Being First Chair In Band And Orchestra

By: Jerry A. Greene

While working with one of my cello students, who is first chair in her school orchestra, the subject of "what it really means to be first chair" was something that we spoke about for quite a while.

Chair Test Auditions

Many of the orchestra and band directors in my local area (San Antonio, TX) have weekly, or bi-weekly chair tests. These auditions keep students on their toes and encourage them to practice. The auditions are used to figure out who, in a certain section, will be first chair, 2nd...3rd and so on, but not much is really expected of the "first chair" in the early years of music eduction.

Playing The Solo Parts

The main reason that students try out for first chair is that they want to be the soloist, should there be a solo part for their section. As these students grow older and get to be more experienced, they will slowly start to find out that there is more to being a first chair "principal" musician.

Responsibility For Others In The Section

As students progress into more advanced orchestras and bands, they will find that being first chair means that they are generally responsible for how their section plays. It is normally understood that the conductor is the one that creates the overall sound for the orchestra, but a lot of the detailed information on how a part should be played is generally worked out through the principal instrumentalist. When sectionals are held, the principal instrumentalist (or section leader) is, many times, the one that will hold the session and work out any issues that everyone, as a section, has.

Being A Leader

When students start out playing in beginning band and/or orchestra, they become familiar with the "am I right?" syndrome. They start to listen to one another and try to figure out what's going on. If no-one sets an example as a leader, the section usually starts to get lost even when the conductor is focusing on that group. At times, one student will be playing in one place, another one will be somewhere completely different and others will just be sitting there having no idea where they are supposed to be. This is the time for the students that have the most confidence in themselves and their training shine, and usually end up becoming first chair.

Benefits Of Private Music Lessons

Usually, the students that take private lessons outside the school, are the ones that forge ahead, become the leaders and therefore first chair. The main reason for this is not that they normally play better than the surrounding students who don't take any private lessons, but that they gain enormous amounts of confidence when working with a professional musician and therefore become the natural leader of the section.

When everyone in a section is taking private lessons, than things really get competitive and the students try even harder! These are usually the students that get into the regional honor bands and orchestras, and then move on to the extremely competitive all-state groups and possibly even online degrees in music down the road.