Firsts versus seconds
We all know there is often (not always, but often) a status differential between the first and second violin sections in orchestras. Through the years I’ve played a wide range of repertoire as both a first and second violin, and I realized something that no one ever talks about. Namely, that although the first violins usually get the coveted melody and get to play in that oh so impressive upper range, the second violins frequently have a more difficult parts than the first violins. Indeed, I think that a person who consistently plays first violin can become complacent, and when suddenly faced with the complex rhythms, non-standard scales and arpeggios, and sudden jumps in registers that second violins often have in their “accompaniment”, the first violinist can become flustered.
Case in point, the community orchestra I’m in is rehearsing the Firebird Suite right now. After rehearsal last week I overheard one the first violinists ask “why do the seconds seem to be able to play this better than us?” At that point one of my fellow second violins bluntly said something like “We’re used to this kind of stuff, you guys are used to only playing melodies.” The statement somewhat offended the first violinist, but I think it does sum up the situation. (What made it ironic is that the second violinist was about 30 years younger than the first violinist).
When playing in school orchestras, the arrangements used usually do have a simplified second violin part compared to the first violins; however, when you play “the originals”, the situation is often reversed. And yet the perception that the first violins are better players than second violins persists. Personally, I have no problem being a second violin (I actually prefer it right now because the high shifting in the first violins can be painful for me due to my tendonitis), but I know some of the younger members of my section have a strong desire to be a first violin like it’s some kind of trophy or title promotion. I really think these kids learn more playing second for a few years than if they had immediately went to the first violins.
Sorry for the ramble, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about since I overheard that conversation last week.
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