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ILP Spotlight: Rachel Stenzel

Rachel Stenzel, age 23, is currently a member of the Graduate String Quartet in Residence at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music in Houston, Texas where she is a student of Paul Kantor. She previously completed both her Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees at the Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM) studying violin under Stephen Rose and Jan Mark Sloman. During her time at CIM, Rachel was the recipient of multiple awards in both violin and chamber music; she also served as concertmaster of the CIM orchestra and was featured as a soloist with the orchestra. Although she loves both solo and orchestral playing, Rachel’s true passion is for chamber music, and her quartet (Callisto Quartet), prior to the advent of the pandemic, performed year-round in venues across the world. Rachel is a two-time Gold Medalist of the Fischoff National Chamber Competition, having won the Grand Prize in 2018 with the Callisto Quartet in addition to winning the Gold Medal in 2014 with her string quartet in high school. The Callisto Quartet has continued their competition success on the international scene with top prizes at the Banff International String Quartet Competition, the Bordeaux International String Quartet Competition, the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition, and the Manhattan International Music Competition. Rachel plays on Maestro’s Chanot violin, a gift to the Foundation from Adam Mendelsohn. 

What was your musical upbringing like?

I was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs and grew up in a family of musicians – both of my parents play and teach music professionally and my two younger siblings are both pursuing music performance degrees. Growing up in a musical family I was surrounded by music from a young age and a love for it was instilled in me very early on. Probably by the end of middle school/beginning of high school I knew that I wanted to pursue violin in college, and I had always been particularly drawn to chamber music, specifically the string quartet. I went to the Cleveland Institute of Music for my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Violin Performance, and it was there that I met my three fellow quartet members and we formed the Callisto Quartet. I currently live in Houston, TX where I am finishing up a program at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music as the Graduate String Quartet in Residence.

How have you maintained your musical career during the pandemic?

Motivation is certainly a challenge during this time with the disappointment of event after event being cancelled, and without the excitement and inspiration that a live audience generates. As a quartet we have been very blessed to be able to continue rehearsing together safely throughout nearly the whole pandemic, something for which I am extremely grateful. We have used this time to pour ourselves into learning new repertoire and exploring works which we might not otherwise have had the time to delve into – in particular we have taken on the project of performing (virtually) the entire Bartok cycle, something which has certainly kept us busy as well as intellectually and musically stimulated.

How did you learn about Maestro? 

I had heard about the Maestro Foundation over the years and through online research but always felt that it was probably futile for me to apply since there are so many other talented and well-deserving players. When I found out that I had received the loan of a violin and bow from Maestro, I was thrilled at the thought of the artistic possibilities it would open for me within the quartet, as well as at the stability of having the loan of a wonderful instrument and bow for the next few years.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Certainly my parents and my family were a huge inspiration in my desire to pursue music as a career; I wouldn’t have been interested in even playing an instrument if it wasn’t for hearing music at home all the time. I am also very grateful for all of the wonderful teachers that I have had over the years (Almita Vamos, Stephen Rose, Jan Mark Sloman), they have all been hugely influential in my musical development.  As far as chamber music goes, attending the McGill International String Quartet Seminar was extremely important for me in terms of defining what I wanted out of my own string quartet and how to achieve that technically and musically. And I’m forever indebted to our quartet coach and mentor, Si-Yan Li, for all that he has done for us and taught us.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly been one of the greatest challenges of my career so far (as it has been for everyone), but for me it has really brought home another lesson which I will continue to learn for the rest of my life. As musicians it is so easy to find our identity in music and to base our self-worth on how we felt a performance went or what other people say about our abilities. Music is an amazing gift that we have to steward, but it could be taken away from us at any time through an injury, the loss of a job, a difficult family situation, or a global pandemic! If my identity is found only in music, then it is possible for my identity to be completely dissolved in an instant. That is why, for me, relationships with other people, and ultimately with God, are so important, because no global pandemic can take those away! I think one of the greatest challenges as a musician is dedicating yourself 100% to your craft, but finding your identity and sense of value as a person in things outside of music.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

There has never been and there never will be a performance where I have walked off stage and been completely satisfied with the way that I played. This is of course both a blessing and a curse because it means that there are always things to be learned and improved upon, but there is also never a point at which perfection is reached. I like to say that my favorite piece is always the one that I am currently playing, and I would hope that it would also be true that the pieces I perform the best are the ones I am currently performing. When I come back to a piece years down the road I will have a new perspective and will want to perform it differently, but if I don’t truly believe in the way I am currently playing a piece, then I probably picked the wrong career! In particular, lately we have been enjoying Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A minor, op. 13 and have been sharing a performance of it on social media. You can listen to it below. 

What is your most memorable concert experience?

One of my most memorable concert experiences was at one of my degree recitals at the Cleveland Institute of Music. At the time I was playing on a 1576 Amati violin that was on loan to me, and needless to say, I wanted to be extremely careful with the oldest piece of wood I had ever laid my hands on. I was performing Ravel’s Violin Sonata and was in the middle of some intense pizzicato strumming in the Blues movement when all of a sudden I heard what sounded like a gunshot and all of my strings went completely slack. I looked down, expecting to see that one of my strings had snapped, but when I found all four of them intact it took me a moment to realize that it was actually my bridge that had violently snapped in half (parallel to the body of the instrument) and flown off of the violin! I picked the pieces up from the floor and walked off stage, because there was nothing else I could do. A few frenzied minutes ensued backstage before I walked back on stage with my sister’s violin and picked up right where I had left off to finish the sonata!

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

For me, the most meaningful and inspirational part of my life is always found in relationships with other people. Sharing a cup of coffee with my husband, spending time with my family, having wonderful conversations with friends from church, or just laughing together with other people – these are the things that truly bring joy to my life. The wonderful thing about life as a musician, and specifically in a traveling string quartet, is that at every concert and every festival and every reception there are so many amazing people to meet. Finding people around the world who share your same outlook on life or music is something which instantly creates lifelong friendships and inspires me to keep doing what I’m doing.

What advice would you give to younger musicians?

The study of music is a lifelong pursuit, and it is an incredibly worthwhile journey for anyone to embark upon. Strive to be better each day, not for the sake of a legalistic perfectionism, but for the sake of your own personal integrity and the desire for excellence. There will be hard days, or weeks, or months, but always remember it is in these times of discouragement or disappointment that you will learn and grow the most. No talent can survive without hard work. Keep yourself focused on the goal so that your general trajectory is always upwards even when there are small dips in the road.

We’d like to thank Rachel for doing this interview. Her story is proof positive that thanks to the generosity of our members, the important work at the Maestro Foundation goes on, even in tough times. 

Instrument Lending Program

Since 2000, the Instrument Lending Program has put high quality instruments in the hands of gifted student musicians that otherwise are unable to afford the necessary tools to realize their place as world class performers. With these instruments, they study in the finest schools and conservatories such as Curtis Institute of Music, The Juilliard School, New England Conservatory, USC Thornton School of Music and Colburn School. Graduating from these stellar programs, they appear before audiences at Carnegie Hall, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center to name a few. For more information about the Maestro Foundation, please visit www.maestrofoundation.org

For over 20 years, the Maestro membership has directly impacted the lives of gifted young artists such as Rachel Stenzel.  The Instrument Lending Program has been critical to their success. If you would like to make a donation to directly support the Instrument Lending Program, please use this link to make your contribution online at Contribute to the ILP.

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