Spotlight on Meg Freivogel

I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Meg Freivogel, second violinist of the Jupiter String Quartet and artist-in-residence at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and talking with her about her life, her thoughts on music and quartet playing, and her career advice. Meg is a wonderful musician, teacher, and human, a powerhouse of a violinist, and - lucky for me - one of my teachers. She is also a mom to three young children and has a lot of insight into work-life balance and what it means to be a professional in the classical music industry.

This interview was conducted immediately after my very last lesson with her as a University of Illinois student, and I was honored to end my time as her student with this discussion.


JS: First, can you speak a little about your musical background? You come from a very musical family how did you all get started playing your respective instruments?

MF: My mom has always loved music, and she’s always listened to a lot of classical music. My older sister [Liz Freivogel, violist of the Jupiter String Quartet] went to a performance, fell in love with the sound of the violin, and asked to take lessons. Then my older brother decided to take lessons, and by the time I came around, they were really into it. With three kids, my mom was like, they’re going to do activities at the same time. So I started going to beginner violin lessons with my sister’s teacher, and my younger brother followed suit as well.

It was just something we ended up doing a little bit of practice each day with my parents was just part of the normal routine. It morphed into us practicing before school started, and we were encouraged to do a little bit each day.

It wasn’t until I was about 12, that I was like, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to play music. I’m going to ask my mom if I can quit.” And she said, “just give it a little bit longer,” and I kind of lost interest in that idea. But I think my parents had a lot to do with how positive music was for us because they found teachers that were really supportive and good with kids. It was not competitive at all; they encouraged us to play with each other, and it wasn’t about over-perfecting anything. It was just a fun thing that we did. I think that’s why 3 out of 4 of us ended up going into music because of our beginnings and the teachers we had.

My two older kids are taking lessons, and I’m a totally different practice partner than my parents were for me. As patient as I try to be, I can’t keep my mouth shut, and I really should sometimes! This happens to a lot of musicians, men and women alike - you want to keep it fun, and you realize you don’t have to teach them everything that you’re teaching to your students. I don’t care if they end up being musicians - I just want music to be a positive thing in their life because it is for me.

JS: And you and your siblings collaborated on your most recent album (a collaboration with the Jasper Quartet of works by Mendelssohn, Dan Visconti, and Golijov). What is it like working with your family?

MF: Liz and I, because we grew up playing together, and because we decided to become professional musicians in the same group, had to figure out early on how to deal with it in our relationship. We fought a lot at the beginning. I think that just comes from a lack of experience and a lack of perspective about what you’re doing. It’s hard when you’re in these intensive situations, not to take that out on people sometimes. Luckily, I think we got through that in a year or two. We still have to work on it. And same thing with me and Daniel [cellist of the Jupiter String Quartet and Meg’s husband], being married… but the sister thing is different.

J [Meg and Liz’s brother] is in the Jasper Quartet, and he’s married to the cellist, Rachel. They have a good working relationship in their group as well. So when we come together now as adults, it’s just fun. We don’t have the luxury of having so much time that we ever get to the point where there’s issues. We’re doing these things because we really want to do them. We get to spend time with people that we love, like our siblings, but also the other people in that quartet. It’s a real privilege to be able to do that for your work.

My younger brother was playing first on the Mendelssohn octet, and you know that’s a huge violin part. So it’s fun for me to just follow him. In that piece, that’s my role, and I’m happy to do that. That’s to say, I don’t keep my mouth shut most of the time, but I do in that situation because it would just get in the way with 8 people. Playing in an octet is like being in a big family - you each have your turn.

JS: The quartet has a clear dedication to new music. How do you all approach contemporary music and working with living composers? How is it different than working on pieces from the traditional canon?

MF: I think our interpretation is kind of left wide open with new pieces, not having heard them before, or maybe not playing a piece by that composer before. Most of our standard quartet repertoire is by composers like Beethoven, Bartok, Mozart, or Haydn, which we have spent a lot of time learning because they develop a quartet voice and quartet sound.

To learn how to communicate with a composer when commissioning a piece is something we have learned on the job over the years. We feel the connection with the composer about the origin of the piece and its relation to who we are personally is really important. I think in more recent years we’ve had more success - we have a little more experience doing it.

Like two pieces in this last year, I’m so proud of, because they’re great pieces. One is by Stephen Andrew Taylor [“Chaconne/Labyrinth”], a piece about the coronavirus. It’s super intense and difficult but a great piece and one that we will play a bunch of times in this next season. And the other is by Michi Wiancko, who we know from her violin playing, and who I really respect as a musician. She wrote this one-of-a-kind string quartet [“To Unpathed Waters, Undreamed Shores”].

The tools of learning a new quartet are different than when you’re learning standard repertoire. You’re not leading with your ear from the beginning as much. You’re learning from a score and visually figuring out: “What is my role in this part of the piece? Where else in the piece does this relate to?” so that you have material to work with at the beginning. Otherwise, you’re just slogging through.

I do think it gives you a certain amount of freedom to be commissioning pieces. I think we sometimes forget, as music teachers and players, that really magical first time you hear a piece. We’re less critical of the piece, we’re listening less to details, we’re just getting an impression. And that’s something that I’ve kind of fallen in love with more as we’ve played more repertoire. I think it’s very fulfilling.

Nowadays composers are so diverse in what they do, where they’re coming from, their life experience. It’s important that we as performers are connected to that part of the music world. I don’t think audiences are as interested in hearing only standard repertoire anymore. Especially over this last year and half, people have changed a lot, maybe in a quicker way than they normally would have. Maybe that’s something good that can come from this unsettling time.

JS: Can you talk a little bit about the role of the second violin and the inner voices in the quartet? What are some unique challenges the inner voices face? How does that impact how you approach rehearsal?

MF: I think each quartet is different in their personalities and the balance of things. Nelson [first violinist of the Jupiter String Quartet, and my other teacher] and I first played together at Taos School of Music. We played in both iterations - me playing first violin and him playing second violin. When we started our quartet, we both felt that we wanted to play where we are. It wasn’t like we decided who “has” to play second violin. I really wanted to play second violin.

I enjoy playing first violin, but it makes me super nervous, and I don’t feel like it necessarily fits my personality so much. The second violin is sometimes partnered to the first in a supporting role, or there can be another balance where it’s the top of the bottom - the lower voices. And it can be everything in between! But I like the switch from the supportive role to maybe highlighting something a little bit here and there. That’s how I like to be in everyday life, like in my relationships with people, so it’s very natural for that to be the way I like to converse in the quartet.

And I have to be honest: once I started having kids and traveling with the group and teaching, it would have been impossible to play first violin. I would have quit the quartet! I even considered:

“What are we doing taking our kids around the country? What are we going to do when they start school? Should one of us not be traveling all the time?”

All these things that you don’t have answers for at a certain point, you just have to try them out. And it wasn’t just me as a woman, it was Daniel, too.

But even with just the workload, I struggled to keep up on the second violin. And I felt like I did it to a high level, but it wouldn’t have been worth that extra pressure, and it wouldn’t have fit the balance that I wanted with my family and my professional life, if I had played the first violin parts.

I feel kind of guilty saying that, but it’s the honest truth. And I’m very glad that both of us stayed in the quartet. Now that our kids are a little bit older, there’s a different balance between how much we teach and travel. Now there are glimpses of having more time to practice!

JS: I did love that video of you practicing with Iris (their dog) howling along.

MF: I’m never alone. If my kids are at school the dog’s there, and she wants to be in the room. I would never post myself playing sixths, but I had to post her!

JS: It’s interesting how that’s so personal. And the first time I heard you guys play, I feel like your playing stuck out so much. It was so powerful, and I feel like that’s something you have to see first to make you realize that’s how a second violinist should be as the support and core of the quartet.

MF: I think everyone in the quartet should play that way. I don’t think it should ever overpower anyone else. I think everyone can play in an interesting way, be true to their impulses in a performance, and really be sensitive to each other. I think it’s more exciting and meaningful that way. I don’t love when there’s a strong dominance of one or two players, and then there’s sort of a lack of personality in the others, even if they are great players. Maybe second violin is less interesting to certain people, but it definitely isn’t for me. I appreciate that spot.


JS: What are you working on these days in your own personal playing and practice?

MF: I really feel lucky that my students have started programming more new music. In order for me to be able to teach those well, I try to at least work to a certain level. Learning those pieces from the inside out makes me better at being able to help my students. There have been a handful of those pieces - the Montgomery [Jessie Montgomery’s “Rhapsody No. 1 for Solo Violin,” a piece that both I and another of her students have been working on this semester] is one, the Prokofiev Solo Sonata, the Hindemith sonata [Violin Sonata, Op. 11, No. 1]. I love that piece, and I never played these pieces in my studies, so that sort of thing is really interesting to me.

In part of my practice, I’m learning new exercise techniques that I didn’t work on myself, because they kind of ignite a certain part of my brain - like Schradieck, Dounis exercises, the Vamos double stops. It makes me think about things more, and I’m not on automatic pilot.

And then I always find myself going back to the Bach sonatas and partitas. At this point, I’ve played all of them. There are certain movements that I love that I just play from time to time, and there are certain movements that I can identify, “Okay, I haven’t worked on this part of my playing in a while, I want to go back and do the C Major fugue, or something like that.” So I go back and revisit those pieces because they’re really helpful, and they’re also really precious to me.

And of course, I keep up my quartet playing, but most of my practice is keeping my chops up. I don’t want to just be practicing my chamber music. It makes me weaker as a player, and I don’t have a voice in that music if I’m not expressing myself through the other music. So that’s why I do that kind of balance.

I don’t hit all those things every week, but I try to cycle through it, so I’m not feeling depleted in any area. And there’s some weeks where - like this week, I have not practiced at all, because we’ve been learning a lot of intensive music with the quartet, and it’s the end of school, so I just haven’t been playing. And I’m really itching to get back into it, but it goes in waves like that with me now. I’m trying to think about whether that’s good in the long term. I guess I’ll find out. I feel like you can always get it back, it just takes longer.

JS: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were just starting out on a professional path with Jupiter?

MF: I guess I wish I had recognized from the beginning that the music business and what we do in music doesn’t need to align for my happiness. I guess it’s more like fulfillment. We’ve been through a few different managers, we’ve had our group reviewed, we’ve been in a competition setting, and those situations can make you feel kind of inadequate. We were kind of slow on the uptake with the social media movement, before we realized, none of us love doing this - we’re going to have our manager help us do this. We want to concentrate on the music.

I consider that more of the business side of things. Like having to negotiate fees...I don’t even want to think about that. We know we have to make a certain amount of money to live, but the little things take away from the experience with the music and from the performance, to be honest. In order to keep that part kind of sacred, at some point you have to realize what you enjoy doing and what you need help doing, so that you can function in the music world, but you’re not responsible for it all.

JS: Obviously many of us experience burnout from time to time, and it’s been exacerbated by the pandemic, of course. What are your sources of inspiration as a performer? What keeps you going in times like this?

MF: You know, I’ve felt burnout at different points. With COVID, it was more of a slowing down of any momentum. I anticipate that I’m going to feel some ups and downs just generally - I think that’s just my temperament. I think it’s the natural rhythm of a musician’s life. When preparing really intensively for performances, there’s this real slow kind of steady uptick, and then there’s the performance, and then it’s like - what do you do afterwards? It used to take a ton out of me. I would get super excited and then afterwards I would feel kind of low. Over time, that became more even. Each performance was still really important to me, but it didn't hold the same amount of weight, so that I could still express as much as I did before, but I wouldn't put that pressure on myself.

I think burnout comes from, personally, when I’m lacking a goal. With public performances being completely depleted, those goals were just gone all of a sudden. So I had to find different ways of fulfilling myself. Learning new pieces was one thing I didn’t have time for before, so I was like, “Okay, I’m going to use this time to just kind of shred through some music.” It wasn’t feeding my desire to play for people, but I recognize that’s going to come back eventually, and when it comes back it’s going to be even more meaningful, so I’m really looking forward to that.

I think it also has to do with the balance in your life. If you’re feeling burned out because violin is not what you want to do in that moment, and you don’t have something else to go to, it feels so much more intense. I feel very lucky because I can spend time with my kids. Those are probably the two biggest things in my life now, but I think before I had a family, there were other things that helped balance things out. Like I would read the paper, I would exercise, and just having some sort of routine for that helped me feel like there was a rhythm. The next day or over a little bit of time, it might feel better.

I have heard some performances over the COVID break that people have either made in their house, or old performances that are being re-aired, that have inspired something in me and it makes me want to play. It’s usually live concerts, but I think it can even happen with virtual ones.

JS: I’ve had this conversation with people a lot over the years. Like, my friend would call me and say, “Julie, I don’t have any hobbies,” because we’d both just been immersed in music school for so long.

MF: It’s a really strange existence. Daniel and I used to cook these extravagant dinners. It was the first time we had time to cook after school was done, and we had no idea how to cook. But it was fun to eat the food!

I feel like as musicians sometimes we feel guilty doing that, like “we should be practicing.” But if you’re efficient with your time, there are a lot of hours in the day. There’s no way you can practice that much, and I don’t think it would be good to try. You want to bring things to your music from your life, right? So you have to have a life to make that happen.

JS: Do you have any advice for young women starting a career in classical music?

MF: I think it’s a great thing to do, first of all.

There are different standards for men and women in most fields. And that’s almost too complicated to get into, but maybe just kind of accept that as reality. I do feel like in classical music, and music in general, the ability of men and women is not necessarily considered different. Like in the sciences, it’s different. There are misconceptions about how our brain works or whatever. I think that’s hogwash. But I’ve never felt that from teachers or anyone, that being a woman, I’m at any disadvantage.

I think it comes out in classical music in the lifestyle. Expecting performing musicians to be on the road all the time, to go from concert to concert to concert - this kind of “old boys’ club”. I think there’s a challenge for men who want to have a family or a life outside music - or if you’re a woman, same thing. You have to have a clear vision and a lot of help to say, “this is the balance I want.” The reality of it at a certain age is that if you’re going to have kids, and you’re a woman, you just have to have that time to have kids.

My parents and Daniel’s parents have been incredibly helpful. They travel with us, they come here when we need them from St. Louis, we have a nanny that helps us, my sister’s in the quartet - and you know, if you don’t have help, or if other people in your group don’t share those same values, it’s impossible. There’s no way you can have both.

But if you surround yourself with people who have similar values, then it is possible. You just have to get creative with solutions.

I think there are more and more women who are successful and who are doing music throughout their life. It’s not just like at one point, and then they stop. I hope that it gets easier and easier, as people share responsibilities more, and there’s more acceptance for that, for more women to be successful.

JS: There’s that idea of “you can have it all.”

MF: It’s hard to not feel kind of jaded about that idea. You can have most of what you want.

The only thing that I personally hated was the constant commenting of women’s clothes and appearance in photos, recital attire, even receptions - how much makeup you use, what deodorant you use - all of these things have been said to me personally and I’ve heard said to other women musicians. And never, ever have I heard it said to a man. I think there’s a self-consciousness that can come from that. It can be a sneaking comment or it can be really blunt, and for some reason it’s acceptable. I try to make a point of having a comeback for it now, because it’s happened enough times. I’ve even said to someone flat out, “Well that’s not really appropriate, I don’t want to hear that.” I think that’s where the double standard comes in. It’s there, and it won’t ever go away, but I’m hoping that as we evolve that it won’t be a barrier for anyone.

There was one performance where we were playing the Grosse Fuge, and I guess my dress was a color that showed sweat a little bit. Our first manager was there, and afterwards she was telling me that I was sweating too much, that you could see it on my dress. I was like, “Oh, I’m sorry, that was a really hard piece…” You know, we sweat sometimes! And she said, “Well, have you ever considered that clinical deodorant that makes you not sweat at all?” I was like, “I’m not really interested in wearing that.” I didn’t know what to say, I was surprised! I have to say, I guess I choose colors that hopefully don’t show it as much, but I was really confused by that comment. I was in my early 20s, and I wanted her to say something about my playing! I wanted her to lead me and my group, I didn’t want her telling me about what I was wearing or what I looked like. That was the first of a few things.

JS: What’s something important that didn’t come up in this interview that you think should be talked about?

MF: The only other thing is that the position we have here [at Illinois], the timing of us getting a position where we’re artists-in-residence and have some stability, has played a really big role in that balance, too. We’re able to develop as teachers, we’re able to have a community here that we perform for and that supports the arts. I think as concertizing musicians that’s important, but I think it’s also personally important, because otherwise you’re just playing for strangers all over the world, and you’re never really getting to know any of them more than through that performance. After a while, that’s a really strange kind of existence. It’s not one that I want to live. It’s important to do, and I appreciate hearing people’s artistry even if I’m not necessarily getting to know them super in-depth. But I think it’s not sustainable, and I don’t think it’s what any of us in the group really find is important. I just think that’s worth mentioning because I don’t think we would have been able to do what we did, what we have done in the last 10 years, say, if this hadn’t come up.

Interview edited for length and clarity.


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