playing the piano at age 10. “My parents grew up in wartime China,” she says, “and didn’t have a chance to study any instruments. When I was seven, they gave me a little electronic keyboard. I just loved it. I begged them for lessons.” When she finally sat down in front of the keys, she says, she was not always the most diligent at practicing her instrument. “What really changed things for me was chamber music. I discovered it when I was in college. The piano is self-sufficient, but I discovered that I really enjoyed playing with other people.”

Liu is an academic physicist at the University of Pennsylvania, and she says that “physics is like chamber music, working in small groups to solve a problem. When you figure something out, it’s like being on top of a mountain. The high can last for weeks. [With music] sometimes everything clicks and you play really well. A chamber music high is easier to get because it relies so much on the composer’s creativity instead of my own, and because as an amateur I’m very forgiving about my own playing.”

(Matthew Schlecht is a writer and editor and lives in New York City)