Going Solo

A year ago this month, I performed my debut recital at Carnegie Hall alongside two of my closest friends, soprano Indra Thomas and pianist Maimy Fong. Everything I ever dreamed of came true—and the unimaginable happened, too: The concert sold out. Some of my friends couldn’t even get a ticket.

Working with Indra and Maimy in such a beautiful, prestigious venue inspired me to be a better artist and a better person. Because all of the music was for soprano with violin and piano accompaniment, I had to learn how to be a singer with my violin. I studied with a voice coach who taught me foreign language diction, various breathing techniques and how to sing Indra’s part while simultaneously playing my own. It was a new and intense experience that taught me to create long, lyrical melodic lines in a nontraditional way that I absolutely loved. I became more open to various types of learning, which has made me a happier artist and person.

To sell out Carnegie Hall on a debut performance and receive an invitation to return the following year is something that only happens to people who are super rich, extremely talented or ridiculously lucky. (I consider myself the latter.) But here we are a year later and I’m preparing for my return recital, only this time I’ll be standing alone as a solo artist. Just me and my accompanist performing for the most critical audience in America, who will be listening to my every note and phrase. I feel like a child presenting a speech in front of the class for the very first time. Nervous!

You’re probably wondering, what’s the big deal? You’ve already played Carnegie. Shouldn’t it be easy the second time around?

Anyone who’s ever been in a music group of any kind will tell you it’s terrifying to strike out on your own. I find comfort in performing chamber music, whether with Indra and Maimy or the Young Eight String Octet (an ensemble I founded 10 years ago). Collaboration is one of the most intimate ways to make music. It’s electrifying chemistry, like students in a classroom working together on a group project, a winning sports team or a couple who knows each other’s thoughts before they express them aloud. The dynamic energy of an ensemble allows everyone to be a leader and audiences appreciate the interactions between people on stage.

So why go solo?

Going solo means stepping out of my comfort zone, working my ass off and learning repertoire I don’t know. It allows me to express my own musical voice and stretch my artistic boundaries. While most musicians are groomed to become soloists from a very early age, I’m embracing solo recitals as a 34-year-old man reaching for a higher caliber of artistry.

As a professional violinist who teaches violin to ambitious college students, it’s not enough for me to teach the repertoire in my studio. I must experience what it feels like to perform a sonata by Mendelssohn or Brahms in order to better teach my students. I can’t expect them to play at a high level or achieve major success in their musical careers if I don’t do it myself. When my students see me preparing for a major recital, they’re learning with me.

My process is very calculated. I run the Music Division at Seattle University, which involves a ton of paperwork. I teach two or three classes per quarter and travel every other week for student master classes/clinics or playing a concert. It’s all about smart time management, which requires sacrifices that don’t always feel good: early morning practice—sometimes as early as 4:30 a.m.—with lots of scales and arpeggios; physical exercise and a low-carb diet with no fatty foods; and skipping out on social events with friends. I try to practice three to four hours per day, but when I’m slammed with looming deadlines or a tsunami of music theory papers to grade, I’m lucky if I get an hour. I have to make every hour count because people who pay to hear me perform don’t care about how busy I am.

I hope my return to Carnegie Hall is even more spectacular than my first visit last year. Only when I step out on the stage will I know if all my hard work has paid off. My goal is to give reverence to the composers’ repertoire and make a connection with the audience. If I do that, I’ve done my job.
Quinton Morris is a Seattle concert violinist who is the Director of Chamber and Instrumental Music and Assistant Professor of Music at Seattle University. His debut solo recital at Carnegie Hall is Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012.