Young Concertmaster’s Guide to the Orchestra, Part I. Musicianship and Leadership

“Dear Ken

I’ve just found out that I am going to be the concertmaster of my conservatory orchestra next year. I’ve played in some good groups before, but this is the first time I’ve ever been put “on the hot seat” other than occasionally filling in for a single rehearsal. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Do you have any advice for young concertmasters, whether on how to prepare musically or tips for maintaining a good relationship with the other principals or the conductor.

Thank you


This question came in as an email recently, and I was delighted by the challenge of answering it- the role of the concertmaster/leader is hugely challenging on every level- it takes tremendous musical skill, great personal strength and tact, sound judgement, temperament, humility and an extraordinary work ethic. An orchestra can only be as good as its leader/concertmaster.

One could easily write a book on this difficult and elusive art, let alone on the complex and contradictory relationship between conductors and concertmasters. Instead, let me just offer Jean, and any other interested would-be concertmasters out there a few general tips about the most central parts of the job. Hopefully, these thoughts might be of value to young conductors trying to understand the role of the concertmaster as well.

Musical preparation-

Preparing a program as a concertmaster is fundamentally different to preparing a solo recital or a concerto, although the standards of preparation should be similarly high. The fundamental difference between preparing to lead an orchestra and preparing for a solo performance has to do with flexibility. For a concertmaster, your most important performance is in the first rehearsal- you should expect the same level of technical polish of your own playing then that you would in a recital. However, as one approaches a recital, you are combining the technical preparation of your part with the refinement of your interpretation. In other words, as you get ready to perform, you are essentially forming a strong, definitive picture of your idea of the music- what bow strokes, tempi, rubati, colors and so on you are going to use.

In orchestra, however, you need to do the exact opposite. As you approach the first rehearsal (which, again, is your most important performance), you should be challenging your own assumptions about the repertoire, broadening your horizons and preparing yourself technically to be able to play the piece in the broadest possible range of styles. It is important to know, for instance, all the possible bowings for a standard repertoire piece- on the string or off, at the frog or point, hooked or separate, normal or backwards. If a conductor asks for a shoe-shine bowing at the frog in the dotted rhythm unison passage of Beethoven 7, you should be able to do it without difficulty at the first rehearsal, even if you’ve always done it in the upper half.

Tempi should never be a limitation for you at the first rehearsal. You may have strong and well-grounded objections to a tempo, but those should, within reason, never result from a lack of preparation or technical command on your part. If you find a tempo really musically problematic, or think perhaps the conductor is slowing down or speeding up without knowing, your advice and feedback will almost always be welcomed, but it’s best, if possible, to mention these things discretely to avoid any possible appearance of tension between you and the conductor.

Ultimately, you want to set the tone for the orchestra– do you want the orchestra to be a virtuosic, flexible and efficient group? If so, it is up to you to say “anything that can be done, we can do.” You say this most clearly through your own preparation.

Personal Leadership

Sitting concertmaster is not simply a musical job. Your colleagues look to you for leadership and direction in many ways. It is often your job to be the spokesperson for the orchestra, addressing the conductor the management, sometimes even the board or the management. Leadership is a  complex art, and is not generally taught in school- make a study of it.

There are many, many good books on leadership in all fields, but you should also study the examples of people you admire. Teachers, athletes, scholars, politicians, activists, religious teachers- there are lessons to be learned in all of these fields. I just read an essay from Stephen Bryant, leader of the BBC Symphony, in which he listed Bruce Lee as an important influence- that’s my kind of concertmaster. Ultimately, you need to find a leadership style that fits your personality, but that also suits the needs of your orchestra. Sometimes, what worked at one band backfires at another (ask any conductor about this!). You need to balance being true to yourself with being able to adapt to the needs of any situation.

Again, your first job is to set the tone for the entire orchestra. What are your expectations of how the orchestra functions in rehearsal? I work with one leader who is very quick to point out to his colleagues, politely, anytime I have to repeat something we’ve stopped for before. As a result, I rarely have to repeat things to that orchestra. How much disruption of rehearsal will you tolerate for marking bowings? How much talking and murmuring  will you accept? What is your feeling about people asking questions out of turn?

A concertmaster, especially at small and midlevel orchestras, will often find themselves caught up in all sorts of problems to do with the working environment. This can take a great deal of maturity, judgement and creativity. Problems with lighting, heating and cooling, acoustics, scheduling or orchestra library issues need to be dealt with, and a concertmaster can be a key player in making sure the orchestra can work to its full potential in a safe and comfortable environment. On the other hand, a great concertmaster never lets a temporary problem disrupt the orchestra’s work anymore than it has to. If there is a problem, make sure it is being worked on, but in the meantime, make sure you are setting an example for the whole orchestra that the rehearsal still matters, even if the conditions are difficult. Don’t make excuses for yourself or anyone else. A few years ago, I convinced Jorja Fleezanis, the legendary leader of the Minnesota Orchestra to not only be our guest soloist in the Elgar Violin Concerto, but to guest lead Firebird on the same program. There is no longer or more taxing concerto in the rep than the Elgar, yet when Jorja sat in the orchestra, and she must have been tired, she was absolutely 100% on top of her game, playing with more energy than anyone on stage. Tired is for later, not for in rehearsal.

The traditional etiquette is that if someone in a string section has a question, they pass it up to the front desk, who then pass the answer back. Assuming the messages get up and back without corruption, this allows most questions to be answered without disruption. The practice is there to ensure efficiency, not to enforce a hierarchy.  Some orchestras, notably the Berlin Philharmonic, do encourage all members of all sections to speak up and participate in rehearsals- if this is a model you wish to pursue, you should think about how that can be implemented, and be prepared to get involved in making sure that chaos doesn’t ensue. I recently did a gig where one 2nd violinist started asking a lot of questions. I’d be speaking to the brass, and she would yell “Ken! Are we…….” I don’t think that’s how it works at the Berlin Phil. The conductor is in an awkward position- it’s up to either the personal manager or the leader to remind the player that it isn’t polite or efficient to interrupt an ongoing discussion, and that the brass have just as much right to get their question answered as the other player does. In her case, she was asking a question that had been answered before. Did anyone point it out to her? A good leader would find a tactful way of doing so, but it takes great people skills to know how to talk effectively to all kinds of people without getting them angry or defensive. Even in the Berlin Philharmonic, some questions are best handled within the section, without disrupting the rehearsal. A concertmaster sometimes has to be the one who decides if a player has used sound judgement about whether to interrupt things.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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5 comments on “Young Concertmaster’s Guide to the Orchestra, Part I. Musicianship and Leadership”

  1. Stephen Bryant

    Dear Ken
    Very much enjoyed your site and particularly what you wrote above about the role of concertmaster,etc.Interesting and unusually lucid for this subject!
    Best wishes
    Stephen Bryant

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Dear Stephen

    Thanks so much for the comment- it’s a high compliment coming from someone with your vast experience. Great to see you and work together in Cambridge the other day- hope our paths cross again soon.

    All best wishes


  3. Denise D.

    ‎”Ultimately, you want to set the tone for the orchestra- do you want the orchestra to be a virtuosic, flexible and efficient group? If so, it is up to you to say ‘anything that can be done, we can do.’ You say this most clearly through your own preparation.”

    The best description I’ve seen of the complex responsibilities involved in this role. A must-read for students, but great for all orchestral musicians.

  4. Pingback: what makes a good concertmaster | NobleViola

  5. Pingback: Podcast: In the Key of ‘D’anzmayr – Concertmaster, Finale | Classical 101 - WOSU Public Media

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