Am I truly a second violinist? What does that say to you?

November 17, 2016 at 04:23 AM · As an adult beginner five years in, I am now living my dream of playing in a string quartet. I love it! The violinist who teaches us recently said with conviction that without doubt we are all in our right places, adding that our first violinist is a true first, I am a true second violinist and the viola player (who also plays the violin) is a true viola player. She hastened to add that it was not about our level of playing. Since that moment I have been wondering what this means. What would make a person a true second violinist? If it's not about playing level, what IS it about? How could you be sure they wouldn't be equally well or better placed as a first if you never heard them try? I'm really curious to read everyone's thoughts regarding this matter.

Replies (23)

November 17, 2016 at 04:40 AM · I would say: change your teacher.

November 17, 2016 at 07:24 AM · I'm a true second violinist because that's what is on my contract. Except frequently when I am playing a gig, I am a true first violinist. But wait! When I am with a student, I am a true teacher.

I really wish supported the side-eye emoji.

November 17, 2016 at 01:03 PM · This thread made me stop and think. I agree, even if you are cut out to be 2nd fiddle, it is not something the teacher should outwardly state -- at least not to an amateur. If you are talking about a professional string quartet that tours and makes recordings, then perhaps it is an appropriate comment.

But we cannot deny that different people have different playing styles and hence have different sounds. For amateurs, the choice of playing first or second obviously depends on technical ability; the vast majority of the time, the first violin part is more difficult than the 2nd violin part. Also, in most works, the first violin tends to carry the melody far more often than the 2nd. Being told that you are suited for 2nd violin could be interpreted as a compliment. It could mean that you have a good sense of time and rhythm and can play without rushing. Or it could be a statement that you are a good listener and are able to provide balance to the ensemble -- there is nothing more miserable than playing with musicians that play everything ff and have no sense of dynamics. Or it could mean that your violin doesn't project as much as the person playing 1st; if you switched instruments, then maybe you would be more suited for 1st.

At any rate, it is an interesting topic for discussion. To OP, I wouldn't read into it too much. If it bothers you, I would ask your teacher to clarify what they meant by the comment.

November 17, 2016 at 01:23 PM · A string quartet is a conversation with each of the players supporting it appropriately. If a 2nd violinist are to "shout" or argue with the first violin that would not be a "true second." The inner parts (2nd violin and viola) support the conversation somewhat differently than the outer parts (1st violin and cello).

Since you are newish to this genre I assume you are playing old standards and what I have said above is probably appropriate. When you get to late Beethoven and beyond into more modern music the conversation can get more raucous and lots more "disharmonious" stuff can go on. With any luck you will never get that far! There is plenty to play without going that far. (My personal bias!)

I've played in string quartets going back to 1948 - not so often in the early years nor in the past 20 years, but at least weekly in the in between years. I've played all 4 parts. If you have some facility on the violin, some 2nd violin parts can actually be more difficult (as they are in some Beethoven symphonies). It is not an insult to be labeled a "true 2nd violinist," but depending on who says it and in what context, it can be a stupid thing to say - or not.

November 17, 2016 at 01:27 PM · Why don't you just ask your teacher?

Anyway, the old joke goes that a string quartet consists of a good violinist, a bad violinist, a failed violinist - and someone who hates violinists!

But seriously, a four-legged table needs all 4 of its legs and no one leg is more important than another. Same with a quartet. But different personalities often do tend to particularly suit different instruments and roles. A more florid, virtuoso type - whether or not supported by the technique we associate with virtuosity - will tend to fit the first role. A good second should have a very solid rhythm and really bring life to the inner voice as well as sometimes leading the rest of the group in order to allow the first to go on flights of fancy - at least this was the approach of the Guarneri Quartet. Some are good at both - and indeed, some modern professional quartets switch off. There's nothing worse than a frustrated first wannabe who was put on 2nd and plays the part in a lifeless, listless manner with resentment overshadowing musicianship.

Violists are sometimes the "diplomats" of the quartet - the "voice of reason" with an added richness to the mix. Both inner voices form an indispensable link between the florid melodies of the first and the deep, harmony-setting foundation of the cello. I have been especially thinking of the earlier quartets as exemplified by Haydn and Mozart. Speaking of which, I seem to recall reading that Mozart and Haydn both preferred to play viola at readings, reveling in being in the middle of the harmony.

Some recommended books to follow in my next post.

November 17, 2016 at 02:39 PM · Raphael, why do you always make me laugh out loud with your jokes!!!???

Never heard that quartet joke, damn it's good!

November 17, 2016 at 04:15 PM · Well, BIG congrats, fellow adult beginner on the violin. Your progress and goal-reaching is surely an inspiration for tons of adult beginners here! (We won't talk about my own progress...)

I chuckled over the teacher's comment and the way the teacher was probably so happy to be saying it but, yup, maybe she didn't consider it all the way through. (I mean, fine, "you're a second violinist for sure!" can be taken as a compliment - or not, but "you're a first violinist for sure!" is unequivocal praise. And only one person heard it.)

It's like being told you're a good listener. Somehow, that seems to me to be another way of saying, "you're not a very charismatic/interesting speaker."

Anyway, I am agog with respect for where you've gotten to. Seriously, BIG congrats!

(And FWIW, in singing, I'm a second soprano, not a first soprano, and it suits me really well. I like the extra layer of complexity the position calls for, and it compliments the range I'm good at.)

November 17, 2016 at 05:25 PM · "Anyway, the old joke goes that a string quartet consists of a good violinist, a bad violinist, a failed violinist - and someone who hates violinists!"

Wouldn't another old quip be that "the difference between a first and second violinist is a half beat and a semi-tone?"

November 17, 2016 at 06:10 PM · Maybe the teacher is just saying that you are fitting in well. I think a lot of people are taking it as, "you will never be able to play first violin parts". If your teacher is implying that, then that would be a strange thing to tell someone. Language gap? I wouldn't sweat it. It sounds like your teacher was saying you are doing a good job.

November 17, 2016 at 07:01 PM · Just ask the teacher what they mean.

November 17, 2016 at 08:09 PM · Thinking back to my school days, violin players to whom positions higher than the first were unknown territory were automatically allocated to the second violins, for which the music was chosen or arranged so that playing in those higher positions was unnecessary. Needless to say, this was understood by many to mean that the second violins were second class citizens of the orchestra. Sadly, this was not any sort of encouragement to some of them who gave up playing the violin and perhaps music in general as a result - perhaps, indeed probably, they may have had less than satisfactory teachers. In later years these kids would come across in common usage the slightly pejorative phrase "playing second fiddle".

I play first violin in one ensemble, second in two others, and first or second as required in deputising and ad hoc orchestral playing, a situation I am quite happy with. I also agree with a previous comment that playing second violin can sometimes be technically more difficult than playing in the firsts (some composers don't always think things through in sufficient detail, as violists will doubtless testify!)

November 18, 2016 at 03:24 AM · Here is a quartet of quartet books I would recommend:

1. "The Art of String Quartet Playing" by M. D. Herter Norton

2. "String Quartet Playing" by I. Fink and C. Merriell

3. "The Art of Quartet Playing" by David Blum

4. "Indivisible By Four" by Arnold Steinhardt

November 18, 2016 at 04:56 AM · I love playing second violin! And then on the occasions that I play first, I love that as well. If you have a good quartet going, then please do enjoy that, it's a rare enough thing to find -- four people with the time, inclination and reasonably equal playing level. Whatever seat you find yourself in, this is a good thing. That said, I'd still keep my eye out for opportunities to play first violin. I've been in quartets where the violinists just switched off; you might just see if the other violinist would be amenable to playing a piece in which you switch roles.

November 18, 2016 at 11:24 AM · Thanks everyone for your thoughts! Actually, the quartet teacher doesn't decide placement (we're all adults, after all) and our first *is* amenable to switching roles. We will be doing so every now and then. Of course I asked the teacher to clarify what she meant, I just didn't get a helpful answer.

With my question I was looking for the preconceptions hiding behind this remark, and your answers helped a lot with that. My own view is that if I lack certain qualities I would need to play first (not necessarily here and now), I'd like to develop these, instead of considering myself a 'true second' from now on. Terez 's post reminded me of the fact that as an (advanced level amateur) choir singer, I am the alto, so inner supporting voice, that everyone wants to sit next to, because I know what is happening in the piece (also the other voices), I'm rhythmically safe, musical and very dependable and support oriented. I am also often told I'm a good listener ;-). After reading all this, II guess those may be qualities that are appreciated in a second violinist too. That said, as a singer I love to perform as a soloist too, so to me it isn't either/or.

So now I have a bit of a plan. I'll try to move from being a bad violinist to being a good one by continuing my lessons and practice, and improve my technique. The quartet teacher's remark has already inspired me to let go of my automatic assumption that I wouldn't be able to play the first violin parts, and find out that indeed I can. Regardless of any differences in view we might have,I certainly won't change teachers (she is not my teacher for private lessons by the way). I'll be eternally grateful that the teacher created this opportunity for me to be in this quartet!. I'll read the first three books that Raphael mentioned, since I own and have read with relish #4. Thank you for that list! As far as developing a more florid, virtuoso type personality goes, I'll see if I can find ways to work on that ;-).

I chuckled over Andrew's comment. The first piece we tackled is from 1969. However, having been married to a composer of contemporary music, I'm not that easily fazed ...

Thank you again to everyone who took the time to respond. If anyone has additional points for my plan, they will be much appreciated.

November 18, 2016 at 12:39 PM · You're very welcome Zina - and good post of your own! When you said "I am the alto, so inner supporting voice, that everyone wants to sit next to, because I know what is happening in the piece (also the other voices), I'm rhythmically safe, musical and very dependable and support oriented" you beat me to it in a sense. I was planning to add that if the violinists in both quartets and orchestras were called "soprano violins" and "alto violins" there might be less of a stigma.

I find that even with some instruments. If I were to record say the Bach Double by myself, using 2 different instruments in my own collection - as Anne Akiko Myers did - the violin I'd use for 2nd is actually my overall favorite (though I truly enjoy and appreciate all of them). Why? Because that violin has more of an alto voicing whereas the one I'd choose for first is brighter and more cutting - more of a soprano voicing. In fact I performed the Bach Double a few years ago with a distinguished colleague and orchestra playing 2nd - and I chose that violin to use.

November 18, 2016 at 12:51 PM · Nice idea Raphael! In my native tongue it would present a problem though, since we refer to the viola as (literally translated) an alto violin. It seems to make sense if you think about it.

November 18, 2016 at 05:26 PM · The way to find out whether you're a first violinist or a second violinist is to play each of the parts along with a recording. That's great fun. If the tracks are too fast you can use software to slow them down. You've got to have the MP3s, though. I don't know how you do it with a streaming service like Spotify.

November 18, 2016 at 05:33 PM · Yes, the viola is called "Alto" in French, but also referred to as a tenor. In fact older makers used to make larger violas for the tenor role in quintets.

November 18, 2016 at 07:06 PM · Paul, one of my favourite rewards for having practiced diligently is playing along with Pachelbel's canon. Which, by the way, is very equal opportunity, if you forget the 'cello part ... And I'm a big fan of the Amazing Slow Downer.

November 18, 2016 at 09:31 PM · Raphael, I'm not sure I cared for the tenor of your remarks ...

November 18, 2016 at 11:17 PM · I always enjoyed singing second treble, I could enjoy the harmony while still hearing the melody. Same with playing 2nd violin or viola. When I played 1st violin in a quartet, folks would say "Adrian, for goodness' sake, lead!"

Temperament rather than skill?

November 19, 2016 at 10:21 PM · Zina, et al.,

As a fellow late-starter I appreciate the question as well as the responses. You are fortunate to have found a group of adult musicians to play quartettes with. I played in the second section of a community multi-generational orchestra for decades and never once desired to play in the first section.

I've always been confused with the supposition that playing Second is somehow less. The reality is that all the voices are important and if you are holding your own and are a good contributor that is all that really matters.

I'll add to the list of books to read: "The Ill Tempered String Quartette" hilarious and always on point. It puts making music in perspective as well as identifying all the characters that can, and often do, inhabit quartettes and other ensembles. Over time, I've played with all the types.

November 19, 2016 at 10:41 PM · George, thanks for your reply. It is not my supposition that playing Second is somehow less. It is my view that it would be useful, interesting and gratifying to develop the qualities to be able to do both. I will certainly look into your book suggestion. It sounds like fun!

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