Strings Magazine



To the outside observer, the Dover Quartet’s rise to the top looks practically meteoric. Since winning all four prizes at the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition, the group has performed more than 100 concerts a year in locations spanning four continents. They’ve accumulated one milestone achievement after another—competition wins, invitations to major festivals and concert series, and now, in breaking news, a newly created, three-year faculty residency at Northwestern University.

But the members of the Dover Quartet—violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, and cellist Camden Shaw—insist that their success wasn’t just handed to them. 

The life of our string quartet has never been easy, and in today’s world, even some of the most promising young quartets experience a revolving door of personnel changes, or disband altogether when the frenetic travel itineraries, relentless rehearsals, and low earnings become too much to endure. 

Not so for the Dover Quartet: Their singular commitment to their art has enabled them to keep the same membership for over seven years, and reach the highest levels of the music profession. 

So what sets the Dover apart from the dozens of other young quartets trying to make it in this crowded, intensely competitive field? What advice can they give to aspiring young quartets who want to follow in their footsteps?

1. Learn from Great Teachers at a Great School

The Dover Quartet was formed by undergraduate students at the elite Curtis Institute. With its famous faculty, universal full scholarships, and star-studded list of alumni, Curtis has an acceptance rate of 3.2 percent, the lowest of any American conservatory. 

All four members of the Dover Quartet describe just getting in as a major career milestone. The newly formed group received mentoring from some of the biggest luminaries of the chamber-music world—Arnold Steinhardt, Michael Tree, and Peter Wiley of the Guarneri Quartet, as well as violinists Pamela Frank and Joseph Silverstein, violist Steven Tenenbom, and the Curtis president, violist Roberto Díaz.

2. Find the Right Combination of Colleagues

Four accomplished individuals can make a good quartet. A great string quartet, conversely, is even better than the sum of its parts. During coachings at Curtis, Vermeer Quartet violinist Shmuel Ashkenazi, foreseeing success in the Dover’s combination of musical personalities, suggested, “You should think about getting married.” 

“He meant as a quartet!” Shaw explains.

“One of the things we admired about the Guarneri Quartet is that each individual had a unique and powerful voice but came together as a cohesive unit,” says Pajaro-van de Stadt. The Dover Quartet possesses that same elusive balance of talents and temperaments. “What makes our group chemistry unique is that every member of our quartet is so much more than just 25 percent of the group,” Pajaro-van de Stadt adds. “It’s like a chemical reaction where the one different ingredient turns it into a completely different substance altogether.”

3. Make a Leap of Faith Together

As top individual players, the members of the Dover Quartet could have gone on to solo careers. Instead, they chose to move as a group from Philadelphia to Houston. It was a “psychological milestone,” according to Pajaro-van de Stadt, to “make the decision to move together as a unit. We came to Curtis as individuals, but we made a step of commitment to move to Texas together to be a quartet. We weren’t getting a lot of concerts then, and we were putting our faith in each other.”

4. Spend Time in a Graduate Quartet Residency Program

The leading young American string quartets typically spend a few years in graduate quartet residencies, which allow a group to apprentice itself to internationally established mentors. From 2011 to 2013, the Dovers held the coveted graduate quartet position at Rice University, where they studied with violinist Kenneth Goldsmith, violist James Dunham, and cellist Norman Fischer. Crucially, the Rice program offers its recipients scholarships and living stipends, relieving some of the financial pressures of graduate school so that the quartet can rehearse as much as possible. 

For the Dover, Rice was transformative. “[It was] one of the things that helped us prepare and go from the idea of student to professional quartet,” says Shaw. 

“That was incredibly valuable for us, because the program that we had was flexible and allowed us a lot of time to rehearse. We spent every day rehearsing. We could work things out to an idealistic level. A lot of young groups feel like their back is to the wall for time or money, but Rice gave us this safe haven with great mentors who were guiding that transition. We had a lot of time to calmly decide how we wanted the group to sound.”

5. Enter Competitions

Competitions are, of course, one of the best ways to kick-start a career. An early success was the Dover 2010 win at the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, probably the best-known competition of its type in the United States. It was the group’s “first big milestone,” recalls Lee. “When we went, we’d been together for a very short time. [We were] unproven, at that point. To travel together for the first time to do a major competition in the United States was really great all around.” 

Unable to afford four hotel rooms in South Bend, Indiana, where Fischoff is located, the members crammed themselves into just one. When Link fell ill, the others inevitably caught his illness, and Shaw, who had been delegated to do the public speaking, lost his voice completely. This setback didn’t stop them taking home the Grand Prize, and the opportunities for advancement that came with it.

Then there was their winning from performance at Banff, which brought the Dover to a further level of international recognition. “Previously,” says Link, “we were playing 30 concerts a year, and we went to playing 115 to 120 the next year.” He’s philosophical about the overall effect of competition wins on a career, however. “Competitions aren’t set in terms of how successful they help you become, or how widespread you become as a group. One person can win one year and it doesn’t help so much, or it only helps a little bit. For other people, a competition can explode a career.”

6. Learn from Failures and Rejections

“Some of our experiences were not positive,” says Pajaro-van de Stadt. “These were also milestones. For two years in a row, we applied to the Young Concert Artists competition. Both years, we made it to the finals, and each time, we had that kind of performance where you feel like you couldn’t have done better. We were on an incredible high and felt amazing. And both times we lost, both years in a row. 

That was really hard, especially the second time. But it was very important that we actually went through that experience of failing twice in a row. It was demoralizing in a way, but it helped us grow. Strangely enough, it helped our confidence, because even though we kept on failing we were able to pick up and keep going. It helped us realize that one competition, or one bad review, doesn’t mean the world.”

7. Find a Unifying Rehearsal Style

One of the most difficult things about quartet life is the amount and intensity of rehearsal that goes into creating a unified voice. To rehearse effectively, the individuals must criticize each other’s playing minutely in pursuit of the group’s goals. 

Feelings get hurt, relationships break down, quartets disband. In memoirs by famous quartet members—Indivisible by Four by the Guarneri Quartet’s Arnold Steinhardt, Stormy Applause by the Borodin Quartet’s Rostislav Dubinsky, How to Succeed in an Ensemble by Fine Arts Quartet violinist Abram Loft—we can read about these disagreements in painful detail. 

Finding a functional rehearsal technique has helped the Dover to stay successful, even with the hectic pressures of life on the road. “We have a very equal policy in rehearsal,” says Link. “It’s a democracy, but not a completely even democracy. If we’re approaching a part that’s giving us trouble and three people are excited about an idea but one is adamantly against it, it’s thrown out. Every vote is taken seriously, even when it’s only 25 percent. We’re always listening to other people’s ideas.” Shaw agrees. “One of our most successful rehearsal techniques we learned at Banff. The day before a round, we worked systematically on the repertoire we were going to play the next day. We’d play through a movement, and everybody would write down their thoughts. 

“At the end of the play-through, we would go around and everyone would read through their comments to be aware of how we were feeling. Surprisingly, we were reacting to problems in the same places, with the same ideas of solutions. Everybody gets a chance to have their opinion heard and thought about, and because they’re reading a list, there’s not the time to argue. That really helps. Argument is a big time-waster.”

8. Be Patient

It’s human to want overnight success, and to give up in frustration when being in a quartet turns out to be harder than it looks. But while many of the Dover Quartet’s achievements occurred very quickly—their Fischoff Competition win occurred after less than a year together, for example—they never lose sight of the need for step-by-step daily maintenance of unifying quartet techniques as they strive constantly to develop further as a group. 

“We make a point to never neglect fundamentals,” says Shaw. “Great intonation and great rhythm—we rehearse those things more than most. That’s not the [only] focus, but we hold each other to a brutal standard.” 

And when the quartet life gets stressful? “Patience,” Shaw says. 

“Patience in practicing, patience with colleagues, knowing that it’s not going to be an overnight thing. In the practice room, rehearsal space, in our careers—we want quick fixes and fast success, but none of these things come quickly. Great playing takes decades.”