Middle School Orchestra, Concert Master “Graduation Gift” Switch

May 25, 2016 at 06:30 PM · My daughter has been playing violin since she was 4 years old. She is now in the 7th grade and plays in her middle school orchestra.

When she was in sixth grade, she was placed in the 7/8th grade orchestra, since most students began in the sixth grade orchestra without any previous string instruction. Although even then she was the strongest player (she had played many more years than everyone else, and her greater skill was confirmed by the results of the county honors orchestra auditions), the teacher made an 8th grader concert master, and my daughter always played in the third chair, first violin. She had previous ensemble work, and I thought she should have been concert master, but I never said anything.

This year, from the first day of the year, she has played first chair, first violin, placed there by the teacher. There is another class section of the 7/8th grade orchestra, and the girl who plays first chair there is not as strong a player as my daughter, and by a much greater deficit than last year between my daughter and the concert master, again confirmed by the results of the county honors orchestra auditions. In the first three concerts of the year (1 evening performance, 1 in-school performance for 5th graders, 1 adjudicated performance at an amusement park), my daughter was concert master.

One week before the final concert of the year, the teacher (not a string player herself) asked my daughter and her standmate, another 7th grader, who also started playing at a young age, but not as early as my daughter, and is not as advanced a player now but still more advanced than everyone else, whether they would mind letting two 8th graders play first and second chair. The reason given was that it was their last concert at the school. My daughter and her friend said that it was fine with them. The other girl thought it was a nice thing to do. My daughter felt that it would be mean not to do it.

I was upset. As a parent who has overseen a child’s instrument learning for 8 years, it is, admittedly, a small pleasure and source of pride to see her play as concert master in the middle school orchestra concert, as it is for her, a small external recognition for years of dedication and effort and mostly internal motivation. I have always understood that concert master is an earned position, and believe that giving it to a “graduating” student (and substantially weaker player) for the final concert of the year devalues the position and shames the stronger student.

From reading other discussions in this forum and from talking to violin teachers, I understand that seating assignments can be rotated, especially when skill levels are relatively close, and that strong players can be strategically placed to help weaker players, but in the entire two years that my daughter has been in this orchestra, the teacher has never done that. Sometimes she moves kids around, but not systematically through a formal rotation, and my daughter has never been moved around the orchestra for any reason, not even to shore up a weak section. Each year, she has sat in the same position all year long.

Other teachers have suggested that there might have been pressure from the other girl’s parents (since it was twice suggested, I can only assume this is a common occurrence). My first thought was that it was just dopey or inane. I can imagine having the 8th graders stand for a special round of applause, or giving them a special part in one of the pieces, or letting them wear something special, an accessory or something like that. But making one concert master? What about all of the other 8th graders? I have also thought it might come out of an all too typical resentment felt toward high achieving kids.

The teacher claimed in an email to me that every student has changed seats, which simply is not true. A lie like that raises a big red flag for me and makes me think she is covering her you-know-what. Why would she have asked my daughter in the first place, if she did not also view concert master as an earned position and that she had earned it? That would also seem to indicate the teacher herself knew she was doing something that she should not do. Succumbing to parental pressure would then seem more and more likely.

Is my perspective completely wrong? Is the concert master not one universally assigned by ability? Are “graduating” students often made concert master as a “graduation gift”?

Replies (63)

May 25, 2016 at 10:43 PM · Positions in orchestra and other areas of music which involve placement within a group of some sort, whether professional or beginner-level, more often than not, are contaminated in some way with asinine politics, just like every other profession. Much of the time, it is difficult to guess the exact form of bias in these situations, as people tend to express it ever more indirectly, because political correctness is consider more acceptable, even if the bias is far from eliminated. Luckily for you, blatant ageism is still quite acceptable on this planet at this time, and you know exactly what you are dealing with. I would suggest talking it over with your daughter, and reaching a consensus about a plan of action. It appears that the teacher is quite evasive.

If that action ends up being nothing, which it very well may be, because that seems to be how your daughter feels, then that is her choice. Otherwise, I would either suggest gathering other families and fashioning a joint complaint to whoever runs the program, bringing up the idea of a boycott with as many students involved as possible, or finding alternative programs that might do less of this type of discrimination ( that may or may not exist where you live ). It would also be a good time to start discussing ( perhaps with assistance from the teacher) how to deal with politics in the music world in general, since some degree of bias is human nature, and people don't seem to enthusiastic about dealing with true elimination of discrimination, beyond, perhaps screening pro orchestra auditions. I wish you the best of luck.

May 26, 2016 at 01:42 PM · I think you're making a mountain out of a molehill. It's pretty common for school orchestras to acknowledge age or numbers of years in / dedication to the school program when assigning seatings. At this level frankly who is concertmaster isn't really that important. Even in professional orchestras, the concertmaster or section principal is not necessarily the strongest player - it depends on when their position was open, and sometimes you have stronger players who don't want a leadership role. I'm sure everyone recognizes your daughter's playing level, and she was already concertmaster for three concerts this year. Let another kid have their turn in the sun.

May 26, 2016 at 02:08 PM · Take a deep breath, you are about to enter, The Stage Mom zone!

Your daughter is obviously an accomplished violinist. And the fact that she has graciously agreed to vacate her seat should allow you to breath a sigh of relief that your daughter has not yet been turned into a selfish "it's all about ME" pain in the neck that are all to stereotypical in the world of violin.

After the 8th graders leave, the 1st chair will return to her domain.

May 26, 2016 at 02:42 PM · Of course it is common for those in leadership positions not to necessarily be the strongest. That is the nature of politics. Ideally, in my opinion, more orchestras would rotate the leaders on a consistent basis. Would you find the situation just as acceptable if the teacher instead insisted on two males for the first stand, or two people of of a certain ethnicity?

May 26, 2016 at 02:53 PM · I'm all for being fair. And I understand how irritating it is to see someone else's child being put up before yours, if you feel yours should place ahead. I've been there.

But this is still Jr. High School. Let it go and don't overthink it. Twenty years from now (or ten, or five...) no one will even remember...

May 26, 2016 at 10:15 PM · One must decide which battles are important to them to fight. If you think fighting discrimination in middle school orchestra is not worth your time, then so be it. But professionalism is not synonymous with not standing up for yourself. Professionalism includes challenging the powers at be and self-advocating for your rights and/or needs in the most diplomatic and peaceful way possible, when you feel it to be necessary. One does have to acknowledge that some risk may be involved, and weigh the potential benefits and consequences. If no one bothers to speak up at anytime, then things stagnate, and injustice prevails at all levels. Just ask any civil-rights leader.

May 26, 2016 at 11:47 PM · This is a middle school orchestra, for pete's sake, and the OP's daughter has been recognized by larger programs. I guarantee everyone knows who the best player is, but I also think it's nice to give 8th graders a moment in the sun in a noncompetitive MIDDLE SCHOOL orchestra. If this were going on in a district or regional honors orchestra, I think the OP would have a stronger case. As it is, I think the OP should take a lot of pride in having raised a daughter who is obviously gracious and considerate.

I never sat first chair in my junior high orchestra (transferred schools in 9th grade), because of seniority, although everyone knew I was by far the best player. So what? It didn't hurt either my ego or my career any, and it never would have occurred to my parents to raise a stink.

May 27, 2016 at 12:08 AM · It's insulting to people who have actually faced real discrimination because of gender, race, and able-ness to claim that this silly battle over chair placement in a middle school orchestra is somehow "discrimination."

May 27, 2016 at 01:01 AM · Gene, in case you were wondering, I have actually experienced discrimination in the first two categories, in addition to the under- acknowledged category of age discrimination, and can say it all feels the same. Here is the dictionary definition from Meriam Webster:


a : the act of discriminating

b : the process by which two stimuli differing in some aspect are responded to differently


: the quality or power of finely distinguishing


a : the act, practice, or an instance of discriminating categorically rather than individually

b : prejudiced or prejudicial outlook, action, or treatment

The third usage fits the situation quite well, even though the stakes involved aren't particularly high.

May 27, 2016 at 01:59 AM · First, music is subjective. That likely isn't the cause in the situation that you described, but it is worth reminding ourselves about.

Second, I'll share a bit of my personal experience that is somewhat similar. When I was a lower classman in high school, I was arguably the strongest and most advanced player. Our concertmistress was a graduating senior, and I sat second chair. Our director, very clearly and nicely told me during my seating audition that this was my opportunity to learn how to lead from the inside. That it was an opportunity to learn things beyond playing technique. She reminded me that I had the rest of high school ahead of me. If a superstar freshmen came up my senior year, she wouldn't take away my final time to shine. Likewise, she wasn't going to do that to the our current concertmistress. She kindly asked that I respect that. It was my turn to learn how to help others shine.

Sure, I was upset at first. But it's turned out to be a most valuable life lesson. There are some orchestras where the competition and placement matters. I got plenty of that from the youth and community orchestras.

Note, this shouldn't be mistaken that I don't stand up for what I've rightfully earned in any aspect of my life. It means I learned that if I gracefully support others when it's their time, then my time will shine brighter. In almost any situation, it's rarely advisable to switch stands around at the last minute. That really should have been addressed far sooner.

PS Our concertmistress when I sat second chair came back from college 3 years later to watch my final concert as concertmistress.

May 27, 2016 at 02:01 AM · A school orchestra recognizes, and *should* recognize, other values in addition to playing skill. It is very normal for any organization to recognize its senior members, not only its most talented. The 8th grader recognized has probably shown leadership, dedication, and loyalty in that orchestra--remember, leadership involves more characteristics than playing skill. It is absolutely, totally, and completely valid for the director to make this call, especially since he/she has recognized the skilled players throughout the year, and *especially* after taking the step of honoring the skilled players by making sure they were OK with it first.

Honestly all this discrimination talk is absurd in this situation. Not that discrimination couldn't occur: it does show up, even in middle school orchestras, and i agree that should be addressed. But all the facts given here point to a pattern of the director giving honor where honor is due.

May 27, 2016 at 02:16 AM · Instead of elaborating on my previous post, I'll just say that I agree 100% with Gene, Stephanie, and Kathryn.

May 27, 2016 at 02:31 AM · Mary Ellen's got it right.

I got my first concertmaster position as a 10-year-old -- in a youth symphony lower-division orchestra consisting mostly of junior high students. I played principal 2nd or concertmaster in an orchestra for every year through the end of high school; I became concertmaster of my high school orchestra and the district's orchestra at 14. I played well, but I was also mature for my age. And yes, I displaced older students for those positions. But I was also expected to genuinely lead and these orchestras were competitively auditioned, with the principals chosen not just for their playing ability but for their ability to work with the other principals and the rest of the section (even as a 10-year-old, for instance, I was expected to collaborate on bowings).

In orchestras that I played in where I was not a section-principal and which were not competitively seated, there were often students in front of me seated by virtue of seniority. The expectation is that even if you're better, in those situations you're going to be gracious. If you're a lot better, everyone knows it, regardless of where you sit, even if it's last chair of the section. The obsession with ranking isn't healthy in music, anyway.

My guess is that in a noncompetitive middle-school orchestra, there's likely not a lot of expectations resting on the concertmaster. The role is more ceremonial, and saying, hey, let the 8th-graders enjoy it for their last concert is perfectly reasonable. Your daughter is gracious for saying yes, and knowing that it really doesn't matter much. Frankly, if different leadership really did matter, the teacher would not be switching up the seating.

As your daughter grows older, and either plays in community orchestras or in professional orchestras, seating will normally be non-competitive save for titled chairs (like principal positions), and those positions will come with specific responsibilities. It's best that she not obsess over these kinds of markers of who is "better" in an orchestral context. I know that can be hard because youth orchestras often follow the unfortunate practice of seating front-to-back best-to-worst (which is the worst possible thing for section sound and cohesion), and parents like their little moment of bragging rights of My Kid Is Better Than Your Kid.

But let's be honest: This really sounds like it's about you and your pride and need to show off, and not about your daughter's feelings. Let it go.

May 27, 2016 at 02:48 AM · Listen, I honestly don't think it is that big of a deal. It's happened to me before. At our biggest concert of the year due to being older, an 8th grader was concertmaster instead of me, even though everybody darn well knew I was a better overall player. I respected that though, next year it'd be my time to shine as an 8th grader, and for all the other concerts I was concert master. Let the 8th graders shine, it's the last concert. Your daughter will have plenty of opportunities to shine later. Concertmaster, especially in a middle school orchestra, isn't some end all be all "this person is the best player ever" position. Sure, it's nice to have, but not necessary. All that matters is that your daughter feels good about how she is playing. And who knows, there could be other reasons the 8th graders are up there. They could be amazing leaders who have worked extremely hard to get where they are. Chair rankings won't always be what you think they should, so don't get caught up in it. Overall, this seating thing isn't a big deal. Let the 8th graders have their moment, and if your daughter is bothered talk to her about it. However if she is fine with it, just let it happen. It's not a big deal.

May 27, 2016 at 06:27 AM · I don't think you can fully isolate mechanics from "musicality" and "leadership". When this is attempted, one will later have trouble multi-tasking and putting everything together for the full package. Think about all of the robot players these days. Both front-to-back-best-to-worst seating and seniority seating have the potential to pose the cohesion issues mentioned and are an excuse for the judges/teachers to turn their brains on autopilot. I would say that the seniority seating is less likely to give an exact best-to-worst ranking, spreading around some stronger players, being potentially the lesser of two evils from a sound standpoint depending on the luck of the draw, but there are still even less inflammatory, more analytical ways to think about seating which require a little more brain usage than some are willing to put forth.

May 27, 2016 at 11:08 AM ·

May 27, 2016 at 11:42 AM · Sometimes the child can be more mature than the parent..........

May 27, 2016 at 04:36 PM · As someone who was forced to play violin from a young age until I was finally allowed to quit, I am of the belief that the farther kids are along their musical path, the more the parents need to step back and let the kid lead. This means not trying to manage political stuff and letting the kid come to you for support when they need it, but otherwise not interfering. A child that doesn't eventually take full ownership of their music-making is not going to stick it out.

You should think about why your daughter is in the orchestra - If it's for friends and camaraderie, then this may be part of learning how to get along. If it's about the music and pushing herself, then she may want to consider auditioning for a better orchestra. Personally, I would find being in a middle-school orchestra to generally be a waste of time from a music-making standpoint - The quality of the instruction is probably not going to be the highest, except possibly in cases of fine-arts schools. But then again, it's not about why I would be there.

May 27, 2016 at 05:49 PM · The thing is, there are other options (hopefully), besides school orchestra where the level is higher. I would be surprised if there was no local youth orchestra, or if the school orchestra program were absolutely mandatory.

May 27, 2016 at 05:52 PM · But, it should be up to her, what happens with this situation ( it seems she's made up her mind ) , and how she would like to pursue violin.

May 27, 2016 at 06:00 PM · Just as a general point of interest, every youth orchestra that I'm aware of has as part of its rules a requirement that the students also be enrolled in their school music program if one exists. Youth orchestras are intended to be non-predatory and mutually supportive with regard to the public school orchestras and bands.

This is also for the very practical reason that youth orchestras need the support of the local band and orchestra directors in order to attract large enough numbers of students to survive. An orchestra director who loses his best students to the youth orchestra is an orchestra director who will badmouth the youth orchestra far and wide in the future.

May 27, 2016 at 06:31 PM · There is one statement in the original post that pretty much obviates the rest:

"My daughter and her friend said that it was fine with them. The other girl thought it was a nice thing to do. My daughter felt that it would be mean not to do it."

Sounds like they were brought up properly. There is much more pride to take in their graciousness than there is in seeing them playing first stand. Especially at that age.

My daughter plays in a small chamber orchestra associated with the private music school in which she is enrolled as a violin student. There are always two concertmasters listed on the program. One is the strongest violinist, regardless of age (as long as they're old enough to have some leadership capacity), and the other is the strongest senior. Typically they play two pieces in the spring concert, and each CM gets to sit first chair for one of the pieces. Everybody's completely fine with it.

May 27, 2016 at 06:33 PM · Mary Ellen, there are two sides to that rule. The dark side is that school orchestra takes up a class period that could be used to explore something else like visual art. Being compelled to sit in school orchestra for all four years of high school, even though you're way more advanced than the other students who are there, is kind of a stiff price to pay just so that the youth orchestra director can have good politics with the school orchestra director. Sometimes a violin student will take the opportunity to learn and play viola or bass, but they can't all do that.

May 27, 2016 at 07:06 PM · I would also say, that I have never heard of a youth orchestra requiring that the student be in the school orchestra. That also wouldn't be fair to homeschooled students or students without a school music program. It also becomes very frustrating to feel as if you are wasting so much time, especially if one has lots of outside musical commitments.

May 27, 2016 at 07:26 PM · I think there is a lot of room to be too advanced for a school orchestra where no one takes lessons. I wouldn't recommend it to, say, someone attending Julliard pre-college.

May 27, 2016 at 07:58 PM · Homeschool students and those who attend a private school with no music program are obviously not required to be in a school music program in order to participate in the local youth orchestra. As I said in my previous post, the rule applies to those students who attend a school with a music program. I thought that was clear.

I don't necessarily agree that advanced and ambitious students are held back by being required to be in a school orchestra. I spent six years in school orchestras (grades 7 - 12) in which I was by far the best violinist, every single year. Did we play music that challenged me, not really. Did I learn a lot about ensemble playing and leadership, most definitely. Did I enjoy and appreciate the opportunities to shine in solos? Absolutely. My high school teacher also had me lead the violin sectionals, which was where I first realized that I enjoyed teaching and I was good at it.

As an obvious side benefit, school orchestras tend to have the nicest kids in the school, and my best high school friends were in orchestra. Incidentally, it isn't just youth orchestras that require kids to participate in their school music program *if one exists* (perhaps that needs to be repeated, *IF ONE EXISTS*)--All-State orchestras do too for the simple and obvious reason that they are run by the state organization of school music teachers (Texas Music Educators Association where I am).

I don't consider my time in public school junior high/high school orchestras to have been in any way a waste of time and I would never recommend that a private student drop orchestra.

May 27, 2016 at 09:13 PM · "And Mary, the "rule" you spoke of seemed to b your invention, so how was it "clear"."

From my first post referencing youth orchestras:

"Just as a general point of interest, every youth orchestra that I'm aware of has as part of its rules a requirement that the students also be enrolled in their school music program if one exists."

I didn't realize that "if one exists" was ambiguous.

May 27, 2016 at 10:38 PM · The rule that Mary Ellen speaks of was also true in my experience as a kid, but I think the local youth symphonies near me now no longer have that requirement, so this might have started to fade a bit as kids get super-overscheduled.

May 28, 2016 at 12:52 AM · OP, I think it's best to pick battles that will benefit your daughter in the long run. I don't see an upside for your daughter in fighting this one.

I do know it's irksome to work harder to earn something and feel unrecognized. When I was in eighth grade I was in a ninth grade math class because I studied diligently. At the end of the year the teacher decided to recognize a boy in front of the parents because he "needed" it more (whatever for I still don't know) and also since I was a girl, he might be embarrassed that I had consistently outscored him. I was angry because I had worked hard, and I thought that if someone was going to be embarrassed at not being the best then he should have worked hard enough to be the best the way I had. But looking back, I realize that in the larger scheme of things my achievements or recognition in junior high are insignificant.

I'm not saying to avoid being assertive every time -- just that you may as well do so when you know it will benefit your daughter -- in the long term.

May 28, 2016 at 07:08 AM · The "unspoken rule" is supposedly that you are never supposed to complain about your chair in school orchestra unless you want to risk falling politically out of favor in the music world.

May 28, 2016 at 10:16 AM · I am the original poster. Thank you for all of these very thoughtful responses.

When I wrote my original post, what was bothering me most was the suspicion that the switch was made because of another parent interfering and pressuring the teacher. That still bothers me, and if my suspicions were ever confirmed, I would at that point file some sort of complaint. I am actually not much of a stage mom. My daughter is talented in multiple areas and well-liked by her peers and by her teachers, so when recognition of that talent is appropriate, she is rarely overlooked. She doesn’t need any help from me. But being hands off assumes that the teacher does the right thing. If I cannot trust that the teacher has good judgment and strength of character, then I do not know what to do.

I will mind what many of you have written, that it is a good thing that my daughter did not mind the switch. I was, in truth, a little concerned that she did not mind. She attends a school now that in its academic subjects is loath to offer any sort of differentiation, so high achieving students are not exactly nurtured in their abilities, which I feel sends the message that having high abilities is not something they should set any great store by. They quickly learn not to stand out.

From reading all of the responses, it seems to me that even if there were no parental interference, the teacher should have been both more intentional and more consistent in her seating arrangement. If the most important principle is for students to learn about playing different parts and sitting in different areas, then why exempt the strongest students from seat changes? If the most important principle is optimizing the sound of the orchestra as a whole, then why not experiment with different seating arrangements? If seniority is most important, then do not make my daughter concert master until her 8th grade year, and make it clear that this is a value of the orchestra. It would seem that the principles of a seating arrangement should be fair, transparent, and consistently applied, so that there is no appearance of corruption.

For those of you unfamiliar with the mediocrity of teachers in most American public schools, it is very hard not to say anything, as a parent. We are at a well-reputed magnet, but if you pay attention and look closely, you see teachers without appropriate training (language immersion teachers without any training in second-language acquisition, an orchestra teacher who herself has terrible technique) and teaching without any apparent knowledge of best practices. Unfortunately, there is a real accountability issue, and I think parents may be the only effective means of accountability.

May 28, 2016 at 11:56 AM · Hi Kirsten,

There is a great deal of negativity in your thinking and it does not serve you or your daughter. You obviously care deeply about her, but the more important lessons here are humility, teamwork, and respect. If you are speaking to her like your posts in this thread, I can't help but suspect that your "thinking" is undermining the opportunity for these important life lessons.

I also think it is counterproductive to question the ability of the teachers. In school, they are the authority figures and should be given respect whether you agree with them or not. Just as the teachers should respect your decisions at home, you should respect their decisions in the school.

I don't mean to come across as harsh, but this is a real learning opportunity for you. Learn to be more hands off. Your daughter is a young woman of character. She can fight her own battles. Don't deprive her of that opportunity. She will only be home for a few more years. Now is the time to let her find her own way.

May 28, 2016 at 02:04 PM · I do not want to be defensive, and most of the comments are respectful, but I would ask that you refrain from judging me as a parent. Anyone who knows my daughter and can see the fruits of my parenting efforts would never dare judge me. But in truth, we should not judge any parent who cares and makes an effort to the best of his or her ability.

I posted here because I was not sure of my initial understanding and assessment. I have limited experience in music, having only played viola from late elementary through junior high school.

I remind my daughter to practice, coordinate her lessons, deal with the instrument when we need to move to the next size, and drive her wherever she needs to go. When she started at a very young age, I, just as every Suzuki parent, was a necessary part of the learning. But by book 2, I was more or less out of the picture.

But I am myself a teacher, at a different level and in an allied, but very different field of knowledge. I know the standards to which I hold myself.

And my profession is one of deep analysis and critique. Please do not interpret what I write as negative. I critique in the ultimate belief that something can be improved, that it can and should be better, which is a pragmatic optimism.

But for anyone who does not have experience with American public schools (and I think this forum is quite international, from what I can tell), unquestioning deference to a teacher’s authority is foolish. Children often think (especially in math) that they are not good in a subject, when it is the teacher who teaches it poorly. Or children may think that a subject is dull, when, again, it is the teaching of the subject that is lacking. An inquisitive or eager child may be threatening to a teacher who has weak content knowledge or skill development, and the teacher may show resentment toward that student, which the student interprets as the teacher not liking the student. The teaching profession in the United States does not attract the strongest candidates, and they receive a highly problematic training, sadly devoid of deep content knowledge. Teachers can do a lot of damage, and if I see poor teaching, I make sure that my daughter understands the dynamic at work. I do also explain to her the respect she needs to show to even the worst of teachers. But she needs to know when the teacher is the problem and not her. And she also, perhaps more importantly, needs to appreciate when she has a good teacher, because they are true blessings.

I am generally anti-authoritarian in life, which may be an outlook that does not fit well in the music world. Again, that is why I posted here!

May 28, 2016 at 02:38 PM · Hi Kirsten,

My apologies if you were offended by my comments. I made them in the hope that I might make a difference with you. In no way was I judging you as a parent. I was only offering a point of view, not necessarily the right point of view, but one that is certainly different from yours.

I have met quite a few teachers, some as friends who had nothing to do with my child. In many cases, teachers really have the best intentions. I'm not saying they are great teachers, but they might be operating in the best interest of the kids to the best of their ability. Why not see the best in people?

May 28, 2016 at 02:39 PM · To me, it sure sounds like you have an opinion of this teacher (and teachers in general) already and nothing is going to change that. If so, so be it, but I have to tell you that you are making a big deal out of nothing.

Anyone who tells you that your child will be forever scarred by not being first chair in a middle school orchestra is either horribly misinformed or has never been a part of the American public school system.

There has already been more discussion on this subject than it is worth. First, the children know the score. They know who should be leading the section. Second, it is completely normal for upperclassmen to be given an opportunity to lead, especially for their final concert. I was concertmaster of my high school orchestra for only my final two years even though I easily could have been for four. It meant nothing, especially since I was involved in several other groups outside of school.

At the risk of offending you, you seem to be micro managing this situation and turning into a stage mom. String seating isn't something that is important at this stage, but complaining about can be detrimental at any level. Players who complain about it are divas (your daughter seems to be very mature in this situation) and parents who complain about it are stage moms. It's no different than parents complaining that their kids aren't getting enough playing time on the soccer field. Coaches don't want to hear it and teachers don't either.

Let this go worry about things that are actually important.

May 28, 2016 at 03:43 PM · I think it is possible but unlikely that this entire scenario was instigated by another parent. I think it is more likely that the orchestra director is sensitive to older students who have been loyal to the program which they are about to leave. I also think that from the OP's perspective, the less time spent speculating about motives, the better. What does it change?

I'm very impressed with the OP's daughter. Violinists are not in general known for that sort of graciousness.

Incidentally I take issue with the blanket slamming of the U.S. public school teachers ("the mediocrity of the teachers in most public schools"). My husband taught for a couple of decades; my sister retired after a 40-year career, my brother is still teaching--all in the public schools and none in music--and I have known a lot of excellent dedicated teachers in addition to my family members. My two oldest graduated from our "mediocre" (based on meaningless test scores) neighborhood high school which is 69% low-income and 85% minority (we are neither), one a Merit Scholar and the other just missing it, both with enough AP credits to choke a horse and both now acing difficult college programs. The teachers they had in their urban public schools were almost uniformly excellent as were their middle school and elementary teachers, all at schools that were majority-minority and most of which were low income.

I either know personally or know by reputation most of the orchestra directors in my city. They are dedicated professionals who run their programs in an effort to reach and inspire all students, not just the stars. Not all, perhaps even not many, of the orchestra directors are technical wizards on their instruments but an amazing number of them go to a lot of trouble and expense to bring in people like me to supplement their programs.

In general I think it is better to assume the best of people until proven otherwise rather than to assume the worst and go from there.

May 28, 2016 at 05:15 PM · Everything else aside, respect for authority is not synonymous with obedience of authority. I think we sometimes even forget that authority figures belong to the same species.

May 28, 2016 at 05:41 PM · One of the great lessons of public school is how to deal with diversity among one's authority figures, which might be diversity in motivation, in preparation, and in personality, among other things, and still remain productive and positive. It's not always an easy lesson, but it sure is an important one.

I thought Smiley's comments were characteristically intelligent, sensitive, respectful, and articulate.

Teachers hear complaints and praise (in a 90:10 ratio at best) from parents all the time. They act on some, not on others. That's called professional judgement. So, even if some other parent pestered the teacher about this issue, it was still the teacher's call.

May 28, 2016 at 10:48 PM · I would say, by the way, that the music-education profession attracts a pretty dedicated core of people. It is actually a pretty good, steady job for a musician, and it attracts people who love music, enjoy kids, and enjoy teaching; it's not a "second choice" but genuinely what they want to do with their lives. Many people who go into music education aren't virtuosos on their primary instrument, but they're also expected to be able to play basically any instrument in the orchestra (and sing and conduct too), so they get cut quite a lot of slack on their playing skills, especially since their schedules don't tend to allow them a lot of time to practice themselves. I've played with a lot of music educators in orchestras over the years, and I've always found them to be great people and excellent musicians, even if their technical adeptness varied wildly.

Because music educators are generally in the job for the love of music, as a generalization about the group, they're not especially tolerant of either kids or parents who are competitive. They know that a certain amount of competition is helpful to motivate kids to practice, but they also know that a competitive attitude (versus just striving to play one's best) tends not to serve musicians well either as amateurs or professionals. The fact that musicians go into competitive situations (competitions, auditions, etc.) is different than being competitive against other people. Classical music is generally a collegial experience, and kids benefit from learning collaboration, graciousness, generosity and helpfulness in this context.

The notion that the concertmaster is selected based on some objective measures of fairness seems rooted in the notion that it's either a merit badge to be competitively earned, or it has to be explicitly flagged at something that is achieved through some other clear means, like being the most senior. Neither of these notions is helpful, because it treats the position as if it were a trophy. I recognize that it can be very hard not to see it as a trophy, especially in the student years when it's often presented in that fashion and/or is perceived that way, but unless the situation is actually explicitly competitive I think you and your daughter will be a lot saner not treating it as such.

May 28, 2016 at 11:30 PM · Lydia I see your point, but what other criteria are there, besides skill and seniority? Attendance (bad luck for the kid who got sick)? Leadership (perhaps even more subjective than skill)? The only way for it to not be a trophy is to select by random lottery. Even in the professional world it's a trophy, no? Doesn't the CM earn more money, and get to play the Scheherezade solos, and make a special stage entrance to "tune the orchestra" and such? That's what kids see when they go to a concert.

My own feeling is that in an amateur or youth orchestra, the best, most experienced, and most mature players belong at the back. I've always found I can hear the folks behind me better than the folks in front of me. And if you are in the back you're at a little disadvantage because it's harder to see from there. And the teacher can control the ones who need controlling if they're closer.

Regarding the rule that students in local youth orchestra need also to be members of public school orchestra, why not let them take something else as a class but only compel them to participate as ringers, showing up for a few rehearsals right before the concert (and sitting in the back of their sections?

May 28, 2016 at 11:38 PM · Seniority is often a significant factor at the school level, followed by skill, leadership, and maturity. Leadership in this sense is likely going to be twofold -- there's the ability to lead a section (the physicality of the concertmaster role, so to speak), musical leadership (bowings, interpretation, often fingerings at the student level), as well as the ability to lead a group (ability to be listened to, as well as to listen to input, work with the conductor, be an example, etc).

It's not a trophy that goes to the best player.

May 29, 2016 at 01:02 AM · The best way I see for it not to be a trophy is rotation of the leadership. It might be more difficult for a very large ensemble if they don't perform often enough, but one could even rotate the leaders within one concert, or even after each movement of a piece. This would immediately eliminate competition and increase incentive for everyone to practice their part and grow as a leader. Examples include the Perlman Music Program at the student level and the Orpheus chamber orchestra at the pro level.

May 29, 2016 at 02:33 AM · I agree with Phillip, but we also have a long way to go when it comes to empowering the children themselves to speak up to the authority figures directly when they have well-thought-out suggestions and complaints. The legal systems around the globe are partly to blame for the current state of disempowerment. I hope this mother doesn't go complain against her daughter's wishes. She is not the one who has to play in the orchestra and live with the potential risks and consequences.

May 29, 2016 at 03:23 AM · I don't agree with Philip. Every comment that I have read from Phillip over the past week or so has been resoundingly negative. (School orchestras are mostly rubbish, etc.)

"Trust is earned" is one of those pithy slogans that is easy to say but nearly impossible to put into practice for anyone, certainly not for a middle-schooler. Anyone who goes through life expecting every new co-worker, supervisor, or subordinate to "earn his trust" will be absolutely miserable. (Maybe that explains Philip's consistent negativity.) And no, nobody teaches children to trust strangers on the street or people they meet on the internet. So don't even try going there. You know the difference.

Children should trust their teachers, and as they grow older, they also need to learn the boundaries of trust, how to recognize when trust is violated, and how to properly question and ultimately challenge authority. That hopefully starts at home, not at school. Even though I've known a few of my kids' teachers to be less than stellar, I would not characterize a single one as untrustworthy.

May 29, 2016 at 04:11 AM · I don't agree with Philip in that all teachers are rubbish, but one needs to know when you are dealing with one if you happen to be confronted with it. Incompetent teachers are not trustworthy from a subject standpoint, even though they could potentially be wonderful people, and beyond a certain threshold, children begin to smell this. I agreed with him in that we shouldn't blindly obey and just accept every status quo as if it had been there since the dawn of time. Of course children shouldn't trust indiscriminately, such as when it comes to the creepy guy offering candy from his van sort of thing. Changing things in societies such as stringent hierarchy in workplace dynamics, and softening social pecking orders between children and adults takes time. And lots of it. Probably centuries, as did women's suffrage, and the abolishment of American slavery. Youth rights movements are just about hitting the one-century mark, and workplace dynamics are slowly seeing some change given the addition of technology which makes communication much quicker and less formal. As insignificant as this one situation may seem, one cannot ignore that it in many ways reflects the general state of societal customs, and that there are many situations taking place now and in the future which call upon similar values. What stops all change is when people unanimously begin to settle for societal protocol like dust.

May 29, 2016 at 06:24 AM · In every major extra-curricular youth orchestra where I teach in Southern California, including the one I direct, every student is required to be a fully-participating member of their school orchestra, if it exists. Obviously, students who are homeschooled or attend programs that don't have an orchestra are exempt from this requirement, although we encourage them to explore ways in which they can contribute to the musical community at their school. School directors and youth orchestra directors support one another professionally, so that students have the opportunity for both a daily ensemble experience and an aspirational one where they collaborate with peers beyond their local school network.

It's because of this sort of seating drama that I do not use chair-ranking in my youth orchestra's four different ensembles. In consultation with my coaches, we select different principal players for each concert cycle, and rotate the rest of the players within the sections (and between sections) as we see fit to best serve the growth and development of the players. The ultimate goal is to achieve a balance for the best sound ensemble with the given pool of players.

If that means the most technically skilled violinist sits in the assistant principal second position and holds the ensemble together, then that is what takes place. If that means the player with the clearest cues and best rapport with their peers serves as concertmaster even if they are not the most technically advanced player, then that is what we do.

In the end, our service is to the interpretation of music.

May 29, 2016 at 01:02 PM · Hi Philip,

Thank you for the reply and honest feedback. I just go by my first name Smiley. I re-read my original post and it does come across as critical. For that I have to take responsibility and apologize.

My intent was not to criticize, but rather offer a different point of view that might make a difference with the OP. I think it is important to realize there is no right or wrong here, no truth, only our interpretations of events. What is true is OP's daughter is not CM. That is a fact. Everything else is an interpretation or opinion. It is those interpretations that make the difference between being happy and fulfilled vs. being dis-empowered and angry at the world. I can't help but feel that OP is trapped in a prison of her own creation. Liberty from that prison requires a shift in mindset and viewing the situation in a positive and empowering way.

I am reminded of a similar situation in our family. My son was by far the most accomplished violinist in his school. As a 6th grader, he was even better than the violinists in high school. And yet, he was in the middle school orchestra sitting 2nd or 3rd chair. I asked him why he wasn't CM, and he replied that the conductor wanted to give the 8th graders the opportunity to have that position. We both agreed it was fair and that was the last of the conversation. There was no drama, no heartache, and no fighting the system. By the way, my son is now an 8th grader and he is CM.

I mention this not to prove I am right or OP is wrong, but to illustrate that given the exact same circumstances, our mindset greatly impacts our happiness and view on life. I am not advocating blind faith or that all teachers are right or that we should not fight for our rights. Some battles are worth fighting, however, in this case, there is an opposing view that has merit. Accepting that view is the pathway to peace and happiness. For the benefit of OP, I offer that accepting the "other" view is much more empowering than a viewpoint that teachers are incompetent, or the system is broken, or other moms are out to deprive her daughter.

May 29, 2016 at 02:31 PM · If she's any good, she'll have ample opportunity to be first chair again.

Seeing as it looks like a gesture for a graduating student, I'd just applaud the sentiment and move on.

I would be annoyed by seniority seating IF the kids further up the line take it to mean they're better AND if they belittle the lower down kids because "they can't play as well". But even then, I wouldn't complain to authorities and insist on seating rearrangement in this sort of orchestra. I just wouldn't take those kids seriously.

My daughter has been seated WAY down the line up in large band flute sections due to seniority seating. It makes a big difference in flutes because of who gets the solos. The only thing I've found annoying about this situation is that by the time my daughter got to first chair and got to pick her solos, she was bored by the group and ended up dropping out after a semester. At this point, there really isn't another group to join that would be challenging for her and keep her interest. So from that standpoint, for her selfish reasons, that was not a good situation. But for the seniors who were in the band last year it really was the best choice. They got to play the solos they'd never been able to play before.

May 29, 2016 at 04:15 PM · Let's not be overdramatic here. We're talking about a noncompetitive middle-school orchestra where a teacher asked a pair of kids who have already been recognized as the best players and have been seated as first stand for multiple concerts this school-year to kindly allow the 8th-graders to sit first stand for their final graduating concert, as an act of kindness. You'll also note that the teacher asked, not dictated, and the kids graciously agreed.

I would argue that the teacher absolutely respected the truth here -- there were no excuses given that these 8th graders are better or anything. And the teacher did the right thing -- she asked if the kids would mind and gave them the choice. The kids did the right thing, which was to allow the 8th graders their time in the sun. Only the parent is twitchy here, and I think given the circumstances, the parent is in the wrong, if understandably protective.

May 29, 2016 at 05:21 PM · I know my say wont mean anything Iam a begginer violinist and my speicialy is with flute but the teacher lied and should have not lied this childs parent has every reson to be upset but the 8th graders have to have a chance too Iam also a teacher I teach flute and one day my student came to me after school and siad miss miele I was put in the gold band I asked what that ment she said all my freinds are back in the blue band Iam ahead of them as a teacher I was very proud cause I taught her how to read notes and how to play that flute Iam saying I also understand what that teacher is also going through and the parent in me also wants to do everything I can for my child its good she wants to play violin keep it up no matter what she dose in the orchestra

May 29, 2016 at 06:27 PM · I'm not even sure I can follow some of these comments but I teach my students to take pride in their own performances, not in whether or not they have come out ahead of their friends.

I appreciate Lydia's, Smiley's, and Gene's thoughtful comments.

May 30, 2016 at 02:38 AM · Wow this is getting weird.

May 30, 2016 at 08:17 PM · Kirsten, I don't see becoming concertmaster in a middle-school orchestra as a competitive issue: the necessary qualities, obviously shown by your daughter, are adequate technique, strong musicianship, and a strong but attractive personality.

Teachers have to manage the complex and tricky psychology of teenage music-making; parents have to master their own pride in their children and in their support of them. It's easy to let these aspects get in the way of the music.

But then I am principally a violist....

May 31, 2016 at 10:54 AM · It looks like Philip has been purged from v.com. Even though he was opposing my point of view, I can't say that I am thrilled about him being ousted. I didn't agree with his points, but his opinion is just as valid as mine.

May 31, 2016 at 12:17 PM · Even if another parent intervened to get his or her child the "gift" of being cm before leaving the school, I'd cut the music teacher some slack and let it go. Teachers have to deal with students, parents, other teachers and administrators, and the politics and personalities are not always easy. Regarding this act of kindness toward the older students, I'd let it be just that.

That said, I think Kirsten has a point about the quality of teaching. All the teachers I've met are very much into their jobs and the children, but that doesn't make them all good teachers. A lot of us are very into violin and very dedicated about practice and scales, and so on and so on, but probably would be considered mediocre compared with all the professionals and prodigies whose videos fill the Internet. That's just how it is.

I've known teachers in many school districts (partly because my family has moved around the country and also indirectly as part of my former job), and there is definitely a bell curve in skill. The great teachers are truly great, and I've had some when I was younger and more recently my children have. But in terms of numbers, the educational system needs so many more teachers than the labor market should be able to reasonably supply. That means we have to hire SOMEBODY.

I'm not sure teaching has more mediocrity than other professions, but I think a parent whose child has had mediocre teachers will certainly notice it more and be irked because a teacher has the potential to influence the child's future.

However, I don't think teaching quality is the issue in this situation. Plus the older kids may really get some pleasure at getting to sit in the CM chair finally after playing in the shadow of the OP's daughter. For the really talented players who graciously share the spotlight, it's the long term that matters more than a single middle school concert.

May 31, 2016 at 12:33 PM · Smiley, there was more to it than just this thread. I tried to send you a PM but your "CONTACT" link failed.

May 31, 2016 at 05:16 PM · This thread was entertaining. OP let it go, rejection is part of life; forbearance a necessary skill to master. These sort of experiences make people into better people, already demonstrated by your daughter's exemplary attitude/reaction. CHOICE gives us the opportunity to rise above the mundane. Let it be an example to you and the rest of us.

May 31, 2016 at 05:35 PM · That's odd. Even the threads that Philip started are gone. I don't think I've ever seen a member essentially erased from existence before.

June 3, 2016 at 02:01 AM · Hi Paul,

I'm not sure why you were not able to send me a PM. I just checked my account and it contains my correct email address. I have received PMs before from other vcommies.

June 3, 2016 at 04:43 AM · When a member is banned, their accounts are removed which clears out a great deal of their associated content. Curiously not all, however. Laurie has explained all this before.

Smiley it could be a browser issue, I will check into it.

June 3, 2016 at 04:52 PM · Could it be possible that sometimes the best musician may not enjoy the leadership role?


June 3, 2016 at 05:15 PM · Sure. It's also possible that the best player didn't arrive at an opportune moment. There are sitting concertmasters of plenty of orchestras, both professional and amateur, who are probably not the best players available now. In a student orchestra, it's also rare for principal players to move back even if a new wunderkind shows up -- someone who became CM of an orchestra in their junior year can probably expect to retain their chair in their senior year even if a wizard of a freshman shows up, say.

June 4, 2016 at 07:48 AM · Dave, yes. Playing 1st violin in a quartet produced "Adrian, LEAD!"

(Though I may just not count as a "best musician"..)

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