1st or 2nd violin quartet - which would you rather??

November 30, 2010 at 09:23 PM ·

Sunday I had my first opportunity to play with a decent quartet.  It came about  rather interestingly: during a visit to the luthier that made Gravitas (yup my violin), John Newton, who also makes violas, I asked him if he had ever made a cello - turns out he had and one was actively played here in Toronto by a friend.  So we semi-joked about getting a quartet of his instruments together.  Well, the idea took root - and very fortunate for me indeed because else it would be rather unlikel that I would have ended up spending an afternoon immersed in Mozart, Haydn and a bunch of pickup pieces.  Followed by pots of tea, olive bread and a wonderful oozie goats cheese brought by our cellist.

Which is not the purpose of this topic at all (I'm just still over the moon about it) but that we two violins alternated playing first and second.  We had the main pieces for several weeks beforehand so this part was reasonably well practised - while I could listen to the music on you tube I definitely could not imagine the experience of playing the same.  Those of you used to this may find this rather ordinary - but the experience of each desk was so radically different.  I am naturally something of an out-there person and gravitate towards the solo - so I knew I was going to like playing first.  What I had not expected was the amazingly different, and equally satisfying, experience of 2nd.  With the viola to my left providing me with a lot of guidance, and mostly-solo 1st on my right I was part of this throbbing organism.  It was not what I expected - I've played 2nd in an orchestra and felt like a forgotten organ - an appendix if you like that was never noticed until it needed surgery!  In a quartet this is place of melding and almost scary power - your voice is generally not heard individually but you are the fabric.  It seemed the 2nd and viola work as a close team - in our case it was rather one-sided but my ear was definitely more aligned to John's viola than to the 1st violin.  With experience I'm sure that will change and I will hear all four instruments but thats how it was.

Oops. This has become a blog not a discussoin.  Sorry for the lenght, just SOO enthused.

So which do you prefer - 1st or 2nd, which was the original objective of this topic (if anyone is still reading that is (where is the embarassed emoticon when you need it)....


Replies (24)

November 30, 2010 at 09:31 PM ·

Playing second in a quartet is always the hardest, fitting between first and viola and cello too.

I prefer first because I can lead from there and people have to follow!! The notes are always harder, and it's totally exposed, but I always think its worth it. It really is living dangerously though.

November 30, 2010 at 10:48 PM ·

 I really don't mind what I play - both parts have their own qualities about them that shine. Without the firsts there wouldn't be the main bulk of tune... but without seconds there wouldn't be support and there wouldn't be any layering in pieces. I find both, like you, very appealing and satisfying. 

There always seems to be this thing of 'If you're more advanced then you're in the firsts' but that's not really true. Because I'm in equal run with a boy as the most advanced string player in my school, I'm straight into the firsts. It can be exposing, but so can the seconds.

If it is small ensembles or duets, I tend to gravitate towards the second part. I love to have lower notes (generally speaking) to bring out a new rich tone to support those higher parts. However, I've been placed in the firsts for years now, only moving to the seconds if they have no support.

However, I've also had that more negative experience of feeling like a spare part not really doing much and not being noticed until I do something wrong before now. As I say, the thought of 'the more advanced players are in the firsts' came into it and as soon as I 'moved up' to the firsts, I was instantly recognised as being a top player (especially as I moved further forward stand-wise). This just isn't true at all though. I find the second part just as (if not more) fun than the first!

Naturally, I'm a soprano when I sing and I have a very wide range of notes (ranging from middle A to around top D), and although I've been a soprano throughout my singing, in one of my choirs I am an alto. Having that part is really quite fun as it gives me some contrast to my singing. Holding new lines and making sure rhythms are correct right in the middle is a big responsibility and to be honest, I love it, even if I struggle to reach some of the notes!!) 

Anyway, I'll stop with my essay now! Basically my answer is I like both for different reasons. They both provide me with contrast in my playing and having experiences of both is more beneficial to my playing than just being in one part. 

November 30, 2010 at 11:31 PM ·

Well Elise, it sounds as though you've caught what I have. I'm sorry to tell you that there is no cure and it's all consuming... and I wouldn't have it any other way.

 I'm trying to squeeze in a round of bare-essentials practicing before I head out to play 4tets this evening, but I'll post again tomorrow.

November 30, 2010 at 11:31 PM ·

Given my druthers, I'll usually take viola in chamber music.  First tends to be more of a highwire act than I want, especially when just playing for fun.  Second is enjoyable for a lot of the reasons you mention, Elise, and viola is kind of even more so.  The viola keeps shifting allegiance between the cello and the violins, and often gets some pretty cool little solos.  When you look at the number of composers who played viola- Mozart, Mendelssohn, Beethoven for starters- they tended to make sure "their" part was fun to play.

December 1, 2010 at 12:15 AM ·

I love playing both parts -- no, not at the same time -- but each part for different reasons.

2nd gets more low notes; and -- speaking of viola -- I love to exploit the viola tones in the contralto register of my 1883 German instrument.

On the other hand, the leading man is definitely part of my personality.  I have always found 1st to be easier in most regards.  I don't mind the high exposure -- as long as I know the material well -- because I have the high notes and high positions under control and know how to project a clear melodic line in the top register.

I have a natural gravitation to melody, and 1st is a leading voice.  I'm more likely to play on my 1921 French instrument when I'm playing 1st.

December 1, 2010 at 01:29 AM ·

Christina: where in Quebec are you (do write) I should be in Montreal in Feb, I don't suppose you are anywhere near there?  :) Perhaps something easy... :) :)

December 1, 2010 at 01:49 AM ·

I prefer to play the viola part.  But if I *had* to play violin, it would be 2nd.  I really enjoy playing one of the two "inner voices".

December 1, 2010 at 02:49 AM ·

I don't think I am yet ready to play violin in a quartet, but I do play cello, and that's most satisfying, especially the feeling that I'm somehow holding up the whole edifice, and when I'm interacting with one or more of the upper voices. 

December 1, 2010 at 09:46 AM ·

I found it hardest to follow the cello while playing in the quartet - it sort of came in and went out of my head.  At first I think I only heard the 2nd while at 2nd I mostly heard the 1st and viola.   I attribute that to a combination of lack of experience and physical location - at 2nd I was diagonal to the cello.  Perhaps the music we played and my familiarity with it was also a factor - hopefully next time (and yes, I just heard there WILL be a next time :) ) I will know the music better and my 'ear' will follow all the instruments....

December 1, 2010 at 05:35 PM ·

     There are plenty of pieces where the second violin part is much less interesting and/or challenging than the first... meanwhile in amateur music circles, it can often happen that one violinist is stronger than the other.  It depends on the piece & the level of play of the other violinist but generally speaking, I enjoy playing either part so long as the person playing first is strong enough to do a good job of it. I should mention that most of my groups don’t decide what to play ahead of time, but most of us have pretty good familiarity with a good chunk of the repertoire. 

     In groups where things aren’t going well & I’m not the weak link in the group , I use it as an opportunity to work on playing to the best of my abilities under less-than-ideal circumstances (sometimes a challenge for me as I tend to  listen to what's going on around me quite a bit), as well as trying to be mindful of doing the technique corrections I‘ve been working on in lessons & that’s time well spent, IMO.

As to how to decide who should play what part, that can be tricky. I’ve had all of the following in groups:
1-the other violinist insists on switching off and is not strong enough to do a good job of first violin.
2-the other violinist usually insists on playing second, but is strong enough to handle first violin just fine
3-the other violinist insists on playing second & is not strong enough to do a good job of first.
4- the other violinist would like to insist on playing first, but concedes to switch off as they are not a stronger player, and when they're playing first, they insist on pieces they know & probably worked on beforehand.
..... this can often require some serious diplomatic skills and will unfortunately probably lead to some tongue-biting (often associated with severe kvetching afterwards!).

ps- yes, I'll write

December 2, 2010 at 02:25 AM ·

Christina, have you not been held hostage to the dreaded #5, where the other violinist demands to play first and only first, while having no business doing so?

December 2, 2010 at 03:28 AM ·

After reading the above I think the secret is to never be the other violinist!!

Phew.  I'll just insist on playing first, that we only play pieces I have secretly worked on, when I know I'm not as good as the other violinist AND I'll keep putting in advice to him/her at every rest.

There, thank goodness I'm not the other violinist...

December 2, 2010 at 03:27 PM ·

Elise - what pieces did you end up choosing to play?

I have very little quartet experience so far, but FWIW in our little ensemble I often find the 2nd violin part more challenging. Not to say that playing first is easy for me. I think it is because I've spent so much more time playing solo/melody.

December 2, 2010 at 06:31 PM ·

Mozart K157 was mine - very accessible and no high position work but still some interesting and challenging rhytms and fingering.   It kinda teases you, its tempting to start too fast - and then pay for it later :)

But several of the Mozarts from this ear are terrific starting quartet music - we've tried four in all and all were musical and fun.

December 2, 2010 at 08:59 PM ·

"Christina, have you not been held hostage to the dreaded #5, where the other violinist demands to play first and only first, while having no business doing so?"

 Not to my recollection.  Someone like that wouldn't last long in chamber music circles, they'd stop getting invited & run out of people to play with. That's the beauty of chamber music- it's sort of a self-governing body.... you have to behave yourself if you want to keep doing it!

December 2, 2010 at 08:59 PM ·

In my quartet, by a democratic unanimous decision we have chosen not to play any of the Bartok :)  – returning with a sigh of relief to Haydn's Op 20 No 4, the "Rose of Venice".

December 2, 2010 at 09:34 PM ·

...second Brahms piano quartet :) No, wait, first! No third...

January 25, 2011 at 08:54 AM ·

We had our second quartet meeting - played for over 3 hrs, but who would have known?  Ron did an excellent job playing 1st in a Haydn (oops, can't remember the number) with me on 2nd. Didn't realize we were playing this again so it was mostly sight reading - but fortunately 2nd was not too difficult.  Then I managed to get through the entire Mozart Hunt quartet playing 1st!  It wasn't pretty for sure, but not too many stops and surely thats one of the best slow movements ever.  What an amazing thrill!  Perhaps next time we'll go for more integration and not just survival!

Which is better?  I think my personality definitely goes to 1st but its a bit lonely out there and a wonderful sense of belonging at 2nd.  I think I'm deciding its both!  Also had a feel of John's viola - I think thats an instrument I'd like to play alone.  Broody, expressive, thoughtful... one day.... and with my reach I could manage a large one with lots of resonance...

January 25, 2011 at 09:12 AM ·

When playing first fiddle, as in a new quartet the other day, I do offer the second fiddle a chance to play first after the first quartet. On this occasion he declined, saying he was happy and enjoying playing second, but I do know he plays first sometimes, as we play alternative weeks.

Yes, we did the Hunt quartet too, and I did know it quite well, but i had forgotten that it was not quite as easy as I remembered! So I felt I needed a bit of humble pie after that. I also took the last movement a bit too fast, as its an easy first violin part there, and this meant we were all living dangerously. But that's life, innit!!

January 25, 2011 at 04:11 PM ·

the 'Hunt' must be in the air,  I played it this past weekend. I was on 2nd for this one after doing first for a Haydn that I'm less familiar with (74/1) & I put myself in a bit of a hole with the tempo of the first mvmt... my tendency to rush when the going gets tough didn't help, either . I've got another gang tonight & I'll definitely be on first the whole evening... my goal is to not make things harder than they need to be! 

January 25, 2011 at 05:01 PM · Hi Elise, This is a topic of my interests regarding teamwork among violinists(http://www.violinist.com/discussion/response.cfm?ID=19188). This thread and its responses address my curiosity on 1st and 2nd violins. I would like to refer to some points of this thread and responses in my story on teamwork. I hope to be permitted to do so and I will certainly refer the points in the reference. From the teamwork point of view, the capability and willingness to play more roles make a better teammate. To understand a role, it is better able to play this role or it's supporting role. Thanks. Wei

January 25, 2011 at 10:56 PM ·

I'm into playing 2nd. I just love it! I have no desire to take the solo lead and just love being part of that organism, as you put it! I'm a team player.

January 25, 2011 at 11:19 PM ·

Lisa - can I play with you :D ;)

Wei: I actually read almost all of the topic you linked to - and found it as interesting as obviously you did.  However, I am not at a point where I can really comment.  My experience of team work as a violinist (this time round and I'm sure you don't want to hear about my 12 yr old ones) are limited to two quartet sessions - we've barely said hello let alone explored the ins and outs of teamwork :D

Still, I learned a lot - and teamwork is surely the very core of small ensemble playing.  I just have to learn some more...

January 26, 2011 at 12:07 AM ·

When I'm not playing viola in quartet (which is almost never, viola is just too fun) I would prefer the first violin part.

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