Young Concertmaster’s Guide to the Orchestra, Part IV. Final thoughts and my Top 11 tips

Concluding thoughts-

Being a concertmaster is an extremely high-stress job, in which you have to work to a very high standard, while often sublimating some of your own instincts and ego as a musician.  You may well miss opportunities to work with less pressure or to focus on getting the interpretations you want of works that matter to you. Play chamber music, both formally and informally. Go to see your fellow leaders an action and think about what you can learn from them (a wise conducting mentor once suggested I try to think of 3 positive things I would like to emulate from every conductor I see, no matter how good or bad I thought they were). Continue to play solo. Challenge your own tastes by living with competent recordings that you don’t automatically like.

Never miss a chance to hear your orchestra play with another concertmaster- you can learn so much from the experience, and it can be really restorative. I remember when I was at the CSO, I encountered one of the string principals (not the concertmaster) backstage after his first concert in the audience in many, many years. He was so excited- he kept saying how amazing the orchestra sounded. When you’re up there working so hard every day to get the last detail right, it is too easy to lose sight of what the music sounds like as a listener. It’s great to sit out there and remember how lucky you are to work with your colleagues. And, on a purely practical level, you will always see things your replacement does differently that you can learn from

Finally- Learn something about conducting- go to a workshop if you can. I was astonished a few years ago after observing a conducting masterclass with a leading professional recording orchestra when I heard the concertmaster, with many, many years of experience say “I guess there is more to it than I thought. I never really thought there was any technique to it beyond beat patterns.” How sad- knowledge is power, after all.

I suppose all of this sounds wildly optimistic, incredibly naïve and hugely demanding. What is amazing and inspiring, however, is that most concermasters come pretty remarkably close to being the best they can be at the job. Every musician will have different talents and strengths, different weaknesses and deficiencies. For all of us, it’s just a matter of trying to make our weaknesses into strengths- we never achieve perfection, but we can get pretty close.

So, let me leave you with a few simple basic tips. A Top 11 Tips for Young Concertmasters

1-       Prepare technically to be ready for any interpretation

2-       Develop a repertoire- have as much of the standard repertoire under your belt as possible.

3-       Be ready with ideas when needed, and open to ideas when present

4-       Remember- you set the tone with your preparation and attitude.

5-       Take responsibility for how the orchestra goes about its work in rehearsals and concerts. Don’t make excuses for mediocrity, and don’t encourage excuses or distractions.

6-       Learn about leadership

7-       Be ready to adapt your leadership styles to the needs of the situation

8-       Be ready to set aside your own ideas about a piece and to try to bring to life the ideas of guest soloists and conductors to the very best of your ability, regardless of whether you agree or not.

9-       Be absolutely fearless and ruthless about taking charge and over-ruling a conductor when it is needed to avoid an ensemble problem or train-wreck

10-   Never, ever play ahead of the beat unless it is to stay with a soloist.

11-   Try to forget who people are- treat the great and good and the young and unknown with the same mixture of respect, encouragement and personal authority. Prepare equally well regardless of the orchestra or conductor, and try just as hard to bring to life the ideas of people of all backgrounds.

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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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1 comment on “Young Concertmaster’s Guide to the Orchestra, Part IV. Final thoughts and my Top 11 tips”

  1. Lisa Toth

    Hello Kenneth,

    What a great series about concertmaster duties and the relationship to the conductor and, occasionally, a soloist. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your articles and some of the apt anecdotes you use to clarify and edify your points. Thank you!

    I’d like to ask your opinion about a situation I have been struggling with, recently. But first a little background about me: I’ve been a violinist for over four decades, a section violinist in community orchestras for over three decades, and a concertmaster for over two decades. Additionally, I’ve taught strings and piano for four decades and founded and conducted my own orchestra for over a decade.

    I have played under many conductors over the years, and much of what I know as a player and leader, I learned from them. I learned the MOST from those conductors with the worst technique, the least knowledge about composers and musicality, and who possessed the biggest egos. What did I learn from them? I learned how NOT to be like them.

    At any rate, back to my question, not as conductor, but as concertmaster of a community orchestra: What does a concertmaster do when certain members (either through ignorance or malice) undermine my decisions about bowings, articulations, and interpretation? I am an extremely strong, experienced player, and I have–in the three short years since I have assumed the position of concertmaster–helped revitalize and lift up the level of the orchestra a great deal. And yet, during rehearsal, our principal violist (a nice young man to relate to OUTSIDE of the orchestra) does not watch me when I bow a section a certain way, but instead and irritatingly, often ignores me and stubbornly bows in the OPPOSITE direction. The seconds and celli/bass have no problem following my bowings, but he does not follow my recommendations; and when he disagrees (often in a quizzical or dismissive manner), this causes the rest of the viola section to follow him and occasionally the other sections follow him, as well. I find this disheartening and disrespectful of my position and my experience as concertmaster. This obstinacy with opposite bowings continues through all rehearsals and right through the concert performances, lending an air of disunity, not to mention the appearance of an amateur quality to the strings.

    I have tried to, tactfully, recommend unified bowings and articulations, but he tends to be rather immovable and resistant to my suggestions, causing a degree of disrespect from a handful of other players, which undermines my position.

    As a conductor, what is your opinion on this type of situation? How would you recommend handling this matter?

    Thanks so much, in advance. And, again, excellent articles!

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