Violinists and group psychology

March 12, 2020, 2:00 PM · A violinist emailed me a few months back using language that made me hesitate. Whereas a woodwind section will be very small, violin sections are large enough to display various group-psychological phenomena such as resource conflict, dominance, sub-groups or cliques, intra-group dynamics (I don't know anything about any of these things - I'm just assuming these expressions are meaningful) and, frankly, politics with a small 'p' . I'm not keen that kind of thing.
I wonder how many of you have noticed these oddities in violin sections stemming from their size? Maybe it's not clear what I mean. Or maybe it's simply not clear because these things don't exist.

Replies (16)

March 12, 2020, 2:10 PM · Gordan, I consider these things to potentially exist in any interaction between humans. Between dogs, cats, and mice too.
March 12, 2020, 3:06 PM · This is a very abstract post without you actually stating anything about the phenomenon you mentioned.

Musicians are weirdos! Why would they put all this time and energy into playing music otherwise?

Edited: March 12, 2020, 3:40 PM · I've not noticed any particular dynamics (aside from the generally ignored ones printed in the score) within violin sections, probably because people tend to be quiet and play. There is not that much social interaction.

String quartets? Now there's a more interesting topic. In my experience, a typical quartet has several distinct personalities, which is why so few make it long-term:
1. Bossy pants. Wants to dictate every aspect of the music and point out who's rushing or out of tune. Usually the first violin.
2. Almost-Bossy pants that tries to resist Bossy Pants.
3. Mr. Passive Congenial: "just tell me what to do."
4. The Quiet One: disagrees with Bossy Pants and Almost Bossy Pants, but keep it locked away, deep inside.. until Quiet One can no longer contain it and they have a screaming hissy fit.

Watch out for the Quiet One.

March 12, 2020, 3:44 PM · Gordon, et al.,

As David noted, any group of humans will have a variety of personalities and all-too-often those personalities clash, particularly if you add an external and/or internal stressor.

Our human frontal lobes evolved so that we humans can deal with the biggest problem humans face - all those other humans.

It is possible to miss or ignore the interactions of others and just do your job. But, that doesn't mean that others are ignoring you. We humans like to create hierarchies, set standards, make judgments, and we also have empathy and compassion occasionally love and bonding.

Leadership does have an effect. A good leader gets members of their team to understand that either we all succeed or we all don't and an individual success is often at odds with personal success. A good leader gets us all wanting to work well together. A poor leader magnifies all of the slight differences and create workplaces where it is next to impossible to simply do your job and live your life.

Orchestras, companies, schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, families all have their interactive problems. Fortunately, our frontal lobes evolved to help us deal with these problems. Unfortunately, most of us prefer to go to their amygdala and deliver an emotional response.

So, yeah, I've seen string sections, string quartets, string duets have major interpersonal problems. All because they are human.

March 12, 2020, 5:26 PM · Oddities? Not in any of my viola sections. Certainly not.
March 12, 2020, 5:38 PM · The viola section is an oddity;). (joke)
Edited: March 12, 2020, 6:44 PM · Every group of sentient creatures has a hierarchy, whether or not everyone realizes it there will be at least one creature who does - even among violists.
March 12, 2020, 6:36 PM · Every group of instruments in a large ensemble has politics and the same sort of behavior issues your friend discusses as belonging to the violin section.

Every group of people has them, as Andrew has pointed out.

To single out the violin section of an orchestra simply indicates that the person never spent any time observing the other sections.

March 12, 2020, 8:34 PM · Actually most of my "viola sections" are me and one other person, so it's not really a "group" dynamic situation. And the larger section -- in the full orchestra -- is too busy during rehearsal for any kind of drama. I share a stand with our principal (she's a college freshman) and the stand behind me is a young man (high school senior) and a woman in her 60s. Our principal is the best violist but not by a huge margin. The woman in her 60s is who I depend on to count the rests accurately. Having shared a stand with her for the Nutcracker, I know she is uncommonly good at this.
March 12, 2020, 8:44 PM · Youth symphony violin sections can have a lot of drama. The less good and less secure the player (and the more they hold Dunning-Krueger delusions of competence), the more drama they tend to create.

Community orchestras vary in how much drama there is. I have seen some caused by very competitive players, especially young players (usually fresh out of college) who don't understand how different community orchestras are from the youth symphonies of their past. I have seen some jostling over principal and assistant principal seats, though I don't know if that's drama so much as disgruntlement with the conductor's/committee's choice. I have seen the arrival of new players sometimes create drama, either due to seating or due to a "fresh meat" scent for romantic possibilities.

Professional symphonies can have the kind of interpersonal dynamics driven across people who have worked together for decades and may have dated, married, divorced, and cheated across the section in some pretty complicated entanglements. It has far less to do with the music and playing than usual human interaction complications.

Edited: March 13, 2020, 8:17 AM · My experience of drama in community orchestras is very different from Lydia's: the drama has been largely similar to what she describes in youth orchestras (Dunning-Krueger delusions of competence), except that the hyper-competitiveness has been mostly from older players who are hostile or condescending toward younger players. I haven't ever seen hyper-competitive young players. Perhaps this is because I didn't play in school or youth orchestras, and the orchestras I've played in until recently have mostly been lower-level orchestras than what Lydia has described as the "typical" community orchestra. The youngest players I've seen in these orchestras have been in their mid-20s.

I've been the new player who created drama in a community orchestra, because the conductor made me principal violist immediately and the 89-year-old incumbent was extremely unhappy about losing the seat he'd held (by default as the only violist for just over half of those years) for the entirety of the orchestra's 27-year existence. But there was already pre-existing drama there; young people tended to join and leave for other orchestras quickly. I played in that orchestra for four years, and that made me the second-longest-tenured person in the orchestra who wasn't a founding member and the longest-tenured under age 50.

That said, the majority of the orchestras I've played in have been reasonably drama-free. In my experience, the stronger the orchestra, the less drama I've seen. In my current orchestra, the strongest of all the orchestras I've played in, the atmosphere tends to be professional: people show up, play, socialize a little during the break, and go home quite tired because it's 10pm and we've just been playing heavy stuff.

March 13, 2020, 2:23 AM · I should have included some kind of lol emoticon, as I wasn't 100% serious.
It may be a truism that every group of any animal displays group psychology, but my point was that sections I've been in in the past have been too small to be groups, so what was I letting myself in for now that I'm a violinist?
March 13, 2020, 3:13 AM · My experience in life in general has been the same as Scott Cole with quartets. And yes, beware of the Quiet One.
March 13, 2020, 3:35 AM · In community orchestras of my experience dominance conflict seems to be an occasional problem particular to violin sections. A seating dispute caused one player to walk out of a late rehearsal taking the first horn (her husband) with her. Then you get the players from further back trying to take over the section-leader's role.
Edited: March 15, 2020, 10:25 AM · I remember being annoyed when our string front desks were pushed back at the dress rehearsal by the conductor's pro cronies, who also took over the solos.
When I'm asked to step in for another orchestra with only two violas, I insist on sitting behind. But then I am a Fairly Quiet One!! (I only spit & hiss if unfairly treated..)
March 13, 2020, 8:16 AM · In my orchestras it has always been the rule that when an extra player or two (often a pro or near that standard) is brought in for the performance then they sit at the back of the section. I remember fairly recently being joined in the back desk of the firsts where I usually sit in that orchestra, for the second half of the concert, by the soloist who had just performed the concerto with us in the first half. On another occasion in another orchestra, where I was in the seconds, the firsts were joined at the back by two young pro quartet violinists. It soon become obvious that that particular bus was being driven very effectively from the back by those two fellows!


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