The string quartet is an important component of the young string player’s development, helping students develop ensemble and listening skills in addition to technical playing skills. But few, if any, of the quartets in the standard repertoire are pedagogically appropriate for intermediate players, who may still be developing the level of maturity, bow skills, and finesse required to play these pieces. In addition, the standard quartets often feature and challenge the first violinist, while leaving the other three players with fewer melodic lines and less interesting parts.
After struggling with choosing appropriate and engaging music for her intermediate level students, master’s student Molly Wilkens-Reed, a violist studying string pedagogy and an apprentice faculty member at the Preparatory, saw an opportunity to fill some of the gap in the repertoire for intermediate level string players. At the same time, she noted a dearth of intermediate string quartets written in the 21st century.
With funding from a Dean’s Incentive Grant, Wilkens-Reed addressed both problems by commissioning fellow Peabody student Ledah Finck, a master’s candidate in both violin and composition, to compose a new string quartet written specifically for intermediate level string players.
The Butterfly Highway for String Quartet received its world premiere at the December 2 Chamber Music Recital of the Preparatory’s Performance Academy for Strings. Violinists Jing Fan and Joseph Tao, violist Rebecca Marr, and cellist Joseph Mostwin were featured individually within the piece, with each of the four movements offering a different player the opportunity to shine.
The students also gained from working with the composer to both shape and learn the quartet — an uncommon experience, especially for young students. Their enthusiasm for the work shone through in post-concert observations such as, “The music felt personalized, which is something I have never experienced.”
“Students at this level should be playing Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart, of course, but it’s important for them to play new music as well,” says Wilkens-Reed. “I’m so proud of the way our students performed this wonderful new piece, and I am already looking for opportunities to program more performances.”
As a coda to the work, Wilkens-Reed plans to submit an article outlining her successes and the lessons learned in completing this project to American String Teacher magazine.
“This project can really have its widest impact,” she says, “if it works to create greater awareness about the need for more music of this kind and inspires others to create new works which deepen students’ learning and help bridge to the great works of the canon.”
— Tiffany Lundquist