A Walk in the Woods with Sam Quintal | December 2, 2016

A Walk in the Woods with Sam Quinta

We began gathering around 9:55 AM. People arrived by car or on foot, in groups or by themselves. Some had walking sticks others carried infants on their backs. Dogs ran freely and greeted each other and the walkers.

My parents and their close friends started a tradition when I was about six years old. The mission was to get the kids out of the house for a Thanksgiving walk. To ensure we had a good blast of fresh air, they chose a six-mile route that went over the Putney Mountain ridge to the next town. In the early years, the walkers included five or so families and their Thanksgiving guests, so we were 25-30 people traipsing over the mountain in rain, sleet, snow, and maybe sometimes sun. The weather was never a factor – on Thanksgiving, we walked. .

Now, more than 50 years later, the Thanksgiving walk still exists, but it has grown to include a large portion of the Putney village: many families and many guests. We don't all know each other, but the fellowship and goodwill defines the expedition.

During this year's trek, I thought about the simple pleasure of a walk through the woods, especially during this year that has been marked by worldwide hardship and division. Who would think such a simple activity could give so much pleasure?

Towards the end of our hike, I connected with a small family of three from Philadelphia. Sam and Anna had stopped to adjust Baby Lena's child carrier, and I ended up having an extended conversation with the young father, who had grown up in Fairbanks, Alaska in a one-room cabin, 18' X 20'. That's about as big as Mr. Lovelock's classroom. This cabin for a family of four had no running water, although soon after Sam was born, they got electricity and later high speed internet. The cabin was heated by a wood-burning stove. This is simple living.

I asked Sam what he did for his livelihood in Philadelphia. It turns out that he is an accomplished violist and the co-founder of the highly reputed Jasper String Quartet. How did such a talented and accomplished violist grow up in a one-room cabin in Alaska without water and with only wood stoves for heat?

Here is Sam's story:

When he was four, Sam heard a fiddle tune on the radio, and he said to his mom: "I want to play that." Although Sam's parents are quite knowledgeable about the humanities, science, and math, neither of them knew very much about music, and because Sam was quite young, his mother said. "Let's wait until you are six."

When he was six, Sam started violin lessons. It's important to picture this: the family of four lived in a one-room cabin, so when Sam was in the early stages of learning the violin, the entire family was witness to his trials and imperfect attempts.

You may remember back in November Mr. Franz gave a fiery talk about finding the energy from within rather than relying on outside instructors to give you the inspiration, and Sam Quintal is a perfect example of that.

When Sam was 10, his little brother wanted to play, too, so Sam moved his practice room to the work shop because by then his practices were long enough that the brothers could not practice sequentially; instead, they practiced at the same time in different spaces.

By the time Sam was 12, he was practicing around 2 hours a day. Although he had a violin teacher, he was very much his own motivator. Since Sam was homeschooled, one of the main ways he connected with other people and the community was through his playing. And play he did.

Sam entered Oberlin College after taking many classes at the University of Alaska, and at the end of his freshman year, he started a quartet. His junior year, the group went to the Aspen Music Festival and lived in a mouse-infested cabin even as they played beautiful music. From Oberlin College, Sam went to Rice University to earn his Master's degree and then onto the Yale School of Music for his Artist's Diploma.

All along Sam felt the value and inherent pleasure of practice, which he has incorporated into every aspect of his life. He felt gratitude for being able to read and engage in academic projects. Part of his academic growth came from fixing things around the house, building, and gardening.

This focus on learning rather than an arbitrary pinnacle at the end was reflected in the early years with the quartet when the four musicians had to spend a lot of time on how to work together. He said it was very intense, and they had deep discussions on interpersonal work relationships as all of us must do within our families, teams, music groups, theater troupes or even as a school community.

Sam enjoys his role as violist because it involves work behind the scenes. He describes his role as subtle but ever present. He says: "I am not the flashy member, but I make stuff work." This attitude is in tune with his role within the family he grew up in and his present family of three. Around the house, Sam likes to make stuff work.

At the end of the hike, Sam said "The thing that I really valued about learning to play an instrument was the continual application of working on something that was more difficult than you could comprehend...You can't really tell that you are getting better every day, but you might suddenly realize after a year that you can do something that you couldn't do before....That sort of applied regular work is not something that every kid gets to experience, but I feel grateful for it now and I guess that I did, even then."

The reward in the past couple of years is that I might have moments where everything goes really well, and I say "Wow, I can kind of do this."

Sam's recognition and reward comes from hours and years of sustained effort.

While I embrace technology and appreciate the fact that we can have so much information literally at our fingertips, I do worry that we can get distracted from our own sense of purpose. We tend to look to external solutions rather than engage in internal reflection or renewed effort.

It is no surprise, then, that Sam's favorite quote is by Greg LeMond (3 time winner of Tour de France), because it summarizes his own philosophy: "It doesn't get any easier. You just get faster."


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