Q about violin seatings in orchestras... 2nd violin prin. is better than last chair of 1st vln section??

March 19, 2005 at 07:37 AM · hello, i dont know if i am the only person now knowing about this topic, but i am so curious...

when professional or most high level orchestras do their seatings... esply for the 1st and second violin section... how does the seating work?

I went to a LA Phil concert last week. my observations while watching the two violin sections was that the last 5ppl in the 1st violin seemed to have less energy and worse posture than the 1st few seats of the 2nd violin section. Not generalizing in any kind of way here, but to me the 2nd violin's principle seemed like a better player than the last chair of 1st violin...

I was thinking that the good half of violins goto 1st violin section and the rest get placed in the 2nd violin section..

Am i wrong? and if any of you are part of great orchestras... could you tell me how those auditions and the seating work in violin sections? Furthermore, if im rite... does the 2nd violin principle have a higher salary than the last chair of 1st violin section?

thank you so much for your help!!

Replies (57)

March 19, 2005 at 08:44 AM · The Principal 2nd of an orchestra is usually recognised as the third or fourth best violinist of them all. Of course, it's impossible to rank violinists generally, but that's the perception that's associated with the player who holds that chair.

I know that in Australia's top orchestras, the Principal 2nd has a similar pay package to the Associate Concertmaster. Often, the Principal 2nd has a similar package to all the other section Principals.

March 19, 2005 at 03:54 PM · Edited- I was wrong...

At my highschool, we seat the first row 1violin-1chair, 2v-1c, 1v-2c, and 2v-2c. After that, people are seated by row, so it goes 1violin-3chair, 1v-4c, 2v-3c, 2v-4c, 1v-5c, 1v-6c, and so on

March 19, 2005 at 03:13 PM · "last 5ppl in the 1st violin seemed to have less energy and worse posture than the 1st few seats of the 2nd violin section. "

I notice that even some top orchestras have section players with not-so-good posture and less energy; especially some of the older players who have been in the orchestra for 20+ years and maybe a little jaded. With good job security and ever-increasing income inflation, there is no reason for them to leave the orchestra.

But every time I see the Berlin Philharmonic on TV, every orchestra member plays with such energy, especially visual energy; not a single person slouching or using less bow than anyone else.

But I can understand how the attitude of the back section can be different to the front of the section.

March 19, 2005 at 03:42 PM · In a professional orchestra, players are not placed by the music director -- the seat you audition for and win is the seat you play unless you choose to audition for another. So if you audition for a section second violin position and win the audition, you play section second violin. If you audition for principal second and win the audition, you play principal second. If you audition and win a section first opening, that will be your seat. If another position opens up -- let's say, an assistant concertmaster retires or moves to another orchestra -- the position is advertised and any members of the orchestra who are interested in that position must audition along with everyone else. (Orchestra members are often permitted to skip the prelimary round, but they audition in the finals along with any other finalists.)

Seating within the section varies depending on the orchestra. Some orchestras have fixed seating, and the chair you win is the chair you play. If you audition for last stand and win, that is what you play. Other orchestras use revolving seating, meaning that players (other than the title chair players) rotate within the section from week to week, so that no one is stuck sitting in a particular stand all the time. The LA Phil has revolving seating. I have heard that some of the regional orchestras rotate between the first and second violin sections as well, so that violinists don't always play just first or second -- perhaps some one else can provide details, if that is indeed the case.

Title chair players are paid over scale, so yes, the principal second would earn more than a section first.

I hope this helps.

March 19, 2005 at 08:15 PM · Yes I am pretty sure the Toronto symphony also has rotating seating within each section.

March 20, 2005 at 05:32 PM · Hi,

Yes, more and more North American Orchestras are having revolving section seating than before, except of course for title positions. Therefore an audition for section first, is the whole section first behind the title chairs. Title chairs are fixed. Some European orchestras are doing that too now, but not all. Some are fixed chairs. Vienna Phil is one, since the chair, according to legend comes with a particular instrument, and therefore the character of the sound within the section remains constant through the passing of time, or so they say.

As for jaded, slouching players, that is changing too. Some orchestras are having people re-audition if they consider them lacking. Some orchestras have that policy now, and without naming places, people or institutions, I have seen that lead to demotions, forced retirements, and even termination of contracts. I don't know about that. I guess so much for job security. Oh well...


March 20, 2005 at 10:01 PM · in a symphony like the LA phil all the players are going to be outstanding, its much harder to rank them by skill in a scenario like that.

March 20, 2005 at 11:02 PM · Well it's only fair that orchestra musicians should now face the same job security pressures that their highly skilled white collar bretheren have faced for years now. Years ago you could audition for an orchestra position and it was almost a job for life - just in the same way you could get an administrative job in a company and you would have a job for life. Nowadays skilled workers in a vast array of disciplines are continually subject to reviews of their proficiency, ability, efficiency, knowledge and skill and are continually "encouraged" to remain (at the very minimum) competitive with their piers if they want to even keep their jobs let alone ever get promoted. It's just become part of the modern day work culture. I've seen first hand how orchestras can suffer from having lax policies about maintaining the highest standards of proficiency, so I don't see why players shouldn't be subject to the same reviews of their proficiency as any other skilled worker who is in the modern day workforce.

April 30, 2005 at 06:20 AM · The Principal 2nd should ideally be one of the best violinists of the orchestra, from college level to top professional orchestras. The principal position comes with the regular responsibilities of leading any string section--giving cues, fixing bowings and matching other sections, playing solos, being diplomatic and having a certain amount of charisma. In particular, I feel that the Principal 2nd has to be particularly sensitive and attuned to where his section fits into the orchestra, and by all means must have enough confidence to bring out important lines and themes and inspire his section to match the strength of the firsts when appropriate. In addition, seconds have the opportunity to raise the roof and say, "2nd power!"--an act that looks far more idiotic and egotistical if the firsts try the analagous gesture.

May 19, 2005 at 12:40 PM · This may kind of be off the subject, but it's pretty hilarious. You see, the principle violinist and I have never really gotten along...(long story). And there is this section in "Phantom of the Opera" were the violins play the first time, but then rest the second time around. Well, the "blonde" section leader didn't see (or just didn't even look at) the "1st time only". I let it slide the first couple of times, but then it got annoying. One time, during full orchestra (symphony) I planned to nudge her chair softly to tell her she shouldn't play the 2nd time. Well, I guess my foot had other plans and I ended up kicking her chair like a mule. She must have moved a good foot or so, but amazingly stayed in her chair. If looks could kill, I'd be dead.

May 19, 2005 at 02:45 PM · I play in several Dutch amateurorchestra’s, mostly as a second violinist behind at the left side for the lower divisions. In my best orchestra (no audition, my luck to play the great symfonies) where we play 2th symfonie of Rachmaninov, 5th Shostakovitz, 5th Mahler, 4th Bruckner, we had a new one left on the first desk, but in Romeo and Julia of Prokoviev they made a countmistake after 16 bars rest and the rest behind didn’t dare to play that single note.

But the last 2 years because of my ‘experiece’ ( I haven’t had lessons for 24 years, only from my 10th till my 17th) of playing in 5 orchestra’s every week (even 6 in april and oktober), but at the end of the half year-season [most concerto’s in may and november] it is ‘diminuendo’ I play reguraly first violin behind. But one evening in my badest orchestra I was sitting on the place of the concertmaster, who had an appointment that evening or was ill and we played prima visa, but apart from the higher notes and intonation problems I had, I also made a count mistake, but people behind me played those notes I forgot.

But professional orchestra’s always ask to play a violinconcerto for an audition, but that is like selecting a soccerdefender for a soccerteam who can score easily, which is not important for a defender. So first violinists must have a good intonation for the high notes, more than 2th violinists and the leaders of the first desks of the first and second violinists must be good counters for the restbars. All professional violinists must have a good orchestradiscipline, study there difficult notes hard or at least play in the group in the right ritm and not “ritenuto” or “rallentando” to play all notes. I have a good excuse not to study all my difficult notes all the time, because next to my 5 amateurorchestra’s I have a full time job.

May 19, 2005 at 06:09 PM · the seats of orchestra have little relevence to how good the player is, hundreds of people apply whenever a chair opens up, and they audition for that chair.

March 20, 2013 at 05:06 PM · I'm the principal second violinist of a youth symphony. It's unclear in my symphony what the rank order is, but I think it goes, concertmaster, asst. concertmaster, principal second violin, asst. second violin...

We were each assigned a position by audition at the beginning of the season. But since then, everyone except the concertmaster, asst. concertmaster and myself (principal second), it seems, has played a different chair than originally assigned. From speaking with the other people in the violin section, I have found out that (for the most part) the first violinists and the second violinists are approximately the same level. My stand partner (asst. principal second) can actually out-play most of the first violinists - even third chair. I think that many people expect that the third chair first violinist would be more advanced than principal second violin. This might be true in some orchestras, but not mine.

March 20, 2013 at 06:43 PM · In my experience, there should theoretically be no difference between the two violin sections (or even between the players themselves). In a good orchestra, it should be such that, if the concertmaster gets shot in the middle of the performance, the last chair first can take over without a problem. That being said, this is not often the case. I have had the pleasure of playing both second and first violin as principle and concertmaster. From my experience, I believe the section leaders are on equal footing, but the farther back you go, the worse the players (in both sections). This is not always the rule since in many good orchestras, they will place exceptional players in the back to provide leadership and give a fuller sound to the back of the section.

Also, there is sort of a political inequality between the stands, as the first stands are more favored by conductors (with the last chairs being more like "bricks in the wall"). However, I don't believe this should be the case, and conductors who have this attitude are not musically constructive.

In the end, I will borrow a short quote from theater that says: "There are no small parts, only small actors". I don't believe it matters where you sit, or what section, because each musician has a duty to play the music to the best of their ability, and with the greatest musicality they can afford. Not mooch of the first stands, but rather to lend meaning to the music themselves and "lead from the back" as a great conductor who I worked with once said.

March 20, 2013 at 07:12 PM · No small parts just small actors.

small part

March 20, 2013 at 08:24 PM · Seraphim - thanks for that, you just made my day.

And BTW we at the back of the 1sts have the attitude that we're about to blow the seats infront away.... ;)

[Hi Rocky! :)) ]

March 20, 2013 at 08:58 PM · In a professional symphony like the LA Philharmonic, seating is not a straight ranking system, as it sometimes can be in a high school or youth orchestra. The first-chair first violinist is called the concertmaster and gets paid the most. As such, the concertmaster has many duties, including doing the bowings and also being a public figure in the orchestra. The second and sometimes third and fourth chairs are "assistant concertmasters," and they are paid less than the concertmaster, but more than other section players. They have to sub for the concertmaster when needed. The first chair second violin is the "principal second" and gets paid less than the concertmaster but more than a section player. Often there is an "assistant principal second" that might get paid a bit more than section players.

For the most part, section players are all paid the same. They are not necessary "ranked" from back to front. If there is, say, a fifth-position chair that comes open, someone might audition for it. They might be better than those in front of them, but it was the fifth chair that was open when they auditioned, and so they sit fifth chair.

In a number of professional orchestras, the section players rotate, so that a violinist might be sitting last chair for one concert, then fourth chair for the next. Sometimes they even rotate sections, so they can be in the front of the firsts for one concert, or the back of the seconds for the next. Personally, I think rotating chairs are a fantastic idea because they keep everyone practicing, they allow different members of the orchestra to get to know one another, and they allow musicians to have perspectives from all over the section.

And very very important: EVERY player, every "chair," in an orchestra is important. If you love music, you hopefully see an orchestra as a music-making group in which everyone has an equally important role. If you see it as a contest for chairs, you might do well to check your ego.

March 20, 2013 at 09:44 PM · I like sitting at the very back of our community orchestra...I have the best view of the conductor and can hear best from there too...


March 21, 2013 at 01:15 AM · As an orchestral player I can tell you that every part is important. Like a chain the orchestra is only as strong as its weakest link. Everyone has to play their best for the end product to be excellent.

March 21, 2013 at 05:10 AM · Seating a youth orchestra front to back, best to worst, is a guarantee for an awful sounding ensemble.

There has to be a balance of strong players throughout every section, and regular rotation within sections helps develop the quality if playing by all of the young musicians by putting those with more skills next to ones that desire to acquire them.

March 21, 2013 at 12:10 PM · This whole "seating thing" is such an ego trip for youth and many amateur orchestras; it's really a shame.

The best way to seat an amateur orchestra violin section is to pair every "bad" player with a good one. I've seen that work very well, but not very often in the 62 years since I started playing in such orchestras.

So, if I had my druthers, I'd sit the best and a decent violinist at the first stand of each section (so that they can be seen to do right by the other section players) and then good/bad pairs all the way back with one of the best players at the penultimate row or just in front of it, depending on the size of the section - and just how bad the worst players are.

If you let the bad players hang out together at the back you can have a real mess, and whatever you may think, it takes 5 to 10 good players to cover one bad one - just barely, except when the bad one is smart enough to "airbow" or just not play.

Of course, in pro orchestras none of this matters because they are all very fine.


March 22, 2013 at 01:58 AM · The principle second actually gets paid more than the concertmaster because s/he has to sit next to the violas.


March 22, 2013 at 03:23 AM · On another thread of a similar topic a while back, here were my thoughts:

In the old days, the conventional wisdom was that if you weren't good enough to play first, you'd play 2nd; if still not good enough, you'd play viola. This is the source of viola jokes - the players, not the instrument. And if you still weren't good enough you could always conduct or become a music critic! A light bulb joke: How many 2nds does it take to change a light bulb? None can do it. None of them can reach that high! ;-)

All kidding aside, the above may have been true in the old days, and still true in amateur orchestras. But in top pro orchestras there is a very high standard in every section of the orchestra - including 2nds. Many have rotation systems and some don't.

I enjoy a multi-faceted career as a soloist, chamber musician, orchestral player, pop music player and teacher. I've played 1st much more often, but I've played 2nd a good deal as well - quite often principal 2nd. I actually regard the principal 2nd as the second most important violinist in the orchestra - depending on the orchestra, the conductor, etc. To me, the Concertmaster is the President of the violin section, and to some extent, of the whole orchestra. The asst. CM is like the vice president - a hearbeat away. But until that heart stops beating... The prin. 2nd is like the Secretary of State.

In any case everyone in the 2nd section needs important skills. They need to be very solid and steady players, and bring accompanying figures to life, and not make them sound like Sevick exercises. In a piece like the Beethoven 5th, they have pretty much full parity with the firsts, with the two sections almost constantly bouncing off one another. In the opening allegro to Mozart's Magic Flute overture, it is the 2nds who are exposed first, and under the gun. And if anybody knows Verdi's Va Pensiero, that 2nd violin part is about 10 times harder than the first! Of course there are the other moments. Once I was hired to play 2nd in a concert of mostly Johann Strauss waltzes. By the end of the gig, after playing about 20 million oom-pa-pas, I was pretty much praying for death! But in any case I consider myself a musician first and foremost and a possibly hot shot fiddler second. No matter what I do, and where I'm seated, I truly try to serve the music, and rarely go away w.o. some satisfaction.

March 22, 2013 at 02:34 PM · I played principle second in high school, and I always thought it was more difficult than first. The counting was harder, you had to be constantly aware of which section your part goes with, and play with them, you almost never played the melody, and while my director mixed the good players throughout the section, the back of the seconds was still the wild west.

And you were right under the conductors nose, so you couldn't get away with anything. In my opinion, for that reason, it's the absolute worst position in the entire orchestra.

March 22, 2013 at 04:42 PM · I don't think I appreciated second violin until Iplayed it in a quartet - and you find that you are within the heart of the music. Not only that but you actually end up respecting the violas who thanklessly provide the core that you work in synchrnony with.

Would it be an interesting way to practise orchestra not only by working in sections but by making one-on-one groupings of the strings in quartet structures. That way you could actually hear what the other guys are playing. I usually hear the second violins and the woodwinds but am too often struggling to figure out what the violas and cellos are up to.

March 25, 2013 at 05:00 PM · I know what you mean, Eugenia. If I make a mistake, my conductor hears it, especially since I'm directly in front of him.

I was at a rehearsal a couple weeks ago, and my conductor was explaining something to the whole orchestra. After explaining it, he indicated a place he wanted us to start. It was in cut time, and it just so happened that the second violins had the melody - at the volume, fortissimo. Well, he started counting, "One, two, ready, go..." But I was expecting him to only count two beats before we were to start.

So it sounded like, "One, two, [principal second violin solo]. Of course, I stopped after the first couple notes when I realized I was the only one playing. My conductor just stood there staring at me for a couple seconds, and there wasn't a sound in the room until all the laughter broke out. I couldn't see myself, but I was probably beet red. Ha ha ha!

It wasn't quite as bad as the time the same thing happened with our concertmaster last year. ;)

March 27, 2013 at 12:44 AM · If he's that unclear and also if he has to tell you what he's beating, he's useless. Any half-decent conductor can just give a clear upbeat and off you go and a good one will guide you as to how to play as well. I remember after one concert with Bryden (Jack) Thomson we were in the pub afterwards, and one of my colleagues asked "Jack, why do you beat the opening like that" and the response was "I don't know - I've just found it gives me the sound I want". Yes - big and round, rather than a sharp attack.

March 27, 2013 at 06:53 AM · Yes, of course, Jack was a proper musician and conductor. Not many like him. Most, as you say, are useless, and I've heard kids after a youth orchestra concert praising the conductor, who was in my opinion (and others too) quite useless.

So don't listen to praise about conductors - unless the person saying this is a professional player, and one that has worked with hundreds of conductors over many years, where a few of which might have been outstanding, but many not so.

March 27, 2013 at 01:19 PM · I think that being a good conductor requires as much time, study and thought as being a good instrumentalist. When conducting an orchestra or choir (or both) the conductor is, in effect, playing the most complex of instruments, and moreover one that is well capable of unpredictable behaviour.

A bit like herding cats.

March 27, 2013 at 03:10 PM · Trevor - I'm afraid I can't agree with you there!

A conductor once admitted to me that you could get any jerk in front of an orchestra and just tell him (they usually are a "him") to start waving arms about when the orchestra started and stop as soon as the orchestra stopped - and the audience would be none the wiser.

Get any jerk off the street and put a bow in his fist and the fiddle up and ask him to play Ba Ba Black Sheep and everyone would know he couldn't play a note.

I've heard some of the most hilariously stupid things in conductor students master classes, such as "if you are behind the orchestra - don't conduct faster to catch up as they will just play even faster ..."!!!!!!

And when the conductors' teacher asked an individual conductor if that was what they wanted - they could only grunt "yes." Even though it was obvious that these conductors after several years "training" had no idea how to change or improve the sound at the opening section of Tchaik Six. They had not even heard of bow speed, pressure, tonal balance between sections. They were good at looking good, and even had a camera and a screen to reference how good they looked when waving arms about. It's all visual, they would be just as well off if they were deaf!! (Which musically most of them are).

I think training for a conductor could take as little as ten minutes once they can sort of read a score. By the way, the same conductor told me that all the BS about conductors reading 10 lines of the score at once is just that, BS. They always follow the easiest line, often first violin, or the section with the tune.

March 27, 2013 at 07:37 PM · Peter, why do you dislike conductors so much? After reading your previous comment here, and then reviewed other posts you've written about conductors it's a valid question.

A someone who conducts (and still has much to learn), as well as performs, I can say that the difference is obvious when the conductor is positively influencing the orchestral sound and when they are just waving their arms around. Sure there are a lot of mediocre conductors around, and perhaps that's what you've been exposed to in your extensive experience. But I have witnessed and sat under some incredible conductors whose knowledge and ability was very impressive.

On another note, who can blame conductors for becoming jaded to what musicians what them to do, when the musicians are the same ones mocking and belittling the conductor while sporting nasty know it all attitudes that make anyone around them wish they could punch them.

March 27, 2013 at 10:51 PM · Bev, I have to agree with Peter - most are useless. The number of conductors I've played for who head to the back of the hall to have a listen and come back saying "I think it sounds better without me". They think they're joking - they're not. The orchestra just listen to each other, follow the leader and it just works. I've led orchestras doing the "demented violinist" act - waving the fiddle about - and had wind players ask me to do more as it's easier than following the jack-in-the-box. The good ones change the sound of the orchestra - Jack (mentioned above) concentrated on the sound. A couple of years back, there were the "classical brits" on TV when Vernon (Tod) Handley was given an award and conducted one piece. It sounded like a different orchestra. Boult, Barbirolli, Hurst - you could spot them a mile off by THEIR sound from the orchestra. Today - I've never played for him, but Rattle gets superb performances. Most of the rest - forget it. If you can.

Maybe the best comment from a colleague (a little too loudly) - "If this silly bugger doesn't shut up I'm going to PLAY on his beat". Maybe that sums it up.

March 28, 2013 at 08:13 AM · Bev Saunders

Perhaps you would care to list the womderful conductors you have played for in your extensive professional orchestral career?

March 28, 2013 at 07:55 PM · Peter,

I was offering you respect when I mentioned your extensive career. You've mentioned your experience often so I was alluding to that when I made that comment. I never said my career was extensive; I only said that I have sat under some fine conductors during my playing time.

I don't particularly want to waste time fighting with you about this. So many of your posts seem excessively snarky and negative,this time I just gave in and responded to it. I'll try to avoid making that mistake again, but perhaps you could try to write something positive about a topic instead of only offering the negative? Just a thought...

March 28, 2013 at 08:40 PM · Better be careful Bev, that chip on your shoulder is getting bigger by the week!

One person's negative is another's positive.

We can all claim to have never said something ...

"I don't particularly want to waste time fighting with you about this."

OK, so stop wasting our time!!

March 29, 2013 at 08:32 AM · Yes, and there are some good conductor jokes out there, but I won't mention any, otherwise I will have Bev and Elise after my blood! (But the one about the brain bank comes to mind, and I have told that one to the odd conductor [OK, many if not most conductors are odd] (Oh, I never said that, my fingers slipped on the keyboard ...)

March 29, 2013 at 08:03 PM · To build on Peter's comment about putting just anybody in front of an orchestra...

The community orchestras I have played in have all had one series a year with a "guest conductor." One of them did a youth concert where one kiddo was selected to "direct."

Imagine an 8-year old thrashing arms aimlessly. And since guest conductors are chosen for fun value, we've had pro wrestlers, priests, and other, um, interesting folks.

But it's all ok. We actually practice ignoring the conductor, on purpose. You really can ignore the guy/gal with a stick.

March 29, 2013 at 08:53 PM · Then again, there are plenty of players out there who perceive conducting as "easy," yet don't have the depth of knowledge or ability to communicate in a way that would let them lead an ensemble.

It's the same attitude problem held by people who look at he percussionists playing the snare drum, timpani, triangle or suspended cymbal and thinking that their job is "easy" or "easier" than playing the violin.

March 30, 2013 at 02:32 AM · I can't say I'm particularly experienced in the area of orchestral playing, but I have played under three conductors, all of whom are excellent conductors, and great people to work with!

April 2, 2013 at 03:33 AM · I've been principal 2nd violin of a fulltime professional orchestra for 25 years. The ranking goes like this: Concertmaster, associate CM, assistant CM, principal 2nd, assistant principal 2nd, section violin (1st or 2nd). Salary wise, I am paid more than the assistant CM, not sure about the associate CM. All titled players are paid more than section players. Our section players rotate, mostly within the section to which their contract assigns them, but there is some back and forth as well. Many professional orchestras have rotating seating, and even in those that don't, being fifth chair doesn't mean you're better than the sixth chair. Everyone is professional, everyone is excellent, you have the job you auditioned for because that's where the opening was at the time.

Few things irritate me more than being asked if I've ever considered trying to get into the first violins. My standard response is, "Yes, if I ever decide I want a pay cut and a demotion."

August 4, 2015 at 02:50 PM · My question is a bit related to the OP. Understanding where the prn 1st vln sits, where do the other 4 prn sit and why has this developed? Is it always conductor's left front of the section?


August 4, 2015 at 03:04 PM · nope, for strings the principal is usually closest to the audience & for winds it's usually closest to the middle but things can get interesting when the string sections switch around. In our local group the cellos stick with the seating they're used to regardless of where their section is placed.

August 4, 2015 at 05:30 PM · Thanks Christina.

Any history on why this arrangement was adopted and what do the violas do?


August 4, 2015 at 07:16 PM · No, Eugenia, it's the Assistant Principal 2nd that sits closest to the violas.

When I was a child, my father gave me the impression that the principal viola sat on the left to be nearer the audience (in London just after the war he had played in Fistoulari's orchestra), but every orchestra I've ever played in had the principal viola sitting on the right.

August 4, 2015 at 07:27 PM · John - Is that right as seen by the Conductor?


August 4, 2015 at 08:57 PM · I attend many Pittsburgh Symphony concerts. All the string section players seem to rotate. All of Pittsburgh's players are terrific professionals. The Principal Second, Jennifer Ross, is a very strong player indeed

August 5, 2015 at 12:56 AM · Charles, yes, the Pittsburgh Symphony is one of the best in the world. I miss seeing them every weekend.

August 5, 2015 at 06:44 PM · My chamber orchestra in Bristol (UK) regularly rotates the violinists within and between their sections three times a year, except for the leader of the orchestra.

Unusually perhaps, this rotation within and between the violin sections also applies to the principal of the seconds, so at any one time there may be a violinist who is usefully having their first and valuable experience of leading a section for a few months.

The viola and cello principals are appointed by the leader of the orchestra, the ex-pro principal of the violas arranging his troops to his liking, and the layout of the four cellos not having changed one bit since I left the section for the violins some seven years ago.

Our conductor is Dennis Simons.

August 5, 2015 at 07:04 PM · The old canard that the second violinists aren't as good as the firsts just is not true for professional orchestras and the better amateur orchestras, many of which often have a number of ex-professionals in their ranks.

The canard probably arises historically from school orchestras which inevitably have a wide spectrum of abilities, especially among the younger players, as a result of which the violinists are divided into those who can shift up from the first position and those who can't. This division is also reflected in the way in which the school orchestra repertoire is edited to accommodate the spread in technical abilities.

August 5, 2015 at 11:02 PM · In a professional orchestra, 1st violins and 2nd violins are equally strong sections, and in some orchestras there is rotation between them, and/or rotation within each section. The real division in status is between titled and section players.

I am the principal 2nd in my orchestra. Thanks in part to the way TMEA seats violins in the region and All-State orchestras (top twenty are the firsts, next twenty are the seconds...ridiculous), I am occasionally asked if I've ever considered "trying to get into the firsts" to which my response is, yes, if I ever decide I want a pay cut and a demotion.

August 6, 2015 at 12:14 AM · In my past experience freelancing, there's also usually no per-service fee difference between playing 1st and 2nd violin. Since the 1st violin parts often involve more practice time, players cobbling together a living from freeway philharmonic gigs often actually prefer to play 2nd violin, allowing them to properly prepare more music in less time (since practice time effectively cuts into what would be your hourly rate if you thought about your pay that way).

August 6, 2015 at 12:52 PM · In every orchestra I've been in or watched (where I knew who was principal) the viola and cello principals have sat on the left, at least during 'standard' section setup. As a violist/violinist, I find it easier to turn pages in the vla section than in the violins for that reason, just saying. You are right there, next to the page.

Another aspect of the first/second violin question is temperament. Some players naturally gravitate toward first because the section gets the melodies and the attention, but some players prefer to be part of the 'glue' that holds the music together--thus are happier in 2nds or violas. Some are gem-minds, some are cohesive. Orchestras need both.

And there is no question that, from a listening standpoint, 1st stand viola is about as central as you can get in a string section. You really feel part of the experience in a different way from that vantage point.

August 6, 2015 at 03:35 PM · Inside 1st stand of the seconds (which I'm sat in one symphony orchestra) is also pretty good - sitting next to principal viola, the 1st stand of the firsts is easily seen and heard, and (ahem!) one is right under the conductor's nose.

August 6, 2015 at 11:28 PM · It seems, Marjory, that this could be a "which side of the pond" issue.

August 7, 2015 at 01:13 AM · Mary Ellen - Are there any visual cues that your section would routinely pick up from you as a section leader?



August 7, 2015 at 04:05 AM · Of course. Where I am in the bow, how much bow, type of stroke, entrances, necessary bowing changes done on the fly to match another string section or to produce a particular sound requested by the conductor, etc. Every string principal provides such visual cues.

August 7, 2015 at 10:51 AM · Thanks Mary Ellen - I suspected that might be the case. Lots of responsibility.


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