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First violin section for only the best and most skilled players?

Instruments: What does it mean if a person never became a first violin in orchestra? Could this mean that they are a poor performer? Or they are just not good enough?

From Jessica Munguia
Posted August 11, 2012 at 02:12 PM

In my 8 years of playing in orchestras, I was always second violin. I never was first violin. I always wonder, what is it like to play those beautiful melodies? What is it like to be in one of the greatest sections of the orchestra? Before auditions, my primary focus was becoming a first violinist.
Before auditions, I practiced for hours each day. When I auditioned, I gave it my all. But then to realize weeks after that I was a second violinist. Again and Again. I felt very disappointed.
However, I am thankful that I had a chance to experience playing in orchestra.
I am under the impression that first violin is for the most experienced, for the best, and most skilled violinists. Since I never played first violin, does this mean that I am a poor performer or I am simply not good enough? What can I do in the future to become first violin?


From Trevor Jennings
Posted on August 11, 2012 at 04:20 PM
There is a lot to say for playing in the seconds - being more or less in the middle of the orchestra you hear a lot more detail of what is going on in the orchestra as a whole, and what you hear is pretty close to what the conductor is hearing. You can also see the conductor well - and he you ;).

When I was an orchestral cellist it wasn't always easy to hear the details of what either section of the fiddles were doing (violas and basses were no problem), and sometimes catching the conductor's eye from that side position when I needed it wasn't always as easy as I would wish. When I negotiated a free transfer from the cellos to the seconds three years ago my eyes and ears were opened as to the detail I was now hearing. The second violin part was also generally more interesting.

As to the firsts, the impression I have is that primarily they must be able to play strongly and in tune an octave above everyone else. Is this such a difficult achievement? I've had passages in the second violin part where we're doubling the firsts at the same pitch. Several times I've heard first violins remark how grateful they are for the strong support of the seconds.

I am of the opinion that the second violin part is often at least as technically difficult and as interesting as that of the firsts, even if the seconds aren't always playing in the stratosphere along with them. Anyway, I love playing on the G and D strings.

Once or twice I've looked at what the violas have to play, and I would say it is often the most technically demanding of all the string parts.

I will also add that in my chamber orchestra we have a policy of swapping players between the firsts and seconds on a regular basis, the only one who doesn't move being the concert master. This reflects the equal importance of both sections.

I would suggest that the bad press that the second violins tend to get arises from school and some community orchestras where there is a wide range of ability, and there are inevitably those who are not yet technically able to play beyond the 3rd position. Those who can automatically find themselves in the firsts. And the tallest boy in the class ends up playing double bass.

From Brian Kelly
Posted on August 11, 2012 at 05:42 PM
Trevor : very interesting comments. How common is it amongst orchestras that the firsts and seconds rotate like that ? It seems like an excellent idea.
From Trevor Jennings
Posted on August 11, 2012 at 07:41 PM
Brian, I know of two other orchestras in Bristol that operate a similar policy. Both of these orchestras, like Bristol Chamber Orchestra, I would describe as advanced amateurs, the entry level being grade 8+. They each have a useful number of players with college diplomas, and a handful of retired pros. My chamber orchestra borrows brass, woodwind and percussion from the other two when necessary.

I think this is a useful policy for amateur orchestras of the right standard - it emphasizes the fact that the first and seconds are two sides of the same coin and not "us" and "them". The school-age orchestras usually have a range of technique that is too wide to permit much in the way of swapping between the firsts and seconds.

As well as the interchange between the firsts and seconds we regularly rotate positions within the sections - not the cellos, though, there are only four!

From John Pierce
Posted on August 11, 2012 at 09:04 PM
My own views:

- In many ways, playing 2nd is harder than playing first. It's more likely that you will recognize the 1st part than more Oom-Pah in the 2nd part.

- The second section needs strong, skillful players. There are times that the seconds carry the day. If they are weak at those times, things get wonky.

- It's fair to talk to the director, if you want to give a shot at first. Just be prepared for an honest answer. If the director thinks you needs more work, ask in what areas.

From Paul Deck
Posted on August 12, 2012 at 01:10 AM
In children's orchestras the parts are often written so that the higher position stuff is all in the first violin so that kids who can't play that yet can still participate.

But if you think playing 2nd violin in a professional orchestra is for slouches, try getting a seat in the 2nd violins of the Chicago Symphony.

I bet there are orchestras (perhaps smaller or semi-professional) where a few "ringers" are put in the back intentionally so that they can help keep the tempos from lagging.

From Scott Cole
Posted on August 12, 2012 at 01:11 AM
The better the orchestra the less the differences in the musicians. In a professional orchestra, the new person hired for the last stand 2nd violins could very well be a hotshot that plays rings around everyone else.
From Corwin Slack
Posted on August 12, 2012 at 03:30 AM
In high school and amateur orchestras second violins tend to be less skilled. Many cannot play in upper positions which makes the first violin parts too difficult. But if you polled the second violins of a professional orchestra you would probably find that most had been the concertmasters of their high school and youth orchestras. One of the glories of a first class ensemble is the virtuosity of the inner voices.
From Trevor Jennings
Posted on August 12, 2012 at 10:04 AM
In the seconds of my chamber orchestra we have an ex symphony professional. He prefers not to lead, which means that due to our rotation sytem within the relatively small section I often find myself sitting next to him. I have learnt a lot of useful stuff as a result, as well as many interesting anecdotes ;)
From Trevor Jennings
Posted on August 12, 2012 at 10:04 AM
[edit] yet another duplicate post deleted!
From Simon Streuff
Posted on August 12, 2012 at 10:27 AM
coming to the second violin section in youth orchestras can mean, that there were others who were more secure or something. But its not true that second violin is easier, you can learn a lot there about music.
After all if you want to play first violin ask yourself if you are secure enough in high positions. First violins are quite exposed so if one plays a little out of tune there it is much easier heard than in second violin section.
As I began with my studies, I was always second violinist in the beginning. But with time I got offers for first violin (gig orchestras, I am not in an professional symphony orchestra). With time I also got some possibilities where I lead the ensemble. Just continue the good practice, keep yourself in shape at any time to be ready to play any section where someone is needed. And last but not least: hold your violin UP so that it looks and sounds like a first violinist ;)
From Raphael Klayman
Posted on August 12, 2012 at 12:09 PM
A lot of what I want to say has been covered, but I'll respond in my own way.

In the old days, the conventional wisdom was that if you weren't good enough to play first, you'd play 2nd; if still not good enough, you'd play viola. This is the source of viola jokes - the players, not the instrument. And if you still weren't good enough you could always conduct or become a music critic! A light bulb joke: How many 2nds does it take to change a light bulb? None can do it. None of them can reach that high! ;-)

All kidding aside, the above may have been true in the old days, and still true in amateur orchestras. But in top pro orchestras there is a very high standard in every section of the orchestra - including 2nds. Many have rotation systems and some don't.

I enjoy a multi-faceted career as a soloist, chamber musician, orchestral player, pop music player and teacher. I've played 1st much more often, but I've played 2nd a good deal as well - quite often principal 2nd. I actually regard the principal 2nd as the second most important violinist in the orchestra - depending on the orchestra, the conductor, etc. To me, the Concertmaster is the President of the violin section, and to some extent, of the whole orchestra. The asst. CM is like the vice president - a hearbeat away. But until that heart stops beating... The prin. 2nd is like the Secretary of State.

In any case everyone in the 2nd section needs important skills. They need to be very solid and steady players, and bring accompanying figures to life, and not make them sound like Sevick exercises. In a piece like the Beethoven 5th, they have pretty much full parity with the firsts, with the two sections almost constantly bouncing off one another. In the opening allegro to Mozart's Magic Flute overture, it is the 2nds who are exposed first, and under the gun. And if anybody knows Verdi's Va Pensiero, that 2nd violin part is about 10 times harder than the first! Of course there are the other moments. Once I was hired to play 2nd in a concert of mostly Johann Strauss waltzes. By the end of the gig, after playing about 20 million oom-pa-pas, I was pretty much praying for death! But in any case I consider myself a musician first and foremost and a possibly hot shot fiddler second. No matter what I do, and where I'm seated, I truly try to serve the music, and rarely go away w.o. some satisfaction. Nevertheless...

Jessica - I certainly feel for you, and sense the poignancy in your post. As has been suggested, I would have a talk with the conductor and maybe the CM, and ask to have a chance to play first at least sometimes. Also, have a talk with your teacher, and voice your hopes and concerns. If you are given a chance, get ready for other skill sets. The 1st parts often are more virtuosic and it is much harder to hear yourself in the upper positions in the section than as a soloist. If you are not given this chance - or even if you are - you might form your own quartet playing 1st, or alternating. Also continue to hone your solo playing, and schedule a recital somewhere. It's a great goal to work towards, and like Sinatra you'll do it YOUR way! I find that with some modifications to be sure, every kind of playing helps everyting else to some extent, and practicing never goes to waste.

From Kathryn Woodby
Posted on August 12, 2012 at 12:49 PM
Jessica,

All answers above are great. Different groups do run things differenty, but I would guess one of two things is happening for you--either 1) they just already have solid, full, section of firsts, 2) your high position shifting/intonation may be weak, or 3) you are a really good rhythmist or harmony player in 2nd and they want to keep you there!! #1 is a natural thing; #3 is really an honor as many above have stated! #2 is the only possible "negative" reason.

It may be worth just asking whoever does your auditions, "Hey, I'd really like to play first sometime but that never seems to happen--is there a weakness I need to improve or could I switch to that section next season?"

From Frieda Francis
Posted on August 12, 2012 at 07:50 PM
Jessica,

Professional orchestras aside, if you are playing in community or youth orchestras, there are many reasons why you have been assigned to second violins. It depends on the orchestra and conductor.

One issue that hasn't been raised is that there could be personalities involved. How you play may have nothing to do with whether you are in first or second. It could be benign, like people who make requests or know the right people get them, while the quieter ones get shuffled around. You may want to voice your desire to play first violin for a concert and ask how to make that happen.

Another option is to seek out other orchestras who need you on first. A friend was complaining that where he lived, it was hard to find violinists willing to play first. Too many wanted to play second!


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