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.