Pride or Paycheck?

April 2, 2007 at 03:46 PM · I have been playing first violin in a semi-professional orchestra for a year now. I recieved my music for the next concert, and was distressed to see that it was second violin, 6th chair.

Now, if this orchestra was of a calibre that I thought was professional and/or an ensemble that would make me proud and totally employed....if it were the Nashville Symphony or Memphis symphony or something like that....I'd be glad and proud to sit anywhere in the orchestra. But right now....I feel cheated. This was not my job, I didn't do anything wrong, I've worked hard and never shown up unprepared. I'm professional and I play well. I'm not the greatest, but where I am in my career and life, is somewhere amid the first violins. Anywhere is fine.

I can't imagine going to the rehearsal and concert and not being bitter and feeling like this is going to negatively affect my image. I know it is "about making music" but being a performing and teaching violinist, well, it is also about reputation and image.

So I'm not playing the concert. I sent my music back. I'm also having health problems, so it wasn't hard to find a legit reason to back out. And it is well within the time frame of cancellation specified in other contracts (this orchestra hasn't ever sent me one, the other has).

I feel childish. But I also feel like the seating is done less than responsibly sometimes. It is kind of random. And that seems very unprofessional. In an orchestra of prestige, would this ever happen? With no explanation? Just because someone is trying to fill seats?

The reason I play in this orchestra is to get repetoire under my fingers and to get me into the scene. A vehicle, not an endpoint or goal.

If they fire me, I consider it quitting. I'm already looking for an orchestra that is closer to where I live and not so hard on our vehicle and timetable.


Jennifer Warren

Replies (42)

April 2, 2007 at 04:15 PM · does the back of the seconds pay the same as your old seat? if so, i'd look at it like a break. i love playing in the back of a section for gigs, mostly because i feel like i'm doing less work for the same pay. it might be a little more artistically unsatisfying, but if i'm still getting paid, then i feel like i'm getting paid more "per note" so to speak.

April 2, 2007 at 04:14 PM · Jennifer, the exact thing happened to me last year at my regular sub gig. It turns out the wrong music was sent to me...not that I care what I play, but getting the 2nd violin parts was a bit strange because the extra violins are always used to augment the 1sts.

So maybe a mix up?

I actually am very glad not to be playing 2nd violin parts anymore in Beethoven symphonies...

April 2, 2007 at 04:20 PM · Is there anyone you can trust to ask about how/why the seating was done the way it is? It seems to me that the biggest problem is the randomness, the fact that they didn't tell you or explain to you what they were doing and so it looked, for all intents and purposes, like an insult--which I agree, is *not* very professional.

Is it possible they rotate seating beyond the principals? My former teacher who was a member of the LA Philharmonic said that was what was done in that orchestra--the first 3 stands stayed put and the rest rotated (he was in the rotating group).

I always liked being in the second violins better than the first violins, especially the back of the firsts, which I hated. It happened to me 3 or 4 times in school where I'd be happy as a clam in the front of the seconds and then get moved up to the back of the firsts. I recognized it as the honor it was, but that didn't mean I liked it. I loved being in the middle of things in the 2nds-- one reason I switched to the viola :)

April 2, 2007 at 04:39 PM · I know from experience what you're talking about. I was a second violin all of last season as was my previous teacer. I say from experience that playing second violin is not an insult. In fact the music can often be more challenging than first violin parts. It is etirely possible that your seat change has nothing to do with your playing. A way that some orchestras test their "weaker" players is to put them higher up so that the top chairs can hear them and see if the're the one's who need firing. It is also possible that the conductor found the second violins to be lacking strength and wanted someone who could play firmly to help them out a bit.

April 2, 2007 at 10:44 PM · Yeah, I'm wondering if you got all the facts . . . did you ask why you were playing second this time? Maybe they just needed help in the middle of the seconds. If I came to see the performance and I knew you normally played in the first violin section and I saw you in the seconds, I'd probably assume they put you there to beef up the seconds. That seems the most logical explaination. Or, maybe they're "random" like you said, and they just drew names out of a hat.

Playing speaks for itself. Image is imaginary. It's a difficult situation. You shouldn't beat yourself up about reacting the way you did. I bet most of us have had reason to get bent out of shape a few times.

April 2, 2007 at 05:05 PM · More often than not in life there is a method to the madness, and it only lacks sense when one does not have all of the facts. So, perhaps they did move you back to beef up the seconds, or perhaps they wanted to move someone up to first for a spell to see how they panned out, or any other number of reasons one could consider. I'd politely ask someone who would know the real reason, and I think you'll find the answer reassuring. Seeing how you played first chair for a time, I am sure someone has a good reason for the decision made. Who knows, it may have even been an honest mistake. At any rate, I doubt it was meant to undermine you as a player. However, even were this the case you would likely find it is a way of gently prodding you toward a better place in life. I find this happening in my life from time to time. Take care, and I wish you all the best!

April 2, 2007 at 05:25 PM · I personally would have just sucked it up and played second violin. Music should always come before ego. If they continued to keep you in the seconds then I would ask why, but I would never quit. That is unprofessional!

April 2, 2007 at 07:15 PM · Seeing I don't get paid for all the orchestras I am in. I would throw a fit! lol... jk. But I wouldn't be too happy about it. When I started in the orchestra I started in the back of the orchestra, then I swallowed my pride and did it. But then I have personally worked too hard to be 7th chair first violinist to get stuck into the back.

April 2, 2007 at 07:50 PM · Hi,

I have to say that I have seen this elsewhere. There can be host of reasons, perhaps good, perhaps not. The best is to just play no matter what, and play well for you, and the music. Keep things in your mind, in your pocket and in perspective and see what life turns up.

My own two cents...


April 2, 2007 at 08:12 PM · If they put you in the seconds and you play well, imagine how stupid they will feel when they realize their mistake.

April 2, 2007 at 08:47 PM · When situations like this come up. I just shut up, play, keep a mental meeter running in my head and remember two quotes:

"We're in it for the money" (Frank Zappa)

"You pay - I play" (a good friend of mine)

April 2, 2007 at 08:55 PM · My philosophy is don't work if you don't need money...

April 2, 2007 at 09:06 PM · Maybe it was a mistake, and they sent you the wrong package? Did you ask? (!!!!!)

Rgardless, I find this thread most interesting, since I don't live in the classical world. When I was young, I was first chair cello in HS and college, and never really thought about it. However, when I attended some state orchestra, we had to audition, and I will never forget the horro and shame of being given a cahir near the back.

Who needs it? Unless it's a paycheck and you view it simply as a job, why would anyone want to be in an orchestra, anyway? You don't get to express yourself, you are basically a little robot, following the direction of Herr conductor, no? You might as well play in a Braodway pit & make some REAL money.

Of course, not having lived this life, I could be completely wrong, and I'd welcome thoughts on this.

My advice to the Jennifer is:

Why not start a quartet? Choose your own repetoir, express yourself the way YOU choose. Get a little money together and make a record. Put it on CD Baby and other sites. Get yourself on YouTube, with a link to the CD Baby site. Hustle, find gigs. (don't overlook small studios, who always need real musicians for overdubs - if you can improvise)

Be a true artist, not an automaton with 4 strings. BE HAPPY.

April 2, 2007 at 09:03 PM · I completely understand the feeling. Truth is, it usually is a temporary situation that feels incredibly insulting at the time. If there is a change in pay, I would inquire. If not, I would let it be, play diligently, and see what the long term results are. After all, this is your income and you should protect it, however the orchestra has no obligation to protect (with all respect) player's ego.

April 2, 2007 at 09:23 PM · To be totally honest about it, I think playing in the firsts is more fun. More melody...more cool stuff. It has nothing to do with ego.

In a non, or semi pro orchestra usually the better players are in the firsts because overall, not always, but often the parts are harder and there is more exposure.

Plus, playing in the very back is harder. Playing in the very front is hard because of exposure but it is the same music and it is much easier to play with other players around you.

Playing in the middle of a section is easiest. So, it DOES make a difference where you sit in terms of the ease of playing and how much fun it is. I am a sub so I almost always sit in the absolute back of the firsts. For many years I was assistant concertmaster of our orchestra and now I play a lot better than i used to and I sit at the very back. But that is circumstance and logistics.

My advice: acknowledge that it does make a difference where you sit for a lot of reasons. Second, find out why they moved you.

April 2, 2007 at 10:26 PM · Michael,

"It has nothing to do with ego."

The comment was made, again, with all respect given. The issue here is how Jennifer feels about being placed differently within the orchestra. 98% of the time, the conductor, concertmaster, and/or section leader does not take into consideration the possibility of offending someone when seating the ensemble.

That being said, I have met more than a few that do have ego wrapped-up in the perceived status of their seat...

April 2, 2007 at 10:49 PM · actually, it doesn't matter if your first or second violin. It depends on your chair. If they even the violins out, then it would go first chair first violin, first chair second violin etc.

April 3, 2007 at 12:58 AM · Some places do shake things up depending on who's available. For example, the Mainly Mozart Orchestra changes seating around every year (and sometimes also changes it midway through the festival) depending on availability. It's not meant as an insult if someone is placed in the Seconds... it's usually more a case of balancing out the sections.

April 2, 2007 at 11:20 PM · Why not ask the CM or conductor what's going on and resolve the problem if any.

April 3, 2007 at 01:27 AM · Christopher, you are absoluetly correct. Ego of course is a factor. I should have said, "Regardless of ego considerations, playing first is, in my opinion, more fun." Or something like that.

Nice to know someone critically reads my posts.

April 3, 2007 at 02:13 AM · You know, it just occurred to me that THIS is precisely why it always seems to me like the cellos and woodwinds are having all the fun. Has anyone else ever observed that phenomena?

April 3, 2007 at 02:37 AM · Just play.

April 3, 2007 at 04:40 AM · I really like the rotating system. People get to know each other better, and to know each other's playing. And it makes it so some weeks you are in the hot seat and are relied upon, others you are at the back and doing more following. I was in an orchestra with a rotating system (for each concert), and I recommend it.

April 3, 2007 at 05:20 AM · Reading the rest of your post, it makes me wonder if you're looking for an out from this orchestra anyway. Health problems, a lot of driving, its being hard on your schedule. Maybe your subconscious is trying to tell you to take it easy.

April 3, 2007 at 04:23 PM · I really love all the answers that you shouldn't let your ego get in the way, 2nd is just as important as 1st, suck it up and play, blah blah blah.

give me a break! If you didn't get 2nd music by accident and your orchestra doesn't normally have 1st-2nd rotation, then the orchestra management or conductor owes you a letter saying why you were moved back, and outlining the specifics--you rushed, you dragged, you didn't turn the pages, whatever. You also should have been warned prior.

I've never complained about playing 1st or 2nd. I like relaxing in the 2nds while watching all the 1sts scramble. But being moved back means that something is wrong, and you should have been notified.

April 3, 2007 at 04:29 PM · Scott,

With all respect, it really depends on the managing style of the personnel manager, conductor, and/or CM. I have seen people retain or incur further demotions by causing too much fuss.

Read your contract and see if there are any infractions. If you can get an explanation without a fight - then sure. Otherwise, they don't owe you anything but what the contract states.

April 3, 2007 at 07:01 PM · Jennifer,

When I took a year off to freelance between my degrees, I made a deal with myself: the more enjoyable the gig, the more money I had to save from the paycheque. If the gig was miserable, I could go out and blow my money without feeling too guilty.

Well, at the end of the year, I'd had some fantastic experiences and some downright awful ones (a Brahms 4 comes to mind where one rather arrogant conductor wouldn't EVER let us play out - no phrasing, just very, very subdued) - and I hadn't saved very much at all. Do you need the money or the experience?

April 3, 2007 at 09:48 PM · Wow. I hadn't checked for one day and look at all these responses!!!

I want to digest them all, since there were so many, but I do want to say that, no this is not the most important orchestra to me right now. There have been organizational problems from the start. Most of all, I love playing the music, the company, etc. etc. and of course the paycheck. But not enough to sit throught two weekends feeling embarrassed and bitter. Because, yes, I agree, it DOES mean something is wrong when there is a drastic change like that.

Maybe I should have sucked it up and play anyway, but the music is already sent back. I am, however, fascinated by the responses. I wonder what I would say if someone else posted. Probably something encouraging like the things mentioned in previous posts.

For me it comes down to what I know I can be o.k. with. I have spent much of my life playing in the back. And swallowed it. And worked harder. And worked harder. And felt a lot of pride sitting where I feel I deserve to after working hard. It is ego. But it isn't necessarily a haughty proudness that makes me think I'm better or less of others. It felt like a slap in the face and perhaps I'm jsut not a strong enough person to overcome the sting and smile through rehearsals and pretend it doesn't matter.

Bottom line is...if I don't feel like I'm moving isn't worth it. The idea is to glean, learn,e xperience and move on. Not the other way around. It gets very frustrating to be in a group where there is no satisfaction of having somewhere to go. Moving to hte back of the seconds gives me a lONG way to go. But I've already been there.

I could have called and asked if there was a mistake. I should have, really. But there doesn't seem much organization. LIke, My contract consisted of checking off the boxes I could play concerts and which I couldn't. THat's the contract. With the other group they sent out a packet with the union negotiations and codes of dress and conduct and specific regulations concerning being late, missing rehearsals, all that.

So I'm going to look for an orchestra job that is a step up from where I am now. I might not get in. But I'll feel better having a high goal and not being frustrated and in the dark.

(And yes, perhaps I was looking for an out, maybe. The orchestra was a trial. Like, I'll try it this year and see. It can remain like that in my mind and not get caught up in the melodrama of chairs).

I love orchestra, love being part of a beautiful thing, the sound around, the excitement. The adrenalin. I love it. So I guess I'll bite the bullet and audition where the music draws me to new levels.

Thank you for all your replies. It gave me a perspective of views and kind of eye for what goes on other places.



April 3, 2007 at 10:39 PM · Back when I was young.. 1st chair in the orchestra was all I wanted... I had a huge ego.. thought others couldn't play etc. As I am now many years older ( and 3 kids later) 2nd is ok for me. I just want to play.. be in the orchestra and surround myself with music. Because to me you can turn on the stereo surround sound on a CD but it truely isn't the same as sitting in the middle of the orchestra. To me... at this time in my life last chair would be better than no chair.

April 4, 2007 at 05:58 AM · Christopher,

You're right--they just have to follow the contract. The problem is, in many smaller orchestras, the management plays fast and loose with personnel policies. I've been in many smaller orchestras where policies were made up on the spur of the moment and seemed to follow someone's whim. In fact, some orchestras specifically leave their personnel policies vague so that they can control the situation and not be challenged.

It would be common decency to let someone know if their seating has changed.

Whoever should have told her is lacking in a certain male anatomic structure.

April 4, 2007 at 04:56 PM · Scott,

Agreed. The move was not polite and your description of "loose structure" within some ensembles is definitely true (as well as the lack of key anatomy.)

I was concertmaster of my University Orchestra for 3 consecutive years. The last concert of my senior year, the conductor placed someone else in that chair. I was deflated and insulted that I was going make my final peformance outside of my customary position. I confronted the conductor - even requested that I be excused from the concert in order to work on my recital. He claimed that he simply wanted to try something different but he still needed me in the section. I didn't like it, but I played dutifully and had the opportunity to see a good friend lead the group.

In retrospect, I feel more embarassed regarding my internal reaction to a situation which, in the long run, meant very little. In fact, it was miniscule in comparison the ridiculous practices I have experienced within the orchestral realm.

April 4, 2007 at 06:29 PM · By the way, is third desk really the back of the section? I may have been spoilt over here where you rarely see less than 12 second violins in a full orchestra...

April 4, 2007 at 08:04 PM · IN the

April 5, 2007 at 02:04 AM · The matter is resolved without getting specific. They recieved my music and my note and I'm not fired because of missing the concert. Regardless of whether or not I was offended by the seating arrangement, or whether or not I will be feeling physically competent of doing a good job by then...I sent the music back early enough to not be fired.

So I have all summer to weigh my options and decide if I'd like to play there next season. If I need the employment at that time and have not found something closer, then I will inquire if there was a professional reason for the move back. Or more broadly, inquire if the job comes with a regular seat or even section.

Until then, my mind is at ease now. I had felt like I was using my ill health as an excuse to pull out because of weak control over my hurt on the chair issue, but I don't feel that way anymore. I'm glad I made the decision quickly and sent the music back immediately. That way in the overall picture, it doesn't matter which issue held more weight.

In the future if I get music I'm not expecting, I'll just contact management and inquire if there was a professional reason for the move, and if so, what it is so that I may work on it. I think that is fair and not pouting.

Although I pout really well...




April 5, 2007 at 04:04 AM · Jennifer,

I will now spank you.

We've all been speculating on this forum about your situation, but you haven't worked up the courage to actually go and ask what the deal is. Is sounds like you may at some yet-to-be-determined point in the future. If you feel like it.

There might be a perfectly reasonable explanation for all this.

I understand a musician would be reticent to speak up if, say, they got their dream job and wanted to wait until after the probation period to not ruffle any feathers. But it doesn't seem to be a life-or-death pay-the-mortgage-or-be-evicted-I'll-just-die-if-I-can't-play-in-the-symphony type of deal for you.

But yet you posted it in this forum. So stop being passive about it and make a phone call!

You have been spanked.


ps we're on your side

April 5, 2007 at 01:32 PM · I'm in sympathy with some differing views expressed here. There are some fine players who genuinely don't care where they sit. Others pay lip service to that, but really feel otherwise. If you are a strong, talented, ambitious player, chances are you'll want to shine a bit more in a prominant seat in the 1sts. Depending on the circumstances, there have been times I've been put in in the 2nds, and truly haven't minded. Other times, I felt very frustrated. In my freelancing career, I usually sit 1st, and have often served as concertmaster. I also do solo playing (and am currently in recovery from an unaccompanied recital I gave lat night!), so I've had a lot of opportunities to shine. I also do a bit of contracting, and can tell you that seating people can be a tricky balancing act.

In your circumstances, I would have felt similarly. But I'd have taken a big breath, and with as little rancor in my voice as humanly possible, called the contractor and asked if there was some mistake. I would have offered to play 2nd for that particular concert, while making it clear in a nice way that I wanted to be put back in the 1sts the next time. If the answer was still no, and I didn't need that gig, then, and only then, I might indeed leave.

P.S. What's going on with the margins here? Is it just my computer?

April 5, 2007 at 03:03 PM · Music is music. I don't care where I sit. I'll work just as hard and make sure I know my part flawlessly, support my stand partner, and play in synch with the rest of the ensemble. It's better than not playing at all!

April 5, 2007 at 10:02 PM · oooh, Paycheck!

Think about the new strings you could buy!

Personally, I don't mind at all playing second when the part is tricky or awkward, because then I feel like I'm learning something, gaining good experience.

But, when the part is easy and boring, then I start to mind! Something you could do is try to make the part more challenging by playing both divisi parts if it goes into divisi or make up hard fingerings, as long as it's in good taste of course!

Oh, and I hate to say this, but I have to, even though I know nobody wants to hear this! But, playing the violin and making music isn't all fun and games sometimes. Sometimes it's work that's not that fun, but still challenging, so, good for you. Also, what would a Beethoven Symphony sound like without the second violins?! Or any symphony for that matter. The only thing worse then being a little bored in the seconds is being in the firsts Wishing you could be sitting in the seconds to cover the part!

just my 2 cents

April 5, 2007 at 10:02 PM · oooh, Paycheck!

Think about the new strings you could buy!

Personally, I don't mind at all playing second when the part is tricky or awkward, because then I feel like I'm learning something, gaining good experience.

But, when the part is easy and boring, then I start to mind! Something you could do is try to make the part more challenging by playing both divisi parts if it goes into divisi or make up hard fingerings, as long as it's in good taste of course!

Oh, and I hate to say this, but I have to, even though I know nobody wants to hear this! But, playing the violin and making music isn't all fun and games sometimes. Sometimes it's work that's not that fun, but still challenging, so, good for you. Also, what would a Beethoven Symphony sound like without the second violins?! Or any symphony for that matter. The only thing worse then being a little bored in the seconds is being in the firsts Wishing you could be sitting in the seconds to cover the part!

just my 2 cents

April 5, 2007 at 10:24 PM ·

April 6, 2007 at 12:28 PM · Yes, it's not just a matter of ego and status, but of the particular repertoire, as well. I've played 2nd violin parts to Verdi's Otello, Beethoven's 2nd and 4th, and Scherazade (sp?) - and I had plenty to keep me occupied. On the other hand, I once played 2nd for a program primarily consisting of Johann Strauss waltzes. As important as the 'oom-pa-pas' are to the overall effect, after about 100,000 of them, I was sort of praying for death! ;-)

April 6, 2007 at 01:17 PM · I once played 2nd violin in a chamber orchestra formed just to play at a private party. All J. Strauss, for three hours. I didn't pray for death, but I did pray for 2/4 time. And my bow pinkie went numb after the second hour.

I have always thought that the second violin parts are much tougher than the first violin parts in the Beethoven symphonies. And let us not forget the second violin part of Schubert's 9th!

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