How to be a concertmaster
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
Congratulations on your achievement.
I have no advice but I offer my congratulations for your achievement. May it be the beginning of something great.
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.
Thank you all for the advice. So many valuable things to take on board!
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.
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!
Buri's advice up top is good.
Here is some recent (a few months) commentary on "concertmaster" usage:
“If you do bowings then you will also probably decide and synchronize the bowings for the 2nd violins and violas.”
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.
My favorite topic in months. Congrats Gemma!
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.
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).
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).
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.
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!
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)
alternate title for the position:-- Concertmonster .
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.)
I suppose we could be called ‘First Chair’ but then I’d feel I was at the bottom again.
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.
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).
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.
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.
hey Gemma will you let us know how it went?