Not fit to be Concertmistress

October 3, 2007 at 06:00 AM · So I auditioned for two orchestras this summer and I got into the lower level one but I'm concertmistress. I've never ever done anything like this before. I've always been at the back of the orchestra. Now that I'm up in front, and my conductor's new, I always get picked on. He always askes me questions. And I can never answer them. They're really basic things like what key we're in and what a harmonic scale is but the thing is, I haven't learned those things yet. I learn things by ear, so all this basic music theory stuff is so foreign to me and I don't know what to do. Plus, I can't sight-read well and I get lost a lot and I just can't get my act together. It's so embarrassing and I feel like I don't deserve to be concertmistress. AND I lost my sheet music already. Urgghhhh it's so frustrating. I don't know what to do!!!!

Replies (30)

October 3, 2007 at 06:47 AM · Greetings,

this is a confusing post to me becuase you do not say what age you are or what level the orchestra is.

Condcuters can be real dickheads at times and nothing is gained from showing someone up. Nor can I see the purpose of thes ekind sof questions in a rehearsal of an orchestra. One possibilty is to communicate clearly and non threateningly with the condcuter about the situation. Something like this.

1) Identify the problem precisely. IE not you are upsetting me but ` when you ask me questions in orchestra I have insufficeint knowledge to answer ....

2) I feel depressed/frustrated

3) State your values Because I really value working with you in this positido.

4) Say what you would like: I would like to ask you to consider giving me a little space to learn more concretely about music and how to do this job. (Notice her etaht you don`t state your request in black and white but rather ask for consideration of the request itself- this gives the otehr person space to refuse without creating a blunt and unpleasnat situation)

As far as being a cocnertmaster is concerned I don`t think you need to get too hung up about the demands ona profesisonal cocnertmaster just yet.

Its the little things that count a lot.

1) Always be early for rehearsal.

2) Never lose your music. Have a special case for orchestral music.

3) Always have a good supple of pencils and eraser.

4) Always have a mute and spare strings.

5) Always take your part to your teacher and practic eit like crazy.

6) Always count in the rests!

6.5) Get together with the other leaders and pracitce the work as a quartet. Try some other chamber music while you are at it.

6.75) Practic esight reading something everyday without fail!

7) Study the score so that you know what the otehr parts are doing. Yes, ultimately you do have to learn theory, reaidng and stuff.

8) Practice scales and learn positions using books like Schradieck. When the chips are down its hard to argue with soembody who is just a little bit better technically....

9) Finally try to work with the conducter one on one. Try out some differnet bowings then show thes eoptions to the conducter. There can be a very big difference. For example in Beethoven symphonies some condcuters like 8th note played martele on the string and others like a heavy spicatto. Another, I played Schuberts Rosamunde overture with two differnet conducters this week. The first wanted therepeated notes with richochet bowing to be very muffled , over the fingerboards as a kind of background murmur. The second conducter stopped the orchestra and asked us to played it with brilliant articulation so he could `really hear the rythm.`

I`m sure you will be doing really well soon.



October 3, 2007 at 08:26 AM · I like your list, Buri. Stupid things like pencils and mutes are so important when wearing the concertmaster mantle, even if they are such trivial matters in the cosmic scheme of things.

I hate formality sometimes.

I hate formality and responsibility in general, which is why I will never make a stalwart concertmaster.

October 3, 2007 at 08:58 AM · Well, assuming that you're a student, in a student-level orchestra:

The only way to discover what people know and don't know is to ask questions.

Your conductor asking you these sorts of questions is a way to provoke you into learning the material. You've already mentioned that you do things by ear...while that may serve well for some situations, it is a clear path to failure in ensemble playing where adherence to the notated rhythm is an absolute necessity.

It may seem that this conductor is out to get you, but the reality may be that this person really wants you to figure out what you need to learn to be an effective leader.

October 3, 2007 at 10:53 AM · Knowing what key you are in is fundamental when playing the violin.If you have not already got a scale manual you should consider buying one immediatly.Your conducter is probably asking you these questions in order to point out the key to the whole orchestra maybe someone keeps forgetting to play bflat.

October 3, 2007 at 12:33 PM · I always enjoy reading Stephen's posts. He obviously knows his stuff and I usually learn something new from his insight!

October 3, 2007 at 01:37 PM · sorry, double post

October 3, 2007 at 10:58 PM · Don't worry. You are the concertmaster, so own it. There might be some things you don't know, but there is also an awful lot you DO know, which is why you're sitting where you are.

As far as feeling insecure because you don't know your notes--well, this is one of those times you got thrown in the water and now you've got to swim! No time like the present to begin your study of music theory! You're not stupid if you haven't learned it yet, you just haven't learned it yet. You can learn and be prepared to answer all his questions very quickly if you work at it. I had a hard time learning theory when I was younger and I wish I would've gotten over it sooner. Now, I've taught theory classes at a few music camps, and I love it. I have the opportunity to help others avoid the pain I went through because I waited so long to study theory. Don't waste another day!

Make sure to discuss this orchestra issue with your private teacher. I'm sure he'll be more than willing to help you be a confident concertmaster.

October 3, 2007 at 03:36 PM · This site has very good lessons in music theory, and you can quickly get the basics plus some more advanced.

October 3, 2007 at 05:17 PM · you auditioned and were selected as that position, so do not worry, i suppose you are a student, so by studying hard and taking the advice you are given i am sure you can make it. first times are always tough.

i will take notes from the above recommendations for myself as well. it is a good compilation :)

October 3, 2007 at 06:01 PM · Julia,

You said you have problems sight-reading, but if you're the concertmaster you SHOULD NOT be sight reading when you get to rehearsal unless it's the first rehearsal and you were just handed the music. If you have trouble reading and don't know your keys, then you have a teacher problem. My 7-year olds are taught the circle of 5ths, and we almost always sight-read at lessons.

I have been assisting with our local youth symphony for many years, and at auditions we have kids sight-read for good reason.

The main job of the concertmaster is to lead by example. I don't know your level, but it sounds as if you have not been placed correctly. If you are not counting correctly and are playing by ear, then the section as a whole may be in trouble and you are in over your head. I would have a talk with the conductor to head off embarrassment and frustration in the section ("why can't she play the part..."). If you are the best in the section, then you should stay there. But your teacher should be addressing the issues of reading and basic theory. Once you get to a certain level, it's not good enough to just say "I learn by ear."

October 3, 2007 at 08:24 PM · Scott...I was wondering, how did the teacher of your children approach teaching the circle of 5ths??

October 3, 2007 at 08:45 PM · Getting started on the circle of 5ths is the easiest thing for string players.Of course theres cma which has no sharps and flats then we look at the violin strings.One,two three four,whoops first four scales right under our nose with g,d,a and e.The new sharp is always the penultimate note.Its kids play and they get it really qiuckly.After its easy to add onto.

October 3, 2007 at 09:54 PM · Jesse,

I start by teaching them just a couple of keys to the either side of C--G, D, A and F, Bflat, Eflat. Then the next lesson I do it again, but add the relative minor. Sometimes it takes a few times till they get the pattern, and students who start on Hrimaly scales (which I use) catch on even faster because of the way the book is organized by major/relative minor. Mostly they learn by repetition. After they understand it, I find that most kids actually find it fun to fill it in, and they often ask to do one during a lesson. I always draw the circle and 12 divisions myself, and then let them do it if they want (younger students like to do it themselves).


October 4, 2007 at 01:52 AM · Hi Julia,

It appears that your conductor has selected you to be concertmaster on the strength of your technical proficiency, your solo playing, or because he sees a lot of potential for leadership even though you may be weak in some areas. I would take this as a tremendous opportunity to learn and grow on the job. I think you should ask your conductor for guidance and input on how you can develop your musical skills and your leadership skills. I would ask the couductor if you could meet with him on a regular basis, for instruction and input. And ask your teacher for help also.

As I said, this is a tremendous opportunity to learn and grow on the job. When you get older if you enter the professional scene, you will not get such opportunities. A concertmaster in a professional situation is expected to be fully prepared. No training on the job. So please take advantage of this opportunity even if you have to struggle and work your tail off. And congratulations.

October 4, 2007 at 12:41 PM · julia, can you ask the julia cohen, the one that is nervous about the whole thing, to leave the room so we can talk?:)

i suggest you treat this orchestra experience like a chance to learn, to be positive, to be open minded and to be ready to make mistakes and to be grateful that you are given a chance to learn from them. there is no quantum jump from nothing a little to knowing a lot. reserve your fear and anxiety for the movie theaters; live your life without fear!

you probably can play well (by ear as you say), but understanding music takes much more and the only way to accomplish that is,,,make mistakes and lots of them. the more you make now, the better!:)

not deserving to be the leader? says who? ah hah, says you! well, you are wrong:)

the conductor is not looking for someone who knows everything already. he is looking for someone who tries to do the best! concern more about learning than thinking about others' or your perception of you as the leader which is a very tiring thing,,,

many great suggestions given already.

i don't think it will be hard to learn the scales that your pieces are in. it takes one time to know and remember and may be a little thinking to apply. so hit the scale books and quiz yourself. (most pieces range from couple sharps to couple flats anyway)

the other thing, sightreading, is something much tougher to master. as buri said, do it everyday yourself. grab any pieces of music and learn to quickly assess it,,,time sig, key sig, where the fingers fall,,,trust me, every musician/engineer/lawyer/doctor/pilot starts from step one and build routines from there.

others say the toughest part of a long journey is the first step. i say, fake it until you make it:):):)

October 4, 2007 at 09:52 PM · thanks everyone!

October 7, 2007 at 12:44 PM · I will approach this differently than the others--from the guy who sits (by choice) in the 2nd violins or the violas, depending on the orchestra.

What do I WANT from the concertmaster?

1. I want them to be aware of the rest of the strings. S/he should be making eye contact and watching the bowings.

2. S/he should already have the bowing figured out, but not so wed to them that suggestions are unwelcomed, especially when a bowing isn't working. You gotta know the 2nd and viola parts, too. 'Cellists are their own breed (ok, even when they are in unison (at least in rhthym, they should at least have the same notes under the bow).

3. Take seriously the tuning of the orchestra. Nothing frosts my shorts more than the concertmaster standing up to tune the orchestra (with a bored look on their face), stares at the oboe to give the A (nod, smile, wink. . . something), and then doesn't indicate which group is to tune (yes, it's the same order, but have you decided if the strings will tune in different groups or all at once).

4. My god, have the fingerings worked out. We rely on your technical abilities, and even though us prepared orchestra members will have a fingering, we might not like it, or find it technically challenging.

5. Be sensistive to the music and the conductor's taste. Strings have such great possibilities that other instruments lack. Some conductors love portamento. Where is it logical for that to be in the part? Other passages are especially apt to being played on one string.

6. Be COMMUNICATIVE. If you've made a decision, (1) consistently execute it while playing; and (2) tell US! (but ask the conductor's permission to interrupt him/her).

In the best orchestras (IMHO), you will bow all the parts ahead of time (not every player's part, just A part for each section) so that rehearsal time is used most efficiently. You will also indicate most of your musical decisions (e.g., sul string playing).

7. At all times, be gracious. You will mess up, as we all do. But if you let concert-mastering go to your head, the rest of the strings/orchestra will be less gracious. Human nature.

8. Work really hard with the other section leaders. Every once in awhile, you'll actually have to communicate with non-string players (shudder). Just think of the big violin solo at the end of II of Brahms Sym. No. 1. It's actually a violin and horn solo! Better go figure it out with him/her, the sooner the better.

9. Pay attention to the little things. Be at rehearsal good and early. None of this 10 minutes before rehearsal stuff. Have the pencil. Know the music, and listen to recordings whenever you can to help you learn "how it goes."

Concertmasters get a lot of the glory, but that glory is the result of a lot of hard work.

Obviously, this is all my opinion, but I can say that a lousy-attitude concertmaster can demoralize the whole string choir, and an incompetent one will leave us frustrated.

Good luck. It's an awesome responsibility not often explained. Because you sound so earnest, I bet by the end of the season, you will be doing very well. Keep us posted! Word gets around, and if you learn a good job here, you'll be asked again . . . and again . . . and again!

September 30, 2008 at 01:38 AM · this is really funny...but i am the concert mistress again this year. hahahha and as always, i was the worst at sightreading on the first rehearsal.

September 30, 2008 at 02:06 AM · Well, did you learn anything this past year?

September 30, 2008 at 02:40 AM · Greetings,

one thing I suppose one might learn is don`t sit in that seat and sight read- that is one of the responsibilities of the job.



September 30, 2008 at 06:28 AM · You didn't do too badly, after all!

September 30, 2008 at 01:04 PM · The first time my son was concertmaster at camp he said he had to trick his section into playing before he did so he would know how the music went! I am assuming he meant in sectionals. His sight reading is much better now, a few years later. I am told that sight reading is usually not a part of professional orchestra auditions any longer. What is really desired by orchestras are players who arrive at rehearsals absolutely prepared with all the details exactly perfect.

October 4, 2008 at 04:57 PM · Bravo, an honest person. I would find a better teacher and discuss your ambitions with him/her. Interview teachers until you find one that understands your plight, and offers a plan to help you achieve your goals. Listing your shortcomings, as you did, is admirable, but clearly points out that you should not have been given that position. That does not mean that you never will be. Identifying your limitations was a great beginning. Now do something about it.

October 4, 2008 at 08:40 PM · You got to where you are by how you play, so don't doubt your ability in playing music.

It's ok to learn stuff by ear and there is no way someone could teach a class on concermaster 101.

The best way is to learn by trial and error!

GOod luck.

October 5, 2008 at 12:31 AM · Julia:

Wow, what a lot of great advice and wisdom here. Not being a professional, not having been an orchestra member for a few decades, and not having been a concermaster since high school, I don't think I can give you the kind of great technical, musical, and professional wisdom you've gotten here.

However, there are a couple of things that I might emphasize. Two things:

1. Years ago, a good friend of the family was a famous civil-rights attorney, and he used to say to me, "The reason I was so successful in court was that I always outprepared the competition." I'm not a lawyer, but in my work I always have taken his advice to heart. Just as you "overprepare" when you practice a piece of music for performance, overprepare in everything that is within your responsibilities as a concertmistress.

2. In this role (which is, after all, a leadership role), there is no such thing as a small job. Everything is important and will reflect upon your success and everyone else's. If you can make the job easier for the conductor and for your fellow musicians, you will be successful and they will appreciate you, even if it is something as simple as having sharpened pencils ready. And not only that, but it will add to a successful musical performance.

Athletes like to talk about "leaving everything on the field." Same applies here. Don't hold back; give everything you've got. Life is too short to do otherwise, and not only in music. And when you give it everything thing you've got, you will have no regrets, no matter what happens.

Cordially, Sandy

October 5, 2008 at 12:26 AM ·

October 5, 2008 at 06:10 AM · Being a fiddler more than a violinist, I ahve never been in an orchestra, however I have worked in positions where others depend on me for an area of expertise so they can do their job.

It may be an idea to have a chat with the conductor and identify where you are coming from, and try to work something out where the questions have some advance notice; give you a chance to prepare for the answer at least some bit. You may also develop a group of resources in your section to assist.

However, this does call for some trust in the relationships, both with the conductor and teh other players. Not everyone will respond positively to this type of communication, so ponder it a bit before you implement this as a solution.

Again, I have not played in an orchestra, so only consider this if other orchestra players think his will work with the dynamics of the organization.

October 5, 2008 at 04:21 PM · Julia,

Congrats on the concertmaster position. It is a fun time, and even though there are added stresses it is worth it in the end. I have played in orchestras since the age of 13; Youth orchestras to professional orchestras. no matter what level you are at, many of these tips will still apply.

-try getting a couple of recordings of the orchestra music you're currently working on, or if you know the program of the next concert, get recordings ahead of time. and listen to them often. I also learn best by ear, and listening to recordings gives me an edge when in orchestra.

-listen to other sections

I dont just mean the other string sections, but listen to the winds, brass and percussion. if you constantly listen around, you will find someone to match with, when it comes to a certain passage or theme. It is also a good way to make sure you're in the right spot. for example if you have 25 measures of rest, you might want to write in at what point the flute solo comes in during those 25 measures. That way you can double check your spot, and come back in at the right time.

-because you are sitting in that top spot, you're gonna be asked questions about bowings, fingerings, and musicality. Try your hardest to answer them honestly and always ask your section for help if you dont understand. As far as learning the music theory, there are many websites and textbooks that you could read on your spare time, that would help you. You may even want to take a summer music theory class at a local community college?

here are just a few tips...

but most of all. HAVE FUN!!


October 6, 2008 at 02:50 AM · One computer program I found for scales is fairly simple, but it works.

November 14, 2008 at 01:58 PM ·


Well done for getting this seat. I, too, got the same seat in my weekly orchestra. At first, i was scared incase i made loads of mistakes, but i got used to it in the end. The important thing is to just relax and enjoy the music. And if your sight-reading is giving you trouble maybe you could practice at home, or ask your teacher for any help.

As of the conductor, well, i am unsure as to why he is asking you such questions. He should be asking about fingerings etc. but just answer if you can, and if you can't, well, just say you are unsure.

And if you got the seat, then you are obviously good enough for this seat. Don't doubt yourself, be confident and you'll be alright

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