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Choosing an Ensemble Name

Picking the right moniker can be a tricky business

Kronos. Turtle Island. Emerson. Eroica. Ethel. Five chamber groups named respectively for a Greek Titan, a Native American creation myth, an American poet, the German word for heroic, and... Ethel the Pirate's Daughter, from the film Shakespeare in Love. They are among the biggest names in chamber music.

And I do mean names.

Of the many string quartets, trios, and other ensembles making music, these five have achieved a high level of success, not just by being consummate musicians playing accomplished music, but also by having first-rate names by which to market themselves. While a name may be little more than icing on a tuneful cake, icing should never be underestimated. In the highly competitive world of string music, choosing a name that is clever, provocative, classy, and memorable is vital. After all, a name is the first thing most people will know about you. Your name has enormous power, as it can shape an audience's perception of your group before a single note is played.

"There are a lot classical musicians out there who would tell you that your success is based mainly on how well you play, with the name of your quartet way down on the list of importance," says Sarah Grote, of the Oklahoma City quartet known as the Stringents. "For me, I'm all about how you market the group. Your name is important.

"Your name is who you are."

Yet, 99 percent of the time, a name is literally the last thing a group of young musicians worries about when it comes together, at college or conservatory, to form a brand-new chamber ensemble. In the earliest days of forming a group—those heady, hope-filled, adrenaline-and-music-powered days—all that matters is the camaraderie, the sound, the blend, the vibe: the music. At the beginning, it's what a quartet, quintet, trio, or duo can do together, the way they sound that is important, not what handle people will someday be calling them by.

And that's fine—at first. After all, the vast majority of new string groups never get past the sitting-around-playing-together stage, and no one needs a name to do that. But if a quartet does miraculously gel, if the players successfully nail all the hard work of melding their talents into a tasty-sounding unit, and if they are then given the opportunity to perform outside the studio or dorm room, then, all of a sudden, selecting a name becomes a major decision.

A Few Considerations

"Your name, as a quartet, is very important in reaching out to your potential audience," says Grote. She believes that music can touch people deeply—if you can just manage to get them into the seats in the first place. "Your name can either reach people or be overlooked by people," she says, "so you need to be very smart about it. We thought that just the one word Stringent or the Stringent String Quartet just wasn't as cool or as appealing-sounding as the Stringents, which sounds more like a rock band, which is important, since we primarily play quartet arrangements of classic-rock songs. Our name, with the pun and everything, communicates that right from the start.

"I was very, very insistent that it was our name that would bring people out to see us, if they saw it in our local newspaper and had no idea who we were. I felt like a good, strong name would get people into the hall, and it's been working really, really well."

When the hard-rocking members of the Stringents perform from the classical repertoire—something they regularly do for weddings and special events—the group appears under the more sedate name of the Metro String Quartet, an admittedly innocuous name that still manages to stand out from many of the other quartets in Oklahoma City.

Says Grote, "It seems like everyone around here is the Oklahoma City String Quartet or Oklahoma Strings or something. Everybody's named after something about Oklahoma. I think that's great, but it's not the direction we were looking to go in."

And what would Grote say should one of her past students approach her to ask advice in naming their own trio or string quartet?

"First of all, I'd tell them to stay away from 'name' names," she says. "I don't like it when groups name themselves after someone in the group. It makes [the person] sound egotistical."

Surely she's not talking about Romania's Balanescu Quartet (named for founder-composer Alexander Balanescu), the Belcea Quartet (founded by violinist Corina Belcea-Fisher), the Austria-based Hagen Quartet (named for the four founding siblings, Lukas, Angelika, Veronika, and Clemens Hagen), or the pioneering Spencer Dyke Quartet (popular in the 1920s, and named for its founder, Spencer Dyke).

"My best suggestion," she continues, "is to name your group something with a good story. People love the names of bands, and they are always going to ask, What's your story? How'd you come up with your name? So, I would say, look for a creative name, a strong, memorable name—but make sure it's a name with an interesting story."

As Grote has pointed out, the best ensemble names are those that are strong, classy, intriguing—and easy to call to mind. For example, most new groups should be warned against adopting the name of a city or country, and especially celestial bodies or phenomenon. If you do, as with the superb Boston-based Jupiter String Quartet, or the long-gone but still legendary Budapest Quartet—not to mention the Los Angeles-based groups like the wedding-focused Andromeda String Quartet or the raucous, experimental Supernova—you'd better make sure you can live up to your name, and soon.

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