Musical Chairs

When I was first learning how to play the violin, my stiffest competition was also one of my closest friends. She and I constantly battled it out for first chair – the musical term for the best player.  I’d challenge her on some piece and win, then she’d challenge me on “The Irish Washerwoman” and kick my ass. We burned a lot of time that way.

Today, I play principal second in an orchestra. That’s the first chair of the second violin section. I’ve spent a fair amount of time, however, in the second and third rows, looking at that first chair and thinking, I can do that. I’ll bet a fair amount of money that there are people sitting behind me thinking the same thing.

I was chatting with a Girl Scout troop during the intermission of our last concert, and a young violist asked me “Why do the best players sit up front? Shouldn’t people who need more help sit near the conductor, like someone who needs help sitting next to the teacher?” I explained that the first row was there to lead, and they needed the proximity to the conductor to know what he wanted from the rest of the section. I couldn’t help but wonder, however, if she had a point.

Taking the principal position was an eye opener for me. When I told my teacher that I was taking the position, he sat me down and said I needed to hear the hard truth. “No one will ever be happy with your bowings. They will complain. Be prepared.” Okay, I thought. That makes sense. I used to complain about them all of the time, too.

The hardest part for me, however, is being the leader as opposed to following the leader. It’s like singing with the radio on, and then with the radio off. I can’t watch the bow of the person ahead of me. I can’t get a heads up after 28 measures of rest. I have to do that for everyone else, which means I have to be focused and present every moment.

It is infinitely easier to follow and complain than it is to lead and take responsibility. Were we talking about music?

What I’ve learned  is that sometimes you don’t really know if you’re capable of doing something until you do it, which brings me back to the Girl Scout’s question. Changing our vantage point forces us to develop new skills, react to new challenges. Leadership can emerge from unexpected places, and may only be discovered when it’s tested. I think that’s why they call it rehearsal. It’s a place where we practice skills before we have to put them to use.

My friend and I didn’t learn much from our weekly skirmishes. We didn’t lead much, although to be fair, we were in grade school. It did, however, establish a certain mythos around chairs that might have obscured the point of playing in a group. If I were teaching, I’d be inclined to tell us both to take a chill pill, sit in the back and give someone else a turn. It’s not about where you sit. It’s about where you stand. I have some more practicing to do.

Words by J. B. Everett

Photograph by Herman Yung © 2007 Creative Commons

5 comments on “Musical Chairs

  1. Oh, wow. Did you ever nail this one. I hate being a member of the following, complaining hordes, and love the thought of being a brave leader, but it’s hard. That’s why, when I’m not leading I try, I intentionally try, to not be one of the complainers. But that’s pretty hard too …

  2. hiyacynthia says:

    This post brings back memories, Jeannine. In high school, I battled a girl a year my senior for top spot. We went back and forth as well. It was unheard of for an underclassmen to hold the positions I attained. I remember how wonderful it felt to be first chair, first string flute in an excellent award-winning school band. I almost ended up like you, headed for an orchestra, but it wasn’t in the cards. I often wonder what life would be like had I pursued music further. Taking the lead is a responsibility, isn’t it?

  3. Veronica Roth says:

    Holy Smokes that’s a lot of pressure. I never realised that’s how it works, (probably because I don’t know the first thing about music, except how to listen.) So that’s why the soloist always stands from the first row. I go to a lot of operas and ballets but appart from the symphonies I’ve never really watched the orchestra. Will start paying more attention now.

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