The Emerson String Quartet has earned an unparalleled list of accolades over three decades, including nine Grammys and three Gramophone Awards. Yet, the now renowned quartet started out as an unknown student group at The Juilliard School almost 40 years ago.

Before their dress rehearsal as part of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, the Emerson String Quartet, consisting of violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins, sat down with me to discuss the secrets to becoming one of the world’s most acclaimed quartets—and the key to being part of a successful chamber group that stands the test of time.

1. Finding the right chamber group requires a combination of luck and talent, but more than anything, a desire to succeed together.

Philip Setzer: It’s like…

Paul Watkins: How you find a good marriage!

PS: Exactly, how you find the right wife or husband…

Lawrence Dutton: I just think it was luck of a draw in a certain way… I think you have to have respect [for each other], and even if that can sometimes be challenging, to remember we’re all very different people, and that’s okay. As long as everyone can get to the same place eventually.

2. Have common musical heroes.

LD: These guys [Eugene and Philip] were together at Juilliard; they were students of Oscar Shumsky, one of the greatest violinists… Oscar Shumsky was such a big influence on obviously you guys, and I did everything I could to be around him, even before I knew you.

PW: Not only should you [as a group] have all those basic qualities of great playing, stamina, and love of the repertoire, but having common music heroes is kind of important… I, in sort of my mid-teens, became a complete Oscar Shumsky fan. I went to a lot of concerts that he played and bought a number of his recordings, including the Bach sonatas and partitas.

3. Be innovative.

LD: There’s more competition now, and there are more competitions. I think a lot of what I see from quartets is that they’re kind of reinventing [chamber music] in lots of ways. They’ve got to be able to have even more skills. I mean, maybe it’s not enough that they’re able to play the classic repertoire, or even the contemporary.

PS: There’s community work…

LD: Yeah, education and a lot of residency opportunities. They have to kind of cobble out a different path, and we see that! We see that in the quartets we work with, they figure it out. And they’re also much better at using social media than we are. We’re late to the game on that… It’s a different ballgame and the smart ones figure it out.

"[T]he thing that you have to never lose sight of is the importance of communicating the music as passionately and as convincingly as you can at any moment."

4. Differences between members don’t always hurt.

PW: We are four different personalities, and we have four different sets of views about anything that you care to mention, frankly. But the thing that you have to never lose sight of is the importance of communicating the music as passionately and as convincingly as you can at any moment… That’s not to say in any quartet there aren’t moments of tension or conflict, but luckily if you can always focus on the end result, the end goal, those things dissipate and they get forgotten.

5. In fact, differences can make a group stronger.

PS: You want some friction [in a group], like the old analogy of an oyster: You want some sand in the shell to make a pearl. If everybody agrees all the time, everybody plays the same way and has similar personalities, it’d be pretty boring. I don’t think the composers, the great composers, wrote quartets with the idea that each line would be played exactly the same way by exactly the same kind of person or musician.

6. Know your role in the music.

PS: We try to blend the sound when it’s called for in the music, but often we’re looking for a way to bring the individual voice through the other textures, so that you’re not just listening to the first violin or the cello… It’s like a play with four characters. It can be really interesting to watch a great actor when they’re listening or when they’re playing a supporting role. If you have four actors onstage you don’t want all four of them talking at the same time, and you don’t want the ones who aren’t talking to be uninterested.

7. Don’t expect greatness to happen overnight.

Eugene Drucker: I don’t know if I’ve had an epiphany musically, where all of a sudden everything was different. For me change has been incremental in my life, in many ways. In my approach to music-making and in my approach to my instrument… Phil and I, when we were [at Juilliard], received a piece of advice from the man who was then the president of The Juilliard School, Peter Mennin. He thought we should continue and devote a lot of energy to the quartet.

PS: Well it’s interesting what he said, it was very prophetic: “If you can stay together for five years, and have the patience to do that and work through what you need to work through, I think you have a very good chance of having a career.” Five years later, we had the group set with David Finckel and that was when we really were starting to play concerts and starting to tour… He was absolutely right in terms of the time period. And it was difficult, those early years were. I think in many ways they were the hardest. We were really trying to find our way and trying to learn, not just how to deal with each other, but also how to deal with the music.

LD: And that’s a difficult time because you’re not making any money and you’ve got to figure out how to do that.

8. Take a break from practicing to read and learn about other things.

PS: I wish I had taken the time then [in my 20s], as I did later, to read more in general. I went to Juilliard, which was a great school for what I needed, Gene and I met there, the quartet started there, but I didn’t go to college. I had some academic classes, but I wish I had more of an education in that way… With the young people coming up, they’re so into just learning to play their concertos. It’s not even that they don’t know about [the music] or they’re not being taught about it, they’re not curious about it. They’re not connecting and therefore they don’t connect the music to a real human being who lived on this earth, and that can be so inspiring.

9. There’s no room for a bad attitude in the music world.

LD: We’ve had experiences of working with people, a lot older than us and a lot younger than us, who can have bad attitudes and so you don’t have a kind of camaraderie. It’s a real drag, I mean there’s no room for that… It’s hard enough just to play this stuff and you don’t need someone putting up roadblocks.

10. Lastly, maintain a sense of humor.

PW: Oh well, ten pieces, that’s a lot of advice. I don’t think we can come up with that many…

Watch the Emerson String Quartet put their advice into practice in this Lincoln Center Offstage video.


Noelle Ike was a social media marketing intern at Lincoln Center in 2016.