This interview was originally conducted by Vandoren Artist-Clinician Matthew Younglove.
The award-winning h2 quartet has been wowing audiences since 2002. h2 takes advantage of the great expressive capacity of their instrument by programming traditional, avant-garde, minimalist, and jazz-influenced works in surprising and compelling ways. The group has established themselves as leaders in the American chamber music scene through their high standards of musical quality and commitment to the creation and performance of new repertoire. The WAVE wanted to talk with them about their overall experiences as the award-winning, critically-acclaimed chamber group that h2 has come to be.
WAVE: Can you offer some insight into the ways your chamber music experience has influenced your musicianship?
Jeffrey Loeffert: My chamber music experience has been extremely important, perhaps the most vital component, to my music education and continued growth as a musician. I am so lucky to have had outstanding teachers starting with my beginning band director, but my most powerful influences have been my peers throughout the process. I have learned so much from the musicians with whom I have interacted, especially in the close proximity of chamber music. It is also my favorite artistic outlet. Individually, we can only be saxophonists, but together we can be a quartet that is better than the sum of its parts. It is truly an example of synergy, and I am grateful that the quartet makes me better than I actually am.
Geoffrey Deibel: I think chamber music makes one a profoundly more effective and sensitive musician. In the medium of chamber music, you are forced to act as a soloist and an ensemble player at the same time. This means you have to be of two minds, you have to be ready at any moment to assert yourself in the group, or to give way to someone else, but at no point are you unimportant. You must learn to navigate and be constantly assessing your place in the texture--being a good chamber musician is almost like learning to be a good person, I think. When you have four musicians (or other numbers) that have an equal dedication to these principles, it can create a musical effect like no other--the word "dynamic" definitely comes to mind here.
Kimberly Goddard-Loeffert: Playing with the h2 quartet has made me a better musician, plain and simple. My colleagues push me every day to achieve more in my personal playing technically and musically. Technically, they challenge every aspect of my playing from articulation to altissimo with each new piece that we take on, but the musical challenges are my favorite moments. Every once in awhile there will be a performance (where we are playing something that we have played many times), and someone will shape something differently, and then the others will respond to that shaping a little differently, and we will have suddenly, on-the-spot developed a new interpretation of a piece, all without speaking about it. That is always a special thing.
Jonathan Nichol: Playing in a chamber group such as h2 is an awesome experience. Sharing musical ideas in planning, rehearsal, and performance has the greatest musical influence on me. Working in a chamber setting challenges performance concept, promotes critical thinking, and strengthens the musical bonds among the players. It is truly wonderful to collaborate with such talented and dedicated musicians in the h2 quartet.
WAVE: What is your favorite part about playing in a saxophone quartet?
JL: I really appreciate the interdependent nature of chamber music. My quartet members depend on me to prepare well, execute well, and be creative. I depend on them to do the same. If we are not all on the same page, so to speak, then it cannot work. There is something very special about trusting one another for our collective musical success.
GD: The saxophone quartet functions in much the same way a string quartet does. Because all of the players perform on instruments of the same family, they understand one another and are able to accommodate each other in a way that many other chamber groups could not otherwise do. The flexibility of the instrument also allows for an astonishing array of textures, colors, and volumes. It's truly a dynamic medium for chamber music.
KL: All musicians experience (I hope) some form of post-performance high – an indescribable feeling of happiness and goodness. I feel so fortunate and grateful to be able to share that moment with my best friends. That shared moment is what makes all of the rehearsal and work worthwhile. We have also been extremely lucky to travel to some wonderful places to perform and it is a special opportunity to see the world and share our music with others.
JN: The music, of course. Collaborating with composers and traveling are also quite meaningful experiences. Outside of the US, h2 has travelled to and premiered music in Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia, Italy, Ireland, Scotland, and Thailand.
WAVE: Is it important for a young saxophonist to play in a quartet? How have you seen band programs successfully implement chamber music into their curricula?
JL: Chamber music experience is vital. It serves as a microcosm of large ensemble skills, and there is no camouflage. Everyone plays an equally vital role to the collective success of the ensemble. Chamber music helps to create a culture of accountability among students, and it allows students to take greater ownership of their education.
GD: It is absolutely critical. It's really easy for younger students to be either too much in their own world (the mindset of a soloist), or to be strong-armed into submission and not feel the freedom to "speak out" (as it were) as a player. The latter is particularly common in bands that have large numbers of saxophones, which is itself a common phenomenon. The sooner that saxophonists learn to play in a quartet (and also with mixed groups), the sooner they learn the discipline and maturity of the principles I described above.
KL: Chamber music can really push a young musician in a very positive way. While there is a sense of ownership and responsibility when playing in a band, it is nothing like the commitment that one feels to just a few other people. Each member of the ensemble wants to be better for the other members of the group. It is completely possible for students to produce a musical product that is greater than the sum of its parts. h2 is actually giving a presentation at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in December called “Developing Large Ensemble Skills Through Chamber Music” where we will discuss the benefits of chamber music using our own experiences as the saxophone section for the Michigan State University Wind Ensemble as a basis for comparison.
JN: I would say that it is essential for young saxophonists to play in a saxophone quartet or participate in chamber programs at their high school. This allows the students to work on musical skills such as tone, intonation, rhythm, blend, interpretation, and ensemble playing while studying music that is interesting and challenging.
It seems that the most successful school programs provide vibrant chamber music opportunities for their students. Chamber music also presents a platform for teachers to provide tangible goals to their students, which can be amazing motivation! From my experiences as a teacher, students will go the extra mile for a high-quality meaningful experience--we all want to be part of something excellent. I firmly believe that regardless of where you are teaching, if you have energy and vision you can create a successful chamber music program. Chamber music experiences shouldn't be limited to a school music program. Private lesson instructors can also encourage students from their studios to form chamber groups that can become active performing ensembles.