ain't baroque! :||
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Where you sit and where you stand

Hey, remember high school orchestra chair auditions? That gladiatorial arena that pitted instrument against instrument in a clawing, biting scramble to score a seat two feet closer to the conductor, the same person you were auditioning for and who you’d known for up to four years, thus stripping away that cool and steadying wall of anonymity that might have otherwise supported you?

Right, so I was in one of those, my sophomore year (a trying year for me, orchestrally, but we can talk about that later), and I was visibly nervous, because that’s what happened to me during auditions: a neon light flashed above my head like a raincloud in a cartoon or a prism above a Sim, and the sign read NERVOUS. And O’Bryan, the conductor, told me to chill out. “Be like Elizabeth,” he said, referring to the first chair violist. “When she makes a mistake, she just says ‘Sorry!’ and keeps right on plugging, totally cool.”

Well, folks, Elizabeth happens to be one of my best friends, so I was able to ask her about this admirable attitude recently. “The only reason I was like that,” she told me, “was because I knew there was no possible way I could be demoted.”

It’s true. Elizabeth was a solid violist backed by a troupe of shaky violists. If she had been removed from her post the whole structure would’ve collapsed in the ensuing violaquake.

I just want to ask you guys about the orchestra (and by implication, band) culture, here. Concertmaster and assistant concertmaster and first chair are all prestigious titles to be sure, and it’s good that musicians have a seat to aspire to. But how much emphasis do you place on them? And beyond that, how much emphasis do you place on every chair after?

In all the school orchestras I ever participated in, your chair was permanent and a de facto indication of where you stood in your section. Anybody ahead of you was better than you, definitively, and if you had to move up you had to challenge your better with a face-off re-audition.

In professional orchestras, however, I understand that aside from the first two chairs, everybody rotates, the idea being that anyone who’s made it in is darn good and a place closer to the sun, as it were, should be afforded to everyone.

Of course, in many schools, music isn’t auditioned, so the logic is flawed. But do you think the rotational system could work in a school orchestra setting? What impact do you think it would have on the ambiance? Or is that cuttthroat culture all in my head?

About Jenn

Despite being the former digital marketing intern at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Jenn German does not like Mozart. Beethoven could've totally beaten him up. Also she has an arts management graduate degree from American University, but this changes nothing.


2 thoughts on “Where you sit and where you stand

  1. I’m a violinist. I think the seating audition culture is just fine, since it provides a tangible measure of skill that can prepare you for college and the professional world. A lot of academic subjects don’t HAVE tangible measures of success, so orchestra was always my solace, no matter what chair I was. In college, we rotated and even gave freshmen violinists the opportunity to sit up front because it was a learning experience, but section leaders have real responsibilities, so it made sense that we would be grouped in order of ability (it’s easier to respect someone who you KNOW plays better than you!) The only exception to this is politics, of course, which happens and it shouldn’t (but thankfully, pure politics seems very rare).

    I absolutely disagree with high schools throwing out seating auditions. Standards will drop like it’s hot. Instead, section leaders should learn to be humble and helpful in their positions, and non-leaders should learn to be respectful of their section leaders, who play better than them. Unfortunately, though, that kind of thing can only be learned through experience, since it’s too old fashioned to really be mentioned in school…

    Posted by Cristina Haines (@cristinahaines) | April 3, 2012, 10:08 am
    • Oh, I absolutely agree that we shouldn’t throw out auditions. Chairs should be earned, definitely, but I think a lot of the time identities are tied to chair position. More schools should try doing what you just described — rotating freshman up sometimes to let them try out a closer place. That’s a great idea, and one I hope more schools will adopt.

      Posted by Jenn | April 3, 2012, 10:21 am

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