How to be a concertmaster

Edited: March 30, 2021, 6:30 PM · I just found out I am leading the orchestra at my conservatory! However, as exciting as that is, they only gave us the seating chart a week before the first rehearsal. So unfortunately I feel quite unprepared. Does anyone have any tips?

I've played in orchestras before but I am a bit fuzzy on the details of tuning, when to stand up etc. Don't want to make a fool of myself. I am also nervous if the conductor asks me to play/demonstrate alone. Advice would be appreciated!

Replies (31)

March 30, 2021, 7:46 PM · greetings,
Know the score.
Always keep an alert upright posture even when you are exhausted.
Remember that in a sense you are the leader of a string quartet so make sure you have full contact with the leaders of the other sections.
always be clear about which part of the bow you are going to use.
Most of the time, make sure you are starting from the string, encouraging others to do likewise by your example.
If you have to demonstrate, that will only go as well or as badly as you have prepared your part.
Talk to your teacher about the best possible tuning routine they recommend. Practice it in your mind using visualisation.
Remember that you were chosen to sit thereBecause you are good enough to do the job.
Always be friendly but firm.

Best of luck,

March 30, 2021, 8:15 PM · find out if you're responsible for bowings- if so, you can mark the first violin part and give a copy to the principals of the other string sections so they can adapt them consistently. Be confident with dissent- there are lots of ways to do things, and you can lose a lot of time with group discussions- so just be confident when you let your section know what you want to do. Listen to your section and make sure everything's in sync, etc. Better for you to fix than conductor! Find out if you have any solos so you can be prepared for first rehearsal. Good luck!
March 30, 2021, 8:24 PM · Especially when you are a student, much will depend on what the conductor wants. You will be his/her first lieutenant, as well as the ambassador from the orchestra.

In many cases, you will be able/required to do bowings for your own section, and will have some authority over bowings for the rest of the strings. Obviously, solo work will be yours.

As for tuning, assume that you either start tuning at rehearsal time, or just enough before that you will be ready to play at the top of the hour. Stand up, make sure everyone is giving your attention, and ask for the A. Usually, it is woodwinds, then brass, then lower strings, then violins at the very beginning. Again, the conductor may have a preferred method.

Otherwise, there is no standing required in rehearsals. In concerts, there is a bit more ballet to get in order. In the US, usually you will walk in last, when everyone is seated, and then ask for the A and stand until the violins start tuning. You might then stand again when the conductor first steps on stage. This is useful, because from there on in, the orchestra will stand when you do. At the end, the conductor will ask everyone to stand to face the audience. They will watch you for the cue, and will sit when you sit.

It is different in the UK student orchestras, where the 'Leader' is coddled a bit more. Often there, the sub-leader directs tuning and only then will the leader come in, bow, and sit down. At the end when the applause is more or less done, the leader is the first one off the stage-- but will leave separately, and get a separate round of applause.

Edited: March 30, 2021, 8:36 PM · I enjoy being the concertmaster, partly because I get to decide the bowings, and it forces me to practice the parts about 2 weeks earlier than the others in the sections. If you do bowings then you will also probably decide and synchronize the bowings for the 2nd violins and violas.
The concertmaster is also a type of assistant conductor. Your body motions and bow preparation motions need to be one beat ahead of the music; lead, do not follow.
After long rests, (you must count the measures!), acquire the habit of getting ready one full measure before the next entrance.
If you get good at this, then maybe someday you can replace the bow with the white stick, and not have to worry about playing wrong notes.
For tuning the orchestra, it is usually just a ritual, a formality, but if you hear something that is not right, do intervene and have it fixed. I sometimes ask to hear the Viola and Cello C strings, or have the basses tune separately.
March 30, 2021, 9:54 PM · From the perspective of a principal violist: I'd like to emphasize Buri's bit of advice about treating it like a quartet. My eyes are on the concertmaster's bow almost as much as the baton. Concertmasters (and string section leaders) should play as if it's chamber music, and that means visible cues and eye contact with other string section leaders at certain times. That will also make it easier for the first violins to follow you.
Edited: March 30, 2021, 10:42 PM · Congratulations on your achievement.

People have already given you great advice on how to be a section leader, so here's some for how to be effective while not pissing off everyone in your section.

Talk to maestro on what the expectations for your job are. If necessary, bring the email to your instructor and ask for professional advice and mentorship on how to be an effective leader given the parameters of your orchestra and its leadership.

In community orchestras, for example, typically section leaders are relied upon for fingerings and bowings ahead of the first rehearsal, and email out the public domain parts. Regardless of if you email them out beforehand, expect to put in a few hours extra ahead of rehearsal figuring out fingers and practicing the part. Since you're in conservatory, but in some capacity training to be a professional musicial (presumably), you need to strike a balance between how much you direct your section, and how much maestro will do it.

March 30, 2021, 11:06 PM · I have no advice but I offer my congratulations for your achievement. May it be the beginning of something great.
March 30, 2021, 11:25 PM · Aside from Joel’s advice about always counting in the rests without fail, I forgot another really important thing. Make sure you have two or three pencils , spare strings to boot and anything else basic but essential you feel you need, at all times.
March 31, 2021, 4:42 AM · Thank you all for the advice. So many valuable things to take on board!
March 31, 2021, 5:01 AM · Gemma just curious how the seating will be wrt corona measures? Would be interested to hear. More generally let us know how it went! You got great advice already so I can only repeat the things that are indeed the most unexpected: (1) the conductor who asks you out of the blue how you are going to bow certain passage; (2) count during long rests, i.e., never doze off! But you've surely been in many orchestras already so you can also just imitate many things you have seen from other concertmasters before, such as how to initiate the tuning ritual etc.
March 31, 2021, 6:23 AM · Greetings,
one thing I just noticed though is the tile of the thread. I don’t think we are saying concertmaster anymore are we ? Are we?
March 31, 2021, 7:50 AM · The first time my son was concertmaster, he was 10 and found out literally 5 minutes before the first rehearsal, and it was also his first time in a full orchestra. The conductor came in and told him to tune the orchestra, and he had no idea what to do! I'm guessing you are far beyond this stage, but definitely have a plan for tuning the orchestra!

Beyond that, have your bowings and fingerings well worked out, and determine if there are any passages where you want your section to use identical fingerings for musical reason. As others have said, know your part and the whole score really well.

I think the most critical thing you can do is learn to direct your section with your body motions and cues. You set the tone for your entire section, and frankly for all the strings!

March 31, 2021, 8:07 AM · Buri's advice up top is good.

Concertmasters in student orchestras are in a different role than those in community or pro orchestras. It's an instructional experience, so there is no expectation that you come knowing everything already.

You should talk to the conductor (briefly) and your studio teacher about the expectations. The most important question is whether or not you are responsible for bowings -- and if so, what the timeline is for having those completed and handed off to the other string section leaders so they can get their bowings done for their sections. Are you expected to have the bowings looked over by your teacher, and if so, is your teacher expected to take care of that without using your lesson time?

If you're not used to bowing a part, beware that it can be time-consuming. However, odds are in a conservatory orchestra that there's an existing library of bowed parts, people get the bowed parts, and your job is to mostly make clear which bowings you're using (not all the parts will be bowed properly, either, so there may be some expectation that you'll communicate with the librarian to indicate which bowings are the right ones). Don't assume that the bowings you get handed are decent; they will sometimes be terrible.

Chances are that at the conservatory level you aren't expected to do fingerings. Your only guidance will probably be color choices (i.e. if you want a passage sul G, or something).

Listen thoroughly to a bunch of different recordings of this repertoire. That will help you identify where conductors frequently have different interpretations that might result in different bowings, which you will probably want to mark for discussion with the conductor. (Use the conductor's office hours, not rehearsal time, for that, if possible.)

Know your part. The things you are most likely to be asked to demonstrate will be bowing articulations and style. Also, if you are giving instructions to the strings, it will generally be faster and more effective to demonstrate than to offer much of a verbal explanation.

The tuning ritual is mostly ceremonial. By the conservatory level, most players should be getting to rehearsal early and tuning with a tuner prior to the start of the rehearsal, so only a quick check and tiny adjustments need to be made during the ritual.

But the ritual does vary from orchestra to orchestra, and for CM to CM. Some CMs prefer to remain standing for the whole thing. Others prefer to sit once the A for the strings is given (this is more common). Some conductors prefer more/less divisions of tuning -- for instance, winds/brass together rather than separate. (But sometimes low strings vs. violins.) Find out from your conductor. The very first time you do it, there's decent odds that your conductor will guide you through the ritual.

Lead as if you were the first violinist in a string quartet. Accordingly, make sure you can see the other string principals well enough to make eye contact. Count (and listen, as occasionally things will go off the rails). Cue; the easiest way to do that is by taking a deep breath before the entrance, which will raise and drop your scroll. Be careful not to lead your cues; you should basically be using your instrument like a baton. Use clear body language. For precision, encourage the strings to start entrances from the string.

Practice in front of a mirror so you can see what you're doing -- or video yourself. If you can't read your body language, neither can anyone else.

March 31, 2021, 8:19 AM · Here is some recent (a few months) commentary on "concertmaster" usage:
March 31, 2021, 9:44 AM · “If you do bowings then you will also probably decide and synchronize the bowings for the 2nd violins and violas.”

This is incorrect. The concertmaster bows the first violin parts, turns those into the library, then the library distribute photocopies of the first violin parts to the other principal strings who then bow their parts using the first violin part as a reference. Ideally the principal second and principal viola will also consult on passages they share.

I think in a student orchestra the presumption is that the concertmaster is also learning, and there will probably be more support provided.

March 31, 2021, 11:04 AM · Mary Ellen's rebuttal is correct for her fully professional orchestras. I was thinking of my experience with lower level orchestras, with conductors that don't know string technique. My librarian rarely gets the parts to me in time, so I use my personal copies of standard repertoire. When possible, I like to use a score (usually Dover reprints) to work on bowings. There can be many instances where the standard performance practice is different from what is in the score, which gives me the freedom to re-consider the solutions.
I remember from American Youth orchestra (L.A.), that the conductor, Mehli Mehta, did both bowings and fingerings that we of course had to follow, even when we did not like them.
March 31, 2021, 11:39 AM · My favorite topic in months. Congrats Gemma!
March 31, 2021, 11:44 AM · In a student orchestra I would presume that doing the bowings would be part of the learning process for the other student principals as well.
March 31, 2021, 12:45 PM · In my opinion most of the advice from others in this thread above this one is correct (at least as it stands corrected to this point).

From my own experience:
1. Observing professional orchestras and chamber orchestras (and amateur orchestras)
2. 3 yrs as high school concertmaster (CM) and 20 years as community orchestra CM with professional conductors (at least they were paid and some were very good). And I did get a few seatings in front of conductors who were either "world class" or who were recognized for it later in their lives.

With a good conductor, in addition to his ceremonial functions the CM of a professional orchestra has little more to do IN PERFORMANCE than to play. You can observe this by attending concerts or frequeently on PBS. There is probably no better example than the 3-seeason PBS "All-Star Orchestra" series. All those seated are top players from major US orchestras. It is fascinating to observe how all the string players knew exactly what to do and did it the same way in spite of the very few rehearsals they have had together. The camera work in this series is the best I have ever seen for ANY classical music program (I understand there were 18 cameras filming the entire series that was edited into what we get to see.)

If you have played in an orchestra you will know well that any extraneous motion in the line of sight between you and the conductor can be a distraction - even if it comes from the CM. (Any extraneous motion BY THE CONDUCTOR can also be a distraction.)

In chamber orchestras, with no conductor, the concertmaster also functions as the "music director" i.e., "conductor." In this capacity all eyes and ears will be on the CM at certain critical times and every CM motion has a meaning. I have observed this with the New Century Chamber Orchestra in concert and got to know a few of the players as they coached the chamber orchestra I was playing in.

I left playing in conducted orchestras 9 years ago because of a combination of discontent with the conducting and increasing age-related failings of my own. Since then I have played in a 30-piece chamber orchestra with no conductor. It has been a learning experience for all the players, but especially for the concertmasters (we have had 3 over the years). And of course, for the rest of the players we also had to learn how each of our CMs was communicating to the rest of us. As someone observed above, it is something like a 30-piece string quartet.

March 31, 2021, 1:38 PM · There is nothing to be afraid of about the job! I was leader of the second violins and then CM in our university's orchestra for several years (I stayed on through my Ph.D.). If you have practiced the music sufficiently all you need to do is concentrate--if you miss an entry the whole section might be insecure and miss along with you*. Anyway: The people sitting right behind you can hear you play. Everybody farer away can not hear your individual sound, only the total mix of the section (at least I could never hear the leader when sitting in the rear).

As to bowings: In my experience a lot of times bowings are already present in the material from prior use (people are supposed to erase them before returning rented parts but I have never seen a set where that was actually done; or the material is from the archive). If the existing bowings are acceptable** leave them alone. Ask everyone to copy the bowings of your part into theirs, don't do that yourself! At any rate you will likely change some bowings during rehearsals; make sure those are communicate throughout the section.

You will get comfortable with the ceremonial aspects of the job after your first concert. If you make an error on that side it will certainly be forgiven.

* I always had a stand partner though who could be relied on to rescue the situation if I missed something; you will likely have such a partner too!

** If the conductor plays a string instrument he/she will likely give input on bowings, otherwise probably not.

Edited: March 31, 2021, 2:06 PM · Joel's experience is the one that seems unusual to me, and I've never played in a professional orchestra. In my experience as a principal violist in two community orchestras, Mary Ellen is more-or-less correct for the amateur level as well. The concertmaster emailed the bowed first violin parts to principal string players, who prepared bowings for their own sections. The only difference was that it didn't go through the librarian, but that's just a matter of modern technology eliminating the need for photocopies. When I've played as a section violist in community orchestras, I don't remember ever getting bowings directly from the concertmaster, they always came from the principal violist.

The sole exception was an orchestra I subbed in, where the conductor was a violinist/violist and wrote all the bowings in himself. Otherwise, it didn't matter whether the conductor was a string player. The vast majority of the conductors I've had have been brass players, and the procedure was the same.

Edited: March 31, 2021, 3:08 PM · In my "casual community orchestra" we divide the bowing tasks up among a number of volunteers, including myself, the principal violist, and another good violinist. But then for some piece assigned to us, we do the bowing for all strings. When we then have first rehearsal for a piece not bowed by me, I often cringe, but unless the conductor himself changes the bowing, I accept the bowing devised by the other volunteer; and I consider it to be a bowing exercise! The rest of the sections generally accept just anything, except for the occasional objections. We are a top orchestra, if you get the idea :-) But we are a bunch of friends!
Edited: April 1, 2021, 1:34 AM · I'd sooner give up my seat than be called a 'concertmistress'. :) (if that's what people were referring to above with the controversy surrounding the word)
April 1, 2021, 11:02 AM · alternate title for the position:-- Concertmonster .
April 1, 2021, 3:23 PM · Ideally, all section principals do bowings for their section, using the CM's bowed first violin part as a model. Then the librarian copies the bowings into the parts. (These days in my community orchestra, I do bowings on a scanned copy of the part in ForScore and output a PDF -- or bow and scan a paper part to PDF -- and distribute that. Players then either print it or copy the bowings into their own part; at the start of the season there might be better odds that the librarian will copy the bowings into original parts.)

But there have certainly been times that for one reason or another, I will bow both first and second violin as well as viola.

April 1, 2021, 3:35 PM · I suppose we could be called ‘First Chair’ but then I’d feel I was at the bottom again.
April 2, 2021, 10:47 PM · Somebody once said (with regard to warfare) that no plan survives contact with rhe enemy. The same is true of bowings. What works in your front room seldom works in an orchestra.
I've always favoured a "noisy" section. I've always told people I welcome suggestions, until I've decided. I suppose that means I don't want to appear dictatorial, but you argue at your own peril! Luckily, people have always seemed happy enough playing for me.
Always remember you "lead" the strings and especially your section. You earn peoples' respect, you don't demand it.
April 4, 2021, 10:49 AM · Maybe be prepared to bow in a slightly exaggerated manner, and cue entrances and such very clearly. Sometimes folks in the back can see you much better than they can hear you. To be sure this is true, I'd suggest holding your instrument a bit high and checking lines of sight. (That said, my only concertmaster eevee was a long time ago in a high school orchestra so I certainly defer tov many here who have done it at a higher level and more recently).
April 11, 2021, 5:19 PM · Always study the scores so you know when you are playing with other soloist in the winds for example. Knowing what others are doing is as important as leading your own section in.
April 11, 2021, 7:46 PM · Buri wrote, "I suppose we could be called ‘First Chair’ but then I’d feel I was at the bottom again." That's because you're apparently living in an upside-down world.
April 12, 2021, 4:02 AM · hey Gemma will you let us know how it went?

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