By Doug Oakley
Thirteen year-old viola player Maya Bulos had never practiced her instrument without a bow.
That was until Tuesday, however, when Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington showed up at the Crowden Music Center in Berkeley to work with students along with other members of the famous group.
"I was a little nervous at first," Bulos said after a one-hour workshop with Harrington coaching her and three others in a string quartet as they played a piece composed by 16-year-old Niko Umar-Durr.
|David Harrington, center, founder of the Kronos Quartet, coaches young musicians at the Crowden Music Center in Berkeley on Feb. 7. (Photo by Doug Oakley)|
|David Harrington, founder of Kronos Quartet, got animated as he worked through a piece with young musicians at Crowden Music Center in Berkeley on Feb. 7. (Photo by Doug Oakley)|
"He was doing things I never saw any music teacher do before," Bulos, who started playing in kindergarten, said. "He had us playing without a bow and wiggling our fingers."
Members of the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet, internationally known for their new and classical string music, answered questions of students and parents at the school before splitting up and leading individual workshops.
Harrington, who started the group in 1973 in Seattle, told students he was 23 years old when he heard a searing modern string piece on the radio called "Black Angels (Thirteen Images from the Dark Land)" by the composer George Crumb. That was the moment he discovered what he wanted to do with his life.
"In 1973, I was a young man and it was time for me to figure out what to do with my life," Harrington told the students. "This amazing piece of music jumped out of the radio. There were all kinds of sounds, and to me it sounded like chanting
and things being shouted in different languages.
"It was also the time when many people my age questioned how they were going to deal with life during the time of the Vietnam War," Harrington continued. "So I got a score of that piece and realized it was a string quartet and that's when I started Kronos."
That piece helped Harrington "find his voice," he said after the workshop, "So I found myself saying, this is what I should be doing."
Asked what is different about young people learning string music at places like Crowden and how he learned as a young man, Harrington said students today are allowed to practice music penned by living composers, such as the 16-year-old who wrote the piece they were practicing Tuesday.
"These guys have a friend who is a composer and that's fantastic," Harrington said. "There was nothing like this going on when I was their age where we could practice brand new works. I didn't get to play any new music until I was 16."
During the workshop, watched by students and parents, Harrington was like a piece of music that starts slow and soft and adds drama as it goes. At first he simply listened intently and nodded, but by the end of the hour he was animated, agitated and waving his arms, using his body and facial expressions to make his point as much as his voice.
"I was a bit nervous at first but it was a great experience," said Wesley Denison, who played violin in the quartet. "Some of the techniques he had us practicing we never thought of before, so it was a great experience."
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.