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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Where to put the second violins?

May 8, 2009 at 4:55 PM

Where do you like the second violins?

There are generally two possibilities: The second violin section is often placed next to the first violins, as the groups often share melodies and complement each other. However, many orchestras place the second violins across the orchestra from the first violins, stage left.

Having played second violin quite a lot in my life, I can tell you that there are advantages in both situations. Being next to the firsts can allow for a cohesiveness in the violins, a meshing of sound and ideas.

However this can go too far, sometimes a second violin section can get rather weak, dependent, dwarfed by sitting in such close proximity to the firsts. Having the seconds sit opposite the firsts allows that section to hear themselves as a separate entity, to gel as its own group. It also forces them to play with more courage and conviction; to take more responsibility.

A conductor or audience member may have more thoughts on this: on the visual effect it creates, the sound effect (nice to have the cello f-holes pointing more toward the front), the effect on orchestra cohesion. What is your preference, and why?

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From Royce Faina
Posted on May 8, 2009 at 5:06 PM

Well, heck....I'll go first; with the violins oposite of one another and the cellos facing the audience, with violas behind or in front of the cello (if I played viola I may would want to be behind the cellos) sitting dead center in the audience there is a nice stereo sound, and the sound seems nicely rounded out especially when I heard a symphony play Beethoven's 5th in particular the last movement was awsome and it would not have sounded as great if it were with the 2nds next too the 1sts!  However, with the 2nds next too the 1sts it seems like the conductor doesn't have to move around as much.  Seems like with certain pieces he/she looks like he/she is watching a tennis match.  Peices like when the 1st & 2nds are counter point with one another, answering one another, and so on.

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From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 8, 2009 at 6:04 PM

I've also played 2nd violin a lot in my life, and I like sitting in the middle of the orchestra, next to the firsts.  Somehow, back of the 2nds isn't quite as much of a desert wasteland as back of the 1sts, which as far as I'm concerned is the absolute worst place to sit in terms of being able to see or hear.  (I don't know if the back players in cello sections feel the same way.)

But, in the audience, I kind of like the "stereo" effect of the two violin sections on either side.

From Ruth Kuefler
Posted on May 8, 2009 at 6:20 PM

I've played second violin quite a bit, but never sitting directly across from the firsts. However, I did play a piece for double string orchestra in which the second orchestra faced the first; so I was sitting right across from the violins in the other orchestra. I liked how we were able to see the other violins more easily. I feel like when I'm sitting right next to the firsts, I can hear them fine, but its difficult to communicate visually with them. 

From Rosalind Porter
Posted on May 8, 2009 at 6:25 PM

Whilst I can understand the musical attraction to the conductor of having 1sts and 2nds separated across the stage, I've reached my own personal conclusion that - particularly with a community orchestra - it really doesn't work well as a seating plan.  As a 2nd violin, I find it hard to hear what the 1sts are doing across the hall and I definitely get the impression that they feel less confident in octave passages with the 2nds far away, rather than when they are sitting right next to us.  I also find it seriously annoying in the split sections layout that we 2nds have our violins essentially facing inwards rather than out towards the audience, it really does make a difference sound-wise.   It is also harder to keep an eye on what the concertmaster is doing as the conductor gets in the way all the time, so picking up bowing changes seems to take much longer.  

My other pet peeve with split violins is that page-turning is a nightmare.  In normal layout I find no problems in turning pages, but when we are on the outside, somehow I change into someone who is guaranteed to knock the music off the stand...

Oh, and one final moan:  It is amazing how unclear some conductors suddenly become when you are forced to watch them in a side profile rather than face-on in normal lay-out.

From janet griffiths
Posted on May 8, 2009 at 7:40 PM

If violins are sitting opposte the firsts their violins are poiting to the back of the stage ratther than to the audience.I find this difficult in creating a balance between the violin sections.The cellos however have their sound coming from a different angle with a richer resonance.For me the traditional seating has the best balance.

From Royce Faina
Posted on May 8, 2009 at 8:34 PM

I can apreciate what Rosiland is saying, I played 2nd in college, but was mostly 1st from elementry through high school.  With the 2nds facing the 1st, it's playing sort of from the 1sts perspective, though in a mirror image sort of way.

From Allan Chu
Posted on May 8, 2009 at 11:03 PM

Janet - interesting that you say that the 2nds next to the 1sts is the "traditional" seating method when the violin sections being opposite each other was the prevailing way orchestras were seated until the mid 20th century.

I've never played in an orchestra where the 2nds were opposite the 1sts so I can't really say that I have a preference.. but I can see how that would help the 2nds be more confident in its section

I think my community orchestra might do well if we split up. we're violin heavy.


From Corwin Slack
Posted on May 9, 2009 at 4:19 AM

I prefer seconds on the left of firsts. I understand the conductor Pierre Monteux seated violas to the left of violins and seconds opposite. I played in a youth orchestra where this seating was adopted for one summer. I liked it. 

From Deborah McCann
Posted on May 9, 2009 at 4:17 AM
I have played 2nd many times, and it depends on the hall and the ensemble where I would want to be. Some halls have accoustical issues where the 2nd's need to be one place or the other. I do think that for the cello section to be heard, putting them more center is a plus if they are dwarfed. Unfortunately, we sometimes are not remembering that if we know what we are doing and get use to what we hear, it is more important for the audience. Yes, we do need to hear each other and the other sections, but ultimately it comes down to how that projects off the stage. This is why like to think of it as an open idea. I have sat in some really unconventional seating because of the stage issues.
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on May 9, 2009 at 11:32 AM

I've played second violin and had only a few occasions to sit opposite the first violins, but I strongly prefer the latter.  The rest of the second violinists I played with agreed with me, and we tried to convince the conductor to make that seating arrangement permanent..  When we sit next to the firsts, all we can hear is a wall of sound from the firsts.  We can barely hear ourselves, let alone the rest of the orchestra.  Sitting opposite the firsts, we can hear each section clearly and can also hear the blending of sounds well.  That is much more enjoyable.   When the seconds can hear ourselves better (opposite the firsts), we also feel more like an integral part of the orchestra, and we play better. Initially, there was an unexpected amount of confusion sitting in this unaccustomed place.  We felt like right and left got mixed up, but we adapted during the first rehearsal.

From Frank Self
Posted on May 10, 2009 at 12:24 AM

 I am very interested in this discussion.  I had anticipated that the discussion would include consideration of repertoire, i.e., classic versus romantic, in terms of contrast, balance, and texture.  

Frank Self

From Jami Kleinert
Posted on May 10, 2009 at 2:03 AM

Our college orchestra switched to seating the violins opposite from each other this year, with the violas inside of the firsts and the cellos inside of the seconds.  I shared the concertmaster position with two others, and while I don't know how they felt about it, I thought that the switch made it easier for me to communicate with the principal second during rehearsals as well as in concert.  I also liked that it made it easier to hear the viola and cello parts in context of the whole, instead of hearing them faintly over the seconds.  I play viola in a community orchestra that generally seats the violins adjacent to each other , the violas next to the seconds and cellos across from the firsts and feel that this isn't quite as balanced as having the violins across.


YMMV, of course, but I thought it worked well for us -- to be honest, though, our school orchestra is quite small and has a very wide range of abilities in the violin sections.  I definitely agree that seconds across from firsts helps the seconds find stronger sound and independence.  It might be that this strategy works better with ensembles with this type of range of abilities, also.

From Mary Ellen Goree
Posted on May 11, 2009 at 4:09 AM

My orchestra currently seats the 2nds next to the 1sts as do most orchestras now, but for several years we sat on the opposite side of the stage.  I have also played Beethoven and Mahler in other orchestras with the violin sections opposite each other.  Overall I prefer this seating (the opposite sides of the stage) because it encourages a stronger, more independent sound from the 2nd violins, and it also gets us away from the flutes--nothing against flutes, but a piccolo in the left ear can be very painful.  Most of the music in the 19th century and before was written with this configuration in mind, which can become apparent when playing Mahler, Beethoven, etc.

There is certainly some repertoire which is written with the more familiar configuration in mind and which is very difficult to play with the violin sections seated opposite each other.  It is also more difficult to catch bowing changes in rehearsal, and it is important that the conductor and the podium be placed so that the principal 2nd and the concertmaster have unobstructed views of each other.  Page turns, in my opinion, are actually easier from the right side of the stand once you get used to it.

I would not recommend that a community orchestra attempt the opposite side seating of the violins.  It does make it less comfortable for the 2nds to play, and an enormous drawback is that the back of the 1sts and the back of the 2nds are separated by the entire width of the stage.  Unless everyone is clued in to their section leaders and to the baton, ensemble can be a real problem.

From Peter Kent
Posted on May 11, 2009 at 12:13 PM

Seating is perhaps a problem in amateur or school groups where there is a disparity of talent and quality of instruments.  The problem is also dependent on selection of talent.....Do you take the top 10 fiddles for your 1st violin section, and the remaining ones play 2nd ? And, will you seat them differently in a string orchestra vs. full orchestra situation

Someone has to sit to the conductor's right side ! 

I attended a concert of a college group where the faulty acoustics of the stage/auditorium result in the string section being set with 1sts in normal position, 2nds in usual position, violas dead center, celli in a row behind them, and basses behind them....On the conductor's right, were the ww's with the brass behind them followed by the percussion (and organ..they did St.Saens corgan symph)....the balance and ww/brass solos were excellent.  So the acoustics of the hall also dictate optimum seating.

And then, if we're doing Brandenburg #3 or #6,  it's great to set the group to see the intricate 10 or 6  part writing, so perhaps a horizontal set-up would be best.  Var. on Tom Tallis is another problem, and on and on......There's no one correct way...



From Tom Holzman
Posted on May 11, 2009 at 7:40 PM

Several years ago, I saw Barenboim and the CSO perform, and the seconds were seated opposite the firsts.  My understanding from the conductor of my community orch, who has done this on occasion, is that historically (Baroque, HIgh Classical), this was how it was done.

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