Young Concertmaster’s Guide to the Orchestra, Part II. Musical Leadership

In Part II, we look at the space in which musicianship and leadership skills come together in the job of the concertmaster.

Musical Leadership-
This is the most complex and important part of your job, in which you have to combine your skills as an artist and a leader, moment to moment in real time and under pressure.

On the most basic level, this is manifest in terms of timing- a conductor can give any beat they want, but the sound isn’t there until the leader says it is there. Any beat, no matter how clear, can be read in many different ways- the concertmaster has to take responsibility for establishing exactly when the sound is going to happen. I would suggest that the best concertmasters are the ones who most consistently and accurately make that sound happen for the entire orchestra at the same moment the conductor wanted it to happen.

Achieving that unanimity of execution takes a mixture of tremendous listening skills, a clear and dispassionate eye, a certain amount of telepathy, and an ability to discern what the conductor is after. Do they want a round or sharp attack? Do they want the music perking along on the front of the beat or leaning back lugubriously on the back. From bar to bar, beat to beat, the conductor will want different things- they’ll be wanting a different relationship of the orchestras sound and timing to their gesture. Moment by moment, you have to be the primary decoder of that complex language of gestures, grunts, facial expressions and wiggles. The best leaders make it look easy.

The reason that this skill is so important has nothing to do with a blindly hierarchical deference to the conductor. It has to do with getting the orchestra to play with unanimity of purpose. The orchestra can only really play together if you and the conductor are working together. Otherwise, moment by moment, everyone in the band starts having to make the same decisions you would- do I go with her or him? The cellos went with the conductor and the violas with the concertmaster- when do I play? Soon, nobody knows who to trust. Every time you play something different from what the conductor has indicated, you’ve made the orchestra weaker, because nobody knows whether to trust eye or ear. Sometimes you have to accept that price and differ, but often going with the conductor even when you disagree makes for a better orchestra in the long haul.

Again, the basis of this is profound musical preparation. You need to be confident enough with the part to keep half an eye on the conductor at all times, and technically in command enough that you’re never sacrificing a fluid following of gesture simply because you’re struggling with the notes. You also need to know what is going on in the score and to understand how the parts work together

There is no short-cut to this kind of mastery, getting there is a lifelong process. The demands on your time are vast- far more than on any other member of the orchestra. I think the only way to really keep up and survive as a concertmaster is to have under your belt the core repertoire so that in most programs you are only having to learn 1 or two out of 3 or 4 pieces for the first time. Where to start? I would suggest the same repertoire that conductors start with and build around the following symphonies

1-       All the Mozart symphonies from 35-41

2-       All the Beethoven symphonies

3-       Schubert 5 and 8

4-       Schumann 2 and 3

5-       Mendelssohn 3, 4 and 5

6-       All the Brahms symphonies

7-       Tchaikovsky Symphonies 4-6

8-       Richard Straus’s most popular tone poems- Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, Tod und Verklarung and Ein Heldenleben

9-       Mahler symphonies 1-5

10-   Shostakovich 1, 5 and 10

11-   Prokofiev 1 and 5

To this list, add a parallel line up of standard overture and short works (Lenoore 3, Academic Festival, Tchaik Romeo and Juliet)  and concerti (Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikowsky). The major works of Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Bartok are not things you want to sight read, either.

This list has nothing to do with what pieces I like the best or think are historically the most important. It’s just a practical list of things that come up the most often these days- if you can start ticking them off, you’ll be glad later. I’d start with Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms- getting those learned will make the rest of your life calmer as well as richer. Learn Rite of Spring while you are young, too.

But what does it mean for a concertmaster to learn a piece? I think it means that on little or no notice, you can play your part, with solos, accurately in a wide variety of interpretations. That’s more or less the definition I use as a conductor of what is in my repertoire- can I just pick the score off the shelf and do it? For each piece, on that list, however, a concertmaster’s knowledge should extend to a broad understanding of different performing traditions and solutions, and a solid understanding of the orchestral writing as a whole. You should learn the works from score whenever possible, as the best concertmasters generally do. It’s well worth taking some score study lessons from a conducting teacher or someone similar- you’ll find your work with the orchestra becomes more effective and rewarding.

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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.

Learn about Kenneth at

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2 comments on “Young Concertmaster’s Guide to the Orchestra, Part II. Musical Leadership”

  1. Lisa Hirsch

    Ken, stupid music writer question: _how_ does the concertmaster communicate to the orchestra when to play? You don’t say anything about this, yet it seems crucial to this posting and this particular part of the leader’s responsibility.

  2. Pingback: what makes a good concertmaster | NobleViola

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