From Jessica Munguia
Posted August 11, 2012 at 02:12 PM
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.
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!
- 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.
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.
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.
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?"
Violinist.com Editor Laurie Niles is in New York to cover the biennial event at The Juilliard School, including classes by Brian Lewis and Sarah Chang.
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