Benjamin Coy


First chair

October 21, 2014 at 11:21 am

This season, I’m playing both a principal and a second position, so I feel like I have a rare opportunity to speak about the relationship between the two roles without any implied preference or baggage.

In educational ensembles, there is often an emphasis on winning “first chair,” and students are then ranked from top to bottom according to the strength of their audition. I’m sure there are excellent pedagogical reasons for this seating system: healthy competition inspires students to work harder, etc. However, it does have negative implications on the strength of the ensemble. If the best players are concentrated in the top parts, the inner parts will be weaker and the resulting sound will be unbalanced.

Professional ensembles, with no pedagogical goals for their players, fill seats very differently. Candidates audition for a specific chair, and are not even compared against the other musicians in the section. The candidate who wins third chair may well be “better” than the person in the first chair, but the first chair wasn’t the open position to be filled. The goal is to hire the best available player for every seat, and then develop each section to be the strongest possible unit. It is in no way an insult or a lesser designation to play second rather than first, as both parts must be performed excellently.

That said, each part has its own individual responsibilities beyond the different notes on the page. For some instruments (particularly woodwinds), the principal player is responsible for a lot of solo lines. This is less true for trombones, as the section is more often used as a choral — or at least chordal — orchestrational element. More than rising out of the texture with solo lines, the principal trombonist’s role is to define the style and answer technical questions for the rest of the section. How long should staccato notes be? What is the appropriate dynamic level? What should be done about that awkward mute change?

The section player’s role is to match the principal player’s sound exactly. The section player must listen to every detail of the principal’s performance and play with identical articulation, phrasing, and style. By and large, playing five to ten percent louder than the principal provides acoustical support to the upper line, making it both easier to play and better sounding. Section players make fewer interpretation decisions, but have a more challenging requirement in rendering the principal’s vision.

Both jobs can be artistically rewarding, and which part is “better” is more a function of the repertoire for each specific concert and the culture within each individual ensemble than anything intrinsic to the part designation itself. I’ve had a lot of great experiences playing principal — there’s nothing like leading a section through Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, for instance — but personally, I think one of my most artistically satisfying performances was playing second trombone for the middle movement of Dvorak’s 9th symphony. That part gets to fill out the interior of those rich chords, and then gets a single solo note leading to the resolution at the end of the chorale. It’s utterly magical.

Alexander Pope famously wrote, “Act well your part; there all the honour lies.” When I was younger, I read that as an attempt to keep people in their place, stifling ambition and creativity. But Pope goes on to explain, “You’ll find, if once the monarch acts the monk, Or, cobbler-like, the parson will be drunk, Worth makes the man, and want of it, the fellow.” There is greatness in every part, and someone who is an excellent principal player might be terrible on the second part (or vice versa). As back row players, the difference between second trombone and first trombone is minute, and worrying about sitting in “first chair,” even at the academic level, interferes with the primary goal of creating an excellent blended sound as a section and an ensemble.

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