The layout of the string quartet.

Although there is one common way of seating string quartet, it is not the only way. The normal layout is to sit in a semicircle facing the audience, with, as seen from the audience perspective, first violin on the left, second violin to the right of that, followed by viola and cello on the right. But, for example, there are string quartets who perform standing as a soloist would (the cellist has to either sit at a level that is lower than the other players, making it difficult to make eye contact, or has to sit on a pedestal bringing them to eyelevel with the other musicians). Louis Spohr stood to play while his colleagues sat. Joachim played first violin at his left, second violin opposite and the viola to the right of the second.

string quartet under treeThese variations are a matter of preference, but sometimes it becomes a matter of necessity. When a string quartet is hired to play in a church, the first site that the musicians will probably have of the churches when they arrive. Often there is limited space for them, especially in small country churches and this is exacerbated if there are many wedding guests. Sometimes the quartet have to sit in line astern, stand up in a pew in a straight line, had two of the quartet one side of the font and to the other side of the font making a high-end audio contact very difficult.

When playing for the drinks reception the string quartet may find them squashed between the bar and the settee, with perhaps the cellist sitting somewhat detached from the rest of the musicians. If the wedding drinks reception is outdoors, there may be a small patio with steps so that musicians have to sit on different levels relative to each other, with a may have to position themselves between plants in the garden.

Fitting a hired string quartet into a wedding

Then there is the wedding breakfast, and this is very dependent on where the serving door is positioned as you can’t have serving staff pushing past the string quartet. Ideally the string quartet is positioned equidistant from all the tables, and if the bride and groom or wedding venue have taken notice of the suggestions on layout then everything is fine. However more often than not the string quartet is squeezed into a corner when up against the wall at one end of the dining room, and whatever arrangement gives room for instruments and bowing and a position where music stands can be fitted and light falls on the music is what one has to go for. I’ve even is played with a string quartet members at each corner of a large room in a stately home. The delay in sound because of the resonance of the room and the distance between the players made it virtually impossible to play, (we were playing Pachelbel’s Canon). Fortunately this was done because we would dare to do it by the best man. And as luck would have it after just a few bars I somehow cut my finger on the violin E string and bled all over the place, so we had to stop. Everyone was going out to have photographs taken, so it didn’t really matter and probably saved the day. By the time I patch myself up could play again before just heading back inside so all was well.

But proper seating is important. The players must be able to hear each other and to watch each other, both high contact, bowing and body movement must be easily seen to achieve coordination and profit dynamics through communication by body language. A string quartet will set fairly close together when playing in a concert hall, but with plenty of room to allow for movement and bowing without any risk of clashing. However, during the wedding reception or during a corporate banquet, background noise from people chattering can get so loud that the quartet have to virtually sit on each other’s lapse to be able to hear each other adequately. This can make playing extremely difficult.

One interesting thing to do during rehearsals (but never during performances) is to swap seating positions so that people are playing in unfamiliar locations relative to each other. It amazing how different the piece of music sounds, and can be very revealing about what’s really going on in the music.