Advice on following the conductor and leading an orchestra

Edited: September 2, 2018, 10:51 PM · I auditioned to join a community orchestra recently and was placed at the first stand, second chair, among the first violins. While I was pleased with my placement, I was having to lead the orchestra when the CM was not there during a few rehearsals.

Let’s just say there were some embarrassing moments.

It has been almost 30 years since I played in an orchestra and my ensemble skills were never very strong. Besides learning my part, what are the things I need to work on to improve my leadership and “followership” skills in an orchestra?

Replies (8)

August 31, 2018, 9:25 PM · So that chair is the associate CM's chair. Whether or not you carry the title, that hot seat carries responsibilities. You lead the inside players of the section, effectively, because those players are more likely to be able to see you than the CM. In inside/outside divisi, you lead the inside part. You play with the CM on parts marked "2 Soli", and sometimes split a duet. In concerto grossi and the like, you lead the ripieno players. And if the CM misses a rehearsal, you pick things up entirely. In a concert, you've also got to be fully alert and ready to lead because CMs also make mistakes.

In other words, you have to prepare much like the CM does. Come to the first rehearsal of every set with the part learned, if possible.

You should take particular note of the way that the CM plays. Imitate their articulation, bow placement, etc. since you have the communicate it to the rest of the section too. Breathe with the CM.

Orchestral leadership skills can often be built through chamber music. (It's one of the reasons that pro orchestras sometimes require principal candidates to play chamber music with other orchestra members as part of the final round of auditions.)

Is your CM a pro, or another amateur?

Edited: September 1, 2018, 1:49 AM · Lydia, thanks for your advice. The community orchestra I am in is an all amateur orchestra.

Playing chamber music plus orchestra and weekly lessons may be a bit more than I could chew. My original plan was to do one major concerto a year: Bruch, Mendelssohn, and so on. I may have to reevaluate my priorities.

Edited: August 31, 2018, 11:38 PM · I wouldn't be too much in awe. They had a reason to give you the job. If you know the parts well and pay attention in rehearsals you'll get used to it. You won't have to "lead" like in a chamber music ensemble; the conductor will do most of that. Just play with assurance (which requires you are prepared of course) and--as Lydia said--make sure you play the bowings and articulations the way the CM does. Unfortunately you are the one who has to turn pages.

I have found it easier to understand what the conductor expects from the first stand than from far behind somewhere. It is not all a burden--or actually it is not a burden at all.

Don't be sad about the concertos you may not have time for. In my experience it is much more rewarding for an amateur to play orchestra and/or chamber music than to practice concertos which you will never get to play with orchestra anyway.

September 1, 2018, 2:02 AM · From personal experience, don't be a bossy boots! To make sure everyone is in the same groove communicate in a friendly way with your section and the other section leaders. Don't treat them like kids, even if they are kids!
Edited: September 1, 2018, 2:10 AM · The CM and associate CM definitely do have to lead, even though they are 'following' the conductor. They help the rest of the section come in at exactly the right time, and communicate the mood, bow placement, bow stroke etc. even fingerings sometimes.
September 3, 2018, 5:03 PM · Leading is something that can't really be taught. A good leader (CM to our American friends) has a slight nod that indicates "I'm playing". If I'm leading, it's definitely "first among equals". I like a noisy section - making suggestions etc. - in amateur orchestras, you probably get parts with bowings in that don't match. So I'm always open to suggestions - but when I decide - that's it! No more discussion. We'll have a laugh together in rehearsal - and make sure we turn in the goods for the show. First/early rehearsal I EXPECT mistakes - that's why they're further back. Later on - you get it right!
The best leader I've ever seen is probably John Georgiadis with the LSO.
In an amateur orchestra, when you're in the hot seat, make sure the strings match - so if you're on at the point etc. - make sure the 2nds and violas are as well. (Cellos always tell you their instrument is different)
Basically, you'll work out what works FOR YOU.
And good luck.

September 3, 2018, 5:49 PM · Lots of good advice already. I find the number 2 seat really hard....not leader/cm , but not rank and file either. I've found it helpful to play as if you're playing chamber music with the other front desks.

Interesting re John Georgiadis, Malcolm. I'm curious about how much impact Pro leaders can have. I've heard that at times the big UK bands follow the leader and pretty much ignore the conductor. I remember seeing the last night of the proms in the late 90s with a last minute programme alteration (Jupiter from planets to replace short ride in a fast machine). The leader was almost out of his seat beating time with his scroll. I don't know if that was the Albert Hall acoustic, the conductor losing it, or lack of rehearsal...but that was amazing leadling (also something of a digression on my part!)

September 5, 2018, 8:26 AM · Last night we had another rehearsal in which I was again the *acting* CM. Everyone was very nice and it went a lot better than previous occasions.

Thank you for all your advices.

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