Today we’re talking concertmaster, and what it means to sit in the hot seat. What are the duties and expectations, and what makes “first chair violin” attractive or unattractive to different players?
Is playing concertmaster more like being the point guard in basketball, or the quarterback in football? Remember: besides playing all those juicy solos, you have to deal with walk-outs, bowings, section concerns and principal relationships.
Just know that even though the concertmaster position puts you in the spotlight, there’s a price to pay for all that attention. How happy you are depends not just on the rest of orchestra but your own temperament.
As Akiko says, “Let’s just say it plainly. I don’t like being concertmaster.” But should we take her seriously?
Key Points From This Episode:
- The position and duties associated with the title of Concertmaster
- Walk-outs, hitting the right piano octave and making sure not to fall over
- Comparing the role of the concertmaster with positions in team sports
- How the concertmaster relates to the other members of the orchestra
- The issues that arise when a conductor is ahead or behind
- Communicating with the conductor; bringing issues up at the right time
- The importance of solos in getting hired as concertmaster
- Bowing decisions, and shutting out some of the noise and chatter
- Leadership principles and focusing on what is most important
- Our best and worst experiences as a concertmaster
“If you had to pick one leader of the orchestra that isn’t the conductor, but a player, it’s the concertmaster. They’re visible, they’re up front.” — Nathan Cole [0:07:29]
“No one even really knows I’m technically a concertmaster, so I have to give myself the title of emergency concertmaster!” — Akiko Tarumoto [0:10:15]
“It’s a fun job. It’s fraught with danger, but fun and rewarding and you get those juicy solos too.” — Nathan Cole [0:51:48]
Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:
- Stand Partners for Life
- Carnival of the Animals
- Holly Mulcahy: More than wearing pretty shoes
- The Suzuki Method
- David Kim
- West Side Story
- Pines of Rome
- The 14 Leadership Principles that Drive Amazon
- Jeff Bezos
[0:00:00.6] NC: Hello and welcome back to Stand Partners for Life. I am Nathan.
[0:00:03.5] AT: I’m Akiko.
[0:00:17.5] NC: Today, we thought we’d talk about the concertmaster, the duties of a concertmaster and what it’s all about. I mean, should we at least define the concertmaster, the first chair of violinists?
[0:00:28.7] AT: Sure. I assumed people know that, but there are times, a lot of times people don’t necessarily get what that means.
[0:00:36.3] NC: We don’t even say that. We don’t say concert mistress, right?
[0:00:39.4] AT: Not that I know of.
[0:00:40.3] NC: Because I hear people say that sometimes.
[0:00:42.2] AT: Yes. I think some people still say it.
[0:00:44.9] NC: It’s like president, right?
[0:00:46.0] AT: Well, it’s like stewardess. We don’t say it anymore.
[0:00:49.3] NC: Right. I’m not sure if people ever did say concert mistress, if that was ever really appropriate.
[0:00:53.4] AT: Sure, they did. I don’t remember.
[0:00:56.6] NC: Yeah. Concertmaster, it’s the first chair violinist. Both of us get to do that duty sometimes and we both have concertmaster somewhere in our titles, First Associate Concertmaster and your assistant. That’s largely the reason we came out to LA from the Chicago Symphony was the chance to do be concertmaster sometimes.
Why is this a special position and why? What does the concertmaster do?
[0:01:24.8] AT: So are we – start enumerating the duties?
[0:01:27.5] NC: Yes. We’re going to tell what the concertmaster does.
[0:01:30.8] AT: Well, so my first disclaimer is that I don’t play concertmaster very often, as you know. I’m drawing on a very small amount of experience. I just want to get that out of the way.
[0:01:43.5] NC: I mean, you did it before college. You did it in college and professionally.
[0:01:48.9] AT: Sure. There’s probably a lot, or a few people listening who can identify with that. They were –
[0:01:54.6] NC: As we’ll get to that, I think sometimes it can be hard. It’s a harder job to do, I think if you’re not doing it all the time. When you just have to jump in and –
[0:02:02.9] AT: Yeah. That I can attest to. I have a lot to say about that.
[0:02:07.3] NC: Actually, we were talking earlier and you did make me laugh, because you mentioned the first thought you have when you do find out that you’re going to play concertmaster.
[0:02:16.9] AT: Of course, one of the things you have to do when you’re a concertmaster is walk out on stage, or sometimes I’m concertmaster for just a piece on the program. In that case, you don’t have to do the walk out. The walk out is a big deal. I don’t think I thought about it too much before I had to do it. Then I was like – I asked you for every step. I was like, “Okay, so are they going to tell me when do I walk out?” You said, “Yes, they’ll tell you.” It’s like, “Then what do I do?” It’s like, “Well, you bow to the audience and then you turn around and you wait for the oboe to give the A.” It was like, “Okay. Okay. Okay. I think I can do that.”
[0:02:51.6] NC: A lot of these so-called smaller duties, the ceremony of the job, those are some of the things that tripped me up at first. Actually, I think that got –
[0:03:01.3] AT: It’s funny you use that phrase, “tripped you up,” because the walkout involves obviously walking out and hopefully not falling. That’s a big — not fear of having go that far. I mean, nobody wants to fall on their ham and looks incredibly dumb. As a woman, of course you’re wearing heels.
Anyway, it’s a whole thing. I got to choose something that looks sturdy. I’ve got some great shoes. It kills me to come out wearing something sensible. If I’m concertmaster, which again, is thankfully not terribly frequently, but I do have to go with the sturdy block heel, since I don’t wear flats because I’m very short. Ladies, if you’re listening, you know what a block heel is. It’s something that’s less likely to cause you to fall on the way out when you’re concertmaster.
[0:03:50.2] NC: Yeah. A concertmaster does walk out first. They talk about the concertmaster tuning the orchestra, which really is that phrase doesn’t make a lot of sense. The concertmaster calls for the principal oboe to give an A, maybe calls for if there – some orchestras do two A’s or three A’s, or I think my youth orchestrated did four A’s. You got a call for those different A’s. There’s no –
[0:04:18.4] AT: That’s the scary thing is that you’re not – there’s no –
[0:04:21.9] NC: You stress it.
[0:04:23.9] AT: Unspoken. At a certain level, it’s a serve understood. That my first time, I was really nervous that people are going to be staring at me like, “What are you doing? You’re waiting for another A? There’s no more A’s.” Or, “Oh, there’s another A. Why didn’t you wait for the other A?” I think the first time I did it here actually was for a kid’s concert, where there was piano. It was also terrifying, because I’m always afraid I’m going to hit a key other than the A on the piano, which everybody’s worried about that too, isn’t it?
[0:04:56.6] NC: Yeah, because in that case when there is a keyboard on the stage – well, if the keyboard is somewhere in the orchestra, then you have the keyboard player give the A.
[0:05:05.8] AT: What? Really?
[0:05:06.8] NC: Well, let’s say we’re playing a baroque piece and there’s a harpsichord.
[0:05:10.3] AT: Oh, of course. It’s near you. You’re not talking about the pianos all the way in the back.
[0:05:15.5] NC: Right. I mean, anything where the orchestra is supposed to have to really be in tune with a keyboard. If that keyboard player, say a harpsichord player is on stage, then they give their A, the oboe takes that A and plays it.
[0:05:30.9] AT: See. This I have not done.
[0:05:31.8] NC: I know. The much more common scenario is there’s a piano soloist, they’re not on stage yet, but the instrument is and that’s what you’re talking about where you, the concertmaster have to play that A and try not to hit the wrong key, or the wrong octave.
[0:05:49.2] AT: Yeah. I think I almost did the wrong octave this summer. That was good.
[0:05:54.1] NC: Even that would have been fun. The wrong note is embarrassing. It’s like that Internet meme, right? You had one job. In this case, the concertmaster has plenty more jobs.
[0:06:06.3] AT: Well, it depends. I think this summer when I was worried about hitting the right octave, I think it was just – it’s for Carnival of the Animals. There were no solos. I loved walking out, not tripping, hitting the right key. That’s the bulk of the work.
[0:06:20.0] NC: That’s why you’re getting the big bucks for that.
[0:06:21.8] AT: Exactly. Thanks for adding me. Or I added myself.
[0:06:24.8] NC: Let’s talk a little bit more generally maybe. By the way, there’s a nice article on this online written by Holly Mulcahy who is concertmaster and I believe both Chattanooga and Wichita. She had some thoughts on what the duties of a concertmaster are and she interviewed a few of her colleagues as well.
She titled that article It’s More Than Wearing Pretty Shoes, because apparently an audience member had once noticed her shoes and asked her if as concertmaster, she had to wear shoes like that. Yeah. I mean, you’ve already talked about the importance of the right shoes, whether they’re pretty or not.
[0:07:03.7] AT: Yeah. Like I said, my prettiest ones they have to – they just stay in the closet for a concertmaster.
[0:07:09.4] NC: More generally, I mean, we’ve mentioned the actual – this great definition of the concertmaster is just first chair, first violin. I mean, what that really means is they’re leading the first violin section there by extension, I guess you could say, the rest of the strings and really the rest of the orchestra. I mean, if you had to pick one leader of the orchestra that isn’t the conductor, the player, it’s the concertmaster. They’re visible, they’re upfront.
[0:07:39.7] AT: We used to watch a little more football, right? In football and other professional sports, is there another position that you feel is a strong parallel to concertmaster?
[0:07:52.5] NC: I’m tempted to say the quarterback in American football, except that the quarterback almost combines concertmaster and conductor duties. I mean –
[0:08:03.5] AT: The coach is – looks like with the coach.
[0:08:07.2] NC: Yeah. I mean, the reason that doesn’t – actually, I love thinking about this. I’ve struggled to come up with a great parallel, because in sports the coach isn’t also out there performing, whereas the conductor is performing, but isn’t making a sound.
[0:08:21.9] AT: The coach is speaking into the earpiece.
[0:08:23.5] NC: That’s true. I mean, I think the concertmaster is in many ways a quarterback. I feel what might be a little closer is the point guard in basketball, because you really – yeah, the proper point guard, anytime there’s a ball that needs to be moved from one part of the court to the other, everyone looks to the point guard. Nobody else would just think of taking the ball and moving up the court, if the point guard is on the floor. The point guard calls the plays, takes the temperature of the offense.
[0:08:55.1] AT: See to me, it would be more of a parallel with football, because so much happens when – that doesn’t involve the quarterback.
[0:09:06.1] NC: That’s true.
[0:09:06.5] AT: Which I think is more like — works. I mean, it’s not as if – with the point guard, they’re always controlling the ball. Yeah, it’s not exactly what we do. I mean, it’s more – we’ve got a more specialized area that we stick to.
[0:09:20.2] NC: I mean, let’s talk about what things the concertmaster has to do and maybe we’ll get a clearer picture of yeah, how it resembles — because you’re thinking more quarterback, right?
[0:09:32.9] AT: Yeah. I mean, I like to joke that I’m – well, I talk about myself being – I’m not even third string, because fourth in line. If there was a fourth string quarterback, that would be me.
[0:09:44.2] NC: You’re like Speaker of the House in terms of the succession?
[0:09:48.6] AT: That even sounds more important. We’ll go with emergency concertmaster.
[0:09:53.3] NC: Emergency. Yeah, actually I’ve been called a number of things as second chair. I think I’ve been called by audience members alternate concertmaster, junior concertmaster. That was a good one. There’s concertmaster, or just regular tonight. Yeah, the emergency concertmaster, well, you gave that title to yourself, which is –
[0:10:14.3] AT: Yeah. No one even really knows I’m technically a concertmaster, so I have to give myself the title of emergency!
[0:10:22.8] NC: Don’t you also feel the concertmaster is an advocate for his or her section and even for the entire orchestra? As the concertmaster, you represent the orchestra if it’s ever an orchestra versus the conductor situation. I mean, in order to put it in a less adversarial way, you help the conductor know what the group needs and especially the strings and especially the violins.
[0:10:51.9] AT: This is something I’m especially not experienced with. I would say the actual act of sitting there and putting the bow to the string and whatever, cranking out some small solos. I’ve done that, but I haven’t done a whole lot of rehearsing, where I’ve had to ask a ton of – I have questions to ask sometimes, but when I see you really doing the job, it’s really interesting to see the things that you have to navigate. You have to have those powers of diagnosis to say, “No, here’s what’s happening in my section, or in the strings over here. Do you think we could have a different beat pattern there?”
Yeah, I can see that it’s a different job, a very different job that way, because you have to yeah, diagnose. You have to be able to analyze what’s going on, which can be tricky because when you’re not sitting concertmaster, a lot of times you’re thinking about what you’re going to make for dinner. When you’re concertmaster, it’s black and white, you’ve got to be there and say, “Hey, this isn’t working. Let’s try this.”
[0:11:56.1] NC: Yeah. It would be a lot easier if all the music-making was done by robots, if it were just a bunch of machines that you could –
[0:12:06.3] AT: Give them any ideas.
[0:12:06.9] NC: — fine tune, or swap out parts, or something. The fact that it’s human beings, I mean, that’s what makes it an interesting and a fun job, but also a challenging one too, because yes, you’re advocating for your section and for the group, but you also have to make demands on your section and the group. If you feel what’s standing between present reality and the desired result is your own section, the first violins, then you’ve got to say, “Look, this this isn’t happening the way it needs to happen. Let’s do this.” You can say that in a number of different tones of voice. Sometimes it starts with your own section. Other times, it might be a different section, right? You’ve got to work with the other principals.
[0:12:51.2] AT: Yeah. I also admire how you speak to your own section. It’s incredible. Sometimes a problem is happening and I think it would be tempting to just furrow your bow and just turn around and like, “What are you doing there? What’s going on?” You don’t do that, which of course you can’t. I mean, obviously you can’t do that. It’s great that you always come up with a really diplomatic, constructive way to ask for what you want.
[0:13:19.3] NC: I read in the Suzuki, since I grew up, Suzuki and I know many of you guys did too. One of Suzuki’s things was in lessons, there should only be ‘do instructions’. It’s like, never don’t do this. It’s always. I feel that works well for groups too, because everybody’s happy to respond to something. “Let’s do this.” You include yourself. The expectation is that you and that’s why it’s important always to – you’ve got to be a 100% prepared and all that, but you can’t ask anyone to do something that you’re not going to do yourself. I mean, that’s the quickest way to solve a problem, if it can be solved that way.
[0:14:01.3] AT: That’s good leadership. You’re a very natural leader.
[0:14:04.8] NC: Like you said though, it’s hard if you’re not doing it all the time, which I don’t. Then –
[0:14:09.8] AT: You do it a lot. I would say you do it –
[0:14:12.2] NC: About a third of the time here.
[0:14:13.3] AT: Yeah, which is a lot of the time.
[0:14:15.1] NC: Sure. Always that first rehearsal, especially if it’s been a month, let’s say. Yeah, it feels like putting on a new pair of dress shoes again. You’re having to get used to it. Yeah, you have to work with the principals of the other sections, especially the other string sections. We barely mentioned the conductor. Of course, that’s a big component of it too, right? You have to be interpreter, even mind-reader, sometimes to help the orchestra fulfill the wishes, the vision of the conductor.
[0:14:49.9] AT: Yeah, that’s another thing. I mean, I hate to keep sounding like I never do this, but yeah. I even had to do too much of that. I mean –
[0:14:56.1] NC: Well, that’s not true.
[0:14:57.7] AT: Well, the problem I have, because I’m not one of the main people, so sometimes a lot of the time when I do it, it’s a kids’ concert, or I’ve done a pops concert. In that case, sometimes the pops concerts aren’t conductors who are necessarily really comfortable, or natural doing it.
[0:15:17.6] NC: Yeah, makes it tough.
[0:15:18.1] AT: Sometimes they get behind the beat a lot. I mean, sometimes are ahead, but I think as a general rule, I think the pops conductor as we’ve seen tend to err on the being behind, or on the back side of the beat, which is something we’re not used to, because most of our non-pops conductors are actually ahead of the beat. There’s that.
There was one time when somebody was quite behind. I think it was a very quick passage. The person who is performing, the soloist was not behind. He was really on the beat, and so obviously. It’s tricky. It was a very quick passage in trying to ignore, get everybody to ignore the conductor without saying, “Hey, everybody. Ignore the conductor now.”
[0:16:04.5] NC: That’s frowned upon.
[0:16:05.6] AT: It is. You need to imply it by trying to – be just demonstrative about where the beat is.
[0:16:13.0] NC: Yeah. I mean, and that situation that you’re describing happens all the time and there’s no manual to tell us what do you do in that situation, because I think it’s pretty obvious to everyone, you can’t stand up and say, “Ignore the conductor.”
I wouldn’t have a problem, especially if I know that it’s not a super experienced conductor, or at least let’s say a conductor that we don’t see all the time, or that maybe doesn’t conduct Symphony Orchestras all the time, I might stand up and say to the strings in general, or whichever instruments are involved, “Guys, let’s stick right with the soloist in this section.” I wouldn’t have a problem saying that.
[0:16:55.4] AT: Sure. I mean, I’m remembering now a concert where –
[0:17:00.6] NC: Did I do that?
[0:17:01.8] AT: You kind of. You had to talk to the soloist and explain to him what was happening with the conductor. Why the conductor wasn’t able to give him the tempo he wanted. He was asking you if you could help him.
[0:17:15.3] NC: Right. I did get sold out once. This was both a soloist and the conductor who didn’t do a lot with Symphony Orchestras and just during a rehearsal once, the soloist pulled me aside and said, “Do you know what’s happening here?” I said, “Yeah. He’s just pretty behind. We’ll see if we can straighten things out.”
As soon as the break started, the soloist went right up to the conductor and said, “Nate and I were talking and it seems like you’re really behind.” I just wanted to shrink into the floorboards. Luckily, the conductor said, “Okay, let’s – why don’t you and I continue this discussion in my dressing room? I think you are both reasonable guys, but still that –”
[0:18:01.4] AT: Take this outside.
[0:18:02.7] NC: Yeah. Well, we were already outside because it was the Hollywood Bowl.
[0:18:05.5] AT: That’s right. Take this inside.
[0:18:06.5] NC: Yeah, take it into the dressing room. Well, that’s the yeah. That’s I think where the job as I say is the most interesting and the most difficult. Yeah, taking the temperature of personalities. I remember talking once with Alex Carr, who’s concertmaster in Dallas. He was mentioning a younger colleague of his, who when he first started the job was asking Alex some questions like, “Hey, when’s the right time to crack the whip and solve a problem like this? When do you talk to the conductor?”
Alex was giving some advice. Then there was a chance for practical demonstration, because the younger colleagues said, “I really think we should fix this. Don’t you want to say something about this?” Alex said, “The conductor seems pretty – he’s not in his best mood right now. It’s not going to go well if I try and open up this issue.”
I guess, the younger colleague asked again. Like, “I really think we should – Why don’t we try and solve this?” Alex said, “All right. Let’s see what happens. I’ll ask him.” Asked the question and the conductor jumped down their throats. He turned to him and said, “See, I told you.”
[0:19:22.4] AT: That’s experience.
[0:19:24.5] NC: Yeah. That’s happened to me. I think I have a really good a killer issue I’m going to raise. It’s going to solve everything. I bring it up and I get the – I mean, it’s okay if I get the cursory response or no response, but I’ve also gotten annoyed like, “Yeah, that’s fine. Don’t worry about that.” Or, “Yeah, later.”
[0:19:44.7] AT: I mean, I think going off-script here a little bit. I think there’s the famous time, just on the topic of how other concertmasters handle things. I don’t know if we can use names. Maybe we shouldn’t. There was one time when A concertmaster we knew –
[0:19:59.6] NC: Was that his name? A concertmaster.
[0:20:02.1] AT: A. Concertmaster. We were chugging along and I think it was Mahler’s 6th rehearsal. Everybody was thinking, “Yeah, I don’t think we need all this rehearsals.” I’m thinking like, “Hey, can you ask him? Can you ask him if –” actually, it seems, who does that? It’s like, “Can you ask if we need all these rehearsals?”
[0:20:24.0] NC: I mean, the mood had gotten pretty weird at that point. Everybody was looking around wondering, “Is this performance art, or what are we doing here? Because it almost seemed like we weren’t really rehearsing.” There was a real emotional disconnect.
[0:20:34.9] AT: Right. We were just playing through. Yeah. We had a concertmaster say something and he was – he was very comfortable with himself and his job. I think he went ahead and asked and it did not go well.
[0:20:48.6] NC: Well, he asked what? “Maestro, are you going to need the second rehearsal today?” Or something like that.
[0:20:53.6] AT: Yes. Yes. Because it was a double rehearsal day. That did not go well. That was the worst I’ve ever seen a question go for a conductor from the concertmaster.
[0:21:03.8] NC: Well, and that was a very experienced concertmaster, so I think he knew what message he was delivering. He just figured – and you could call that – would you call that advocating for the orchestra? I mean, it was a risky move and it didn’t exactly pay off. I mean, it paid off in the sense that we didn’t have to do that second rehearsal that day, because the conductor started driving to the airport to leave town.
[0:21:29.1] AT: He ordered the orchestra driver to take him to the airport from the rehearsal, but apparently, he came back, so it was okay.
[0:21:37.2] NC: Yeah. I mean, that’s a situation where things started getting out of hand and that’s an experienced concertmaster basically saying, “You don’t own us. If you’re going to waste our time, then let’s just forget it.”
[0:21:52.7] AT: Those were the days.
[0:21:55.3] NC: Yeah, it’s a Hail Mary play and one that I have never found myself in the position of making.
[0:22:01.5] AT: Yeah. It’s not a move we’re likely to see again.
[0:22:05.6] NC: I remember when I actually went the night that I won this job and it was very nice — Marten, the concertmaster here had me into his room just to say, “Welcome to the orchestra. Here, I have some champagne. Why don’t we open it and have a toast?” I mean, it was almost midnight, I think at that point. It had been a long audition day. He asked me.
I forget exactly how he put it, but it was like, “You have done this before, right? You’ve played some concertmaster, right?” I always regret — I should have just feigned astonishment and been like, “What? You didn’t tell me I was going to have to play concertmaster in this job.” Done that in my life.
[0:22:45.5] AT: You should’ve been like, “Oh, yeah. I know Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra.”
[0:22:48.9] NC: Yeah. I think I may have opened with that. Well, the truth was I hadn’t – I had played guest concertmaster in various orchestras, which is that’s an animal, or an animal unto itself. I feel I’m mixing phrases there. No, most of my experience with that now has been here in LA. It’s been great experience.
Well, let’s maybe get to some of the nitty-gritty. For example, the walking out and all that. Yeah, I call this the walking, standing, sitting, bowing category of –
[0:23:18.4] AT: Did we already talk about how I really – I don’t like being concertmaster?
[0:23:22.1] NC: I think you’ve implied it in a few different ways.
[0:23:24.1] AT: Yeah. Well, so just come out and say it. I don’t like being concertmaster.
[0:23:28.8] NC: You like being assistant concertmaster.
[0:23:30.7] AT: I like doing everything, except being concertmaster. I’ll sit anywhere, but concertmaster. I mean, I have to sometimes, obviously.
[0:23:39.4] NC: I feel like you do.
[0:23:39.9] AT: I like being called concertmaster. I think having the title assistant concert – I like telling people that I’m the assistant concertmaster of the LA Phil. It feels great. Then I actually have to do it.
[0:23:48.7] NC: I feel like you do enjoy it. Because then you get to – you get to decide the bowings and the strokes and the sound and –
[0:23:56.9] AT: No, I don’t. No.
[0:23:59.2] NC: Well, okay. Maybe we’ll get you to imply some more as we go on.
[0:24:04.6] AT: Well, I’ll talk about the things I have enjoyed about it, which there are some. It’s just that I find the lead-up very stressful. I spent a lot of energy trying not to be overwhelmed by the situation.
[0:24:17.7] NC: Well, yes. Sometimes it takes getting past to the walking and the tuning and the bowing. I remember as a kid in yeah, Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra, the conductor and my teachers – I don’t think my parents, I think they stayed out of it, but everybody had a problem with the way I walked. I walked too hunched over, or too slow. I had to straighten my back and then walk faster. Then the next time I tried it, they said –
[0:24:45.4] AT: You walk too fast. You look stiff.
[0:24:47.3] NC: Yeah. I look ridiculous. I was like running out there and then my bow wasn’t right and bow all the way. Then the next time, I stayed down too long and it looked fake.
[0:24:56.1] AT: It’s amazing you can still function.
[0:25:01.8] NC: Now I don’t think about it too much, except at the Hollywood Bowl and that is a long walk. That’s a lot of steps to get back to the middle.
[0:25:08.0] AT: I’ve only had to do that walk once.
[0:25:10.1] NC: Right. The applause usually dies down by the time you get out there.
[0:25:15.6] AT: Yeah. Thanks to you, I think it was a half jog for me.
[0:25:19.1] NC: Yeah. You’re running out there trying to fit the bow in before they stop clapping. Everybody always laughs for some reason by the time you turn around to the orchestra to tune.
[0:25:27.1] AT: I know and that’s awkward. I mean, the thing is that I do it so infrequently that when I actually turn around to tune, I feel people are just giggling, because they’re like, “What is she doing up there?” Then I’m just so self-conscious.
[0:25:39.1] NC: Like, “Wait, that’s the emergency concertmaster.”
[0:25:40.6] AT: Yeah. It’s like, “Dear, God. There’s some horrible emergency.”
[0:25:42.9] NC: Now I usually assume that I didn’t put on a bow tie, or I didn’t brush my hair or something.
[0:25:47.2] AT: Flies up and there are few –
[0:25:48.6] NC: Fly. That has happened –
[0:25:50.1] AT: Oh, dear.
[0:25:51.4] NC: Well. Yeah, I think several times.
[0:25:52.4] AT: What? Really? As concertmaster?
[0:25:54.6] NC: Yeah. Yeah.
[0:25:55.7] AT: I feel responsible. I should have told you about that. Yeah, there’s giggling and I’m standing there. I’m trying to arrange my face, so that I look serene or in control and I feel neither. It’s a struggle.
[0:26:10.4] NC: Well, let’s say that you’ve gotten past all that. Right, the conductor walks out in at least in the LA Phil, we always stand not just for the music director, but any conductor at the start of the concert, we stand when the conductor walks out. Conductor shakes your hand, sometimes shakes your stand partners hand. Sit down, concert begins.
We haven’t had at all mentioned concertmaster solos yet. Just as every principle wind, woodwind, brass player in the orchestra has to play solos, concertmaster plays the violin solos and that is a huge part of the job. Strangely, pretty much the only part of the job on which you’re hired. I mean, when someone hires – when an orchestra hires a concertmaster, often, all they really know is how that person walks out on the stage and plays solos.
[0:27:03.3] AT: I mean, you’ve done a lot of trial weeks in various orchestras.
[0:27:07.1] NC: I have. I think with concertmaster more than any other position, nobody’s going to hire you just based on the audition. I guess, that’s true. Still –
[0:27:18.3] AT: For someone like me, being I guess for you too, you didn’t get a trial. It was a little bit unusual maybe that they didn’t try you out first.
[0:27:26.2] NC: Here in LA. Yeah. Gustavo likes to – he listens to the committee. If there’s any consensus and if he feels good about it – I think he has the player in mind, the candidate in mind. He knows how inconvenient and yeah, life-changing an extended trial can be. I think he likes to avoid it when he can.
[0:27:51.7] AT: What’s even more inconvenient and life-changing is when someone doesn’t get tenure. I feel we should balance that. I think it’s a little strange sometimes. If he feels comfortable, he feels that the audition was strong enough, that’s nice, that you just want to pull the trigger.
[0:28:09.8] NC: Well, yeah. That is what happened with us here. It was certainly worked out nicely for us in our case, because we didn’t have to wait around to see how trials worked out.
[0:28:19.9] AT: I hate to say it. I don’t know how I would have done if I’d just been like, “Here, you got to play concertmaster for –” I know and it happens to people. They have to do it as soon as they’re offered the job, or as a trial before they’re offered the job. Yeah, I feel I caught a lucky break there. I had a couple years to get. I mean, literally, I think maybe a year, maybe it’s just a year doing the job. It was a solid year before I actually had to play concertmaster.
I got to know it was going to eventually happen, but just not have to actually do it. Yeah, I got comfortable in my position. I actually think it was after I got tenure, surprisingly. That I didn’t have to – when I did it, I wasn’t like, “Oh, my job is on the line,” which a lot of people face that situation. It’s scary. That’s the very high-pressure, obviously the thing to have to do.
[0:29:07.7] NC: Right. Since neither, we we’re not – our title is not concertmaster, so I think Gustavo felt fine, comfortable enough without any extended trial or anything. For a concertmaster position, right, I mean, there are always trials. It’s just for that reason, because the committee, the music director has heard you play solos in the audition, but they haven’t seen really anything else.
[0:29:36.7] AT: I mean, principal concert –
[0:29:38.0] NC: Right. About those solos, I mean, there have been cases of concertmasters that really – I mean, the only part of the job they did well was playing those solos. Then people would say, “God. That guy’s such a jerk. I can’t stand them. They can’t lead,” but wow, whenever they play a solo, there’s no one else I’d rather listen to.
[0:30:00.7] AT: That’s the concertmaster I want to be.
[0:30:02.7] NC: Yeah. I mean, if you had to pick one thing, I think both of us would agree with –
[0:30:07.3] AT: Wasn’t that the George thing, in Seinfeld?
[0:30:10.5] NC: What do you mean?
[0:30:11.3] AT: There’s a girl who he finds out she’s interested, but she said – she basically makes it clear she doesn’t find him good-looking. She thinks he’s interesting and funny or something. He thought he’s doing – Elaine was like, “Aren’t you happy? She likes you.” He says, “I’d rather she hate me and said I was good-looking.”
[0:30:37.5] NC: Rather they hate me and say I’ve played amazing solos.
[0:30:41.2] AT: Yeah. Definitely rather be hated and admired, than liked and not admired.
[0:30:48.4] NC: Well, I mean, for that reason there have been and it actually it happens often that someone is hired to be concertmaster and they’ve never been in the section of an orchestra before, because their playing has soloistic qualities.
[0:31:05.3] AT: Or any principle happened.
[0:31:07.9] NC: Right. Although, I would say it’s maybe most common for a concertmaster. I mean, principal cello, or principal viola, or perhaps a principal woodwind instrument, they might hire someone who’s never been in orchestra before. I feel that’s more rare. I feel for violin –
[0:31:26.9] AT: I mean, there are a lot more violin soloists, so just you know that. It’s true. I think when the orchestra is looking for a concertmaster, one approach is, “Let’s get somebody who can just knock those solos out of the park.”
[0:31:40.0] NC: Well, orchestras here, orchestras perform with so many violin soloists as you said. I think that’s the sound that they have in their ear. If you think of a flute sound, or clarinet sound you’re likely thinking of orchestral solos. When people think, “Oh, violin. Solo violin sound,” they’re thinking concertos. It’s probably not surprising if it comes to a pool of candidates, those who can really sound like a soloist, who maybe have spent their lives as soloists have a big edge.
I mean, there’s a – I remember David Kim, concertmaster in Philadelphia talking about a winning sound, just the kind of sound that as soon as you play the first note, everybody’s ear is drawn to you. It’s partly to do with volume, right? I mean, you have to know the context of your solo, so that the first note you play does emerge. There just has to be – there has to be some brilliance to what you’re doing that cuts through whatever texture it is.
[0:32:50.9] AT: Well, sure. I mean, some of those violin solos are huge. And very virtuosic.
[0:32:56.4] NC: I almost feel the longer they are, the easier they are in some ways.
[0:33:00.3] AT: Oh, I would have to disagree but – I mean, for you I’m sure, because you like to settle in and get comfortable and stuff. For me it’s like, just sooner it’s over, the better. The last time I have to follow my face.
[0:33:14.3] NC: I mean, the worst thing for me now – if I know I’m going to be concertmaster, I do is I got some good advice from Norman Carrol, former concertmaster of Philadelphia Orchestra, where he – yup. He said any time he’s got a new piece to look at, he just flips through it and looks for those four letters, S-O-L-O.
The worst situation is when you feel like you know a piece. Let’s say you see, “Oh, I’m concertmaster for this week and it’s going to be whatever.” Scheherazade, so a bunch of solos. Well, take something smaller than that. I can’t name a piece right now, but you figure, “Oh, I know that piece.”
[0:33:54.5] AT: Oh, it’s like me in West Side Story, right?
[0:33:56.5] NC: Then you get to the rehearsal and maybe you didn’t flip through every page, because you’ve practiced the solos, the big solos a lot and then you realize, “Oh, there’s that little one on page seven that’s just – it’s two notes. It’s a slide, but I forgot about that one.” You get there in rehearsal and you’re like, “Oh, God. Is this going to come off or not?” Yeah. Your skin is crawling.
[0:34:23.3] AT: Well, there’s a lot of them that I wouldn’t look forward to. I feel that slide in Mahler is scary.
[0:34:31.3] NC: Oh, I agree. Oh, Pines of Rome comes to mind. For example, at the end of the third movement right –
[0:34:41.2] AT: Oh, the B? A B?
[0:34:43.0] AT: It’s like F# to F#. It’s just — that’s two violins together. It’s the first two violins together. All it is is two notes, just an octave slide, but that’s the thing –
[0:34:54.2] AT: Yeah, I don’t even like being second chair for that.
[0:34:58.6] NC: Yeah. No, it’s the solos you forgot about. Concertmasters have to do bowings, right? Let’s say that you’re the permanent concertmaster of an orchestra, it’s really over time, you get to shape the bowings that the string section uses just on a week-to-week basis now. Our jobs, let’s say we’re concertmaster for a Tchaikovsky Symphony, I’m not going to take the LA Phil parts and say, “Uh, now it’s my chance. I’m going to reverse all the bowings in the part, because I like this better. I’m going to mostly keep what we do. If I think there’s one or two things that I would like to try differently, I may make a little change.”
[0:35:42.6] AT: I mean, the tempos can be obviously really different from conductor to conductor. You might have to change your bowing based on that.
[0:35:50.8] NC: Right. I think both you and I, we feel pretty similarly that changing the bowing might be the last thing you would do. Generally, if the conductor wants a diminuendo or a crescendo or something, then you just play a diminuendo or crescendo using the bowing that’s there. I mean, if it’s truly terrible and it’s just not going to work, then you change it.
[0:36:16.5] AT: Those things always really stressed me out, because feeling when I change up bowing or hand back a bowing that people aren’t grumbling like, “What is this? What is she doing?” Somehow those moments seem like where I’m most vulnerable to people knowing that I don’t really belong there.
[0:36:34.7] NC: I was actually just thinking the other day about – it’s the same concertmaster you’re talking about earlier, A concertmaster.
[0:36:42.0] AT: Porlock. Porlock Symphony.
[0:36:45.9] NC: Someone grumbling behind him as he handed back a bowing. He listened to it for a few seconds, “Oh, this is terrible. This, that, up, down.” He just turned around and said, “Problem with the bowing?” Then the person started to respond and he said, “Good.”
[0:37:06.1] AT: What was do the best you can?
[0:37:08.5] NC: Oh, yeah. That was also him. Mr. A concertmaster was – he had some good lines. Yeah, it was – actually, it was the same complainer, but a different occasion and said –
[0:37:21.1] AT: These complainers are –
[0:37:22.1] NC: “Down, up, up, up, up, down. It’s two. Down, down, up.” He just turned around and said, “Do the best you can.”
[0:37:33.0] AT: I remember a colleague and an unnamed, also unnamed orchestra saying, “There’s too much up-bow in this orchestra.” Yeah, you just imagine. When you spent a lot of time in the section most of your life, for me, most of my years and then and then you just know what people are saying like, all these you know. You don’t even wonder. “They hate this bowing, or they’re going to hate when I say this,” and this is paralyzing. I can’t get past it.
[0:38:02.6] NC: Well, it might be nice at some point to yeah, I mean, if I had the chance over 20 years to forge some bowing identity, because there are more seasoned members of our orchestra who we’re playing a piece and they’ll see a passage that has a down, up, up, down, or something and they’re like, “Oh, that’s a Sydney Wiese.” He was the concertmaster here 50 years ago. Yeah, they’re just – they’re pretty sure that that was his bowing and nobody’s changed it since then.
[0:38:35.5] AT: That’s nice.
[0:38:38.6] NC: I can’t remember the guy before him. Yeah. It was like, “Ooh, that goes all the way back to Fresina.”
[0:38:48.9] AT: Right. The thing about –
[0:38:50.9] NC: That’s nice.
[0:38:51.8] AT: — being concertmaster and having to shut all those things out, that’s hard, like I said. If you’re going to do it, I think you really have to – your focus has to be very much just not at all on those things. Your focus has to be, “I am right. This is where this is. This is where to put this note.” There’s no wiggle room.
[0:39:14.5] NC: Because I bet that same person, the same person that now was extolling that, “Ooh, well that’s a Fresina.” I bet when Fresina put that bowing that guy was like, “Oh, wow. What a stupid bowing. That’ll never work.” Fast forward 40 years.
[0:39:30.5] AT: I think I’m just now – it’s like, yeah, what’s the point of complaining? We’re not going to change a bowing by saying stuff like that. I like being married to you, because I can complain to you about bowing, which is great. One time we’re going to change something and I got mad. I said, “Don’t change it.” You didn’t. That’s awesome.
[0:39:48.9] NC: Yeah. It’s that perfect marriage of work and home life.
[0:39:53.2] AT: That’s right. I was that cranky person and I told you what people were going to think and you listened to me.
[0:40:02.6] NC: That’s important. Actually, yeah, taking the temperature of your section and like you said, you do – there has to be a certain amount of shutting out what are people going to think. But at the same time if you shut that out completely, then you do build that more on yourself.
[0:40:17.5] AT: Well. I mean, you have to shut that out in rehearsal. I mean, in the concert. The rehearsal thing, it’s a different thing. Again, that’s not something I’ve done a whole lot of. When you’re actually playing at the concert, you can’t wonder if you’re coming in the right place. I mean, and then there’s obviously the logistics of being that person who has to count everything, which is when you’re sitting anywhere but concertmaster, it’s just not even close to being –although as second chair, you’re supposed to help, so there’s that.
[0:40:48.5] NC: Right. No, no. You’re absolutely right. There’s a huge, almost an insurmountable difference between sitting in that seat and then the other, because yeah. Any other seat, you can always look to the concertmaster and be like, “I’m 99% sure, but let me just see is the concertmaster coming in now or not?” If that’s you, then you just – actually, what this reminded me of is we had the chance once to speak to someone who decently high up in Amazon.
They have their 14 leadership principles. Actually, it’s right on their website. I mean, they’re very forward about these principles. I guess if you’re an employee, or maybe it’s a new employee, you have to wear them around your neck on a chain or something.
[0:41:38.5] AT: What?
[0:41:39.4] NC: I think at first, you have to – you definitely have to have them memorized. I think now, it’s almost – there’s a folklore around them, so that you know if you’re applying for a job at Amazon. You have to have all these 14 leadership principles memorized.
Apparently, we got the tip, we got the inside tip that the prospective employees are often asked which do you think is the most important principle? I mean, when you read these things, they’re – it’s like, “Think big, or hire the best people, or think outside the box.” I’m making a couple of these up.
[0:42:14.7] AT: I hope you’re making these up.
[0:42:16.3] NC: Think big, I think is one of them. Anyway, it might be hard to determine which one is truly the most important. Apparently, Jeff Bezos has the one that he considers the most important and it’s speaks to what you just said. That one is – right, these are all phrased like, “Leaders are – or leaders do this. Leaders are right a lot.” That’s what he considers the most important leadership principle.
[0:42:44.9] AT: I think the less you are a concertmaster, I think the less you can be wrong, if that makes sense. I mean, it’s hard enough for me to have respect from everybody in that position, because literally here in this orchestra, people remember when I – this my first job, they remember my – maybe they don’t remember, but somebody probably remembers when I was 23 or 24. I was first here and here I am. Who do I think I am? I really feel there’s even more pressure to be like, “I’m right. I’m right. I know what I’m doing.”
[0:43:20.7] NC: When you’re sitting there, you just don’t have a choice. You just have to be right, and –
[0:43:24.4] AT: Yeah. You have to be convinced. I mean, I think everybody’s wrong sometimes, but I think you don’t betray any and vulnerability or something. It’s not that bad. It’s not like they’re going to eat you if you show weakness. If you’re in the zone, if you’re really focused then I think that you feel like you’re leading a string quartet or a chamber group. I think that’s the ideal feeling that you’ve got everything figured out and you’re going to show other people how it goes.
[0:43:57.0] NC: Right. Let’s talk, yeah, best – well, let’s start with the worst. Worst concertmaster experience.
[0:44:04.1] AT: I mean, does it have to be as a professional? Because I don’t have enough professional.
[0:44:07.8] NC: No. It could be any time.
[0:44:10.0] AT: Okay. That means I have two –
[0:44:11.4] NC: Okay. Well, you have to really jumped to mind.
[0:44:14.5] AT: Yeah. I think I’m still scarred.
[0:44:17.3] NC: Oh, no. Okay.
[0:44:18.8] AT: When I was in Aspen, I was 14 and I was second chair. There’s a whole bunch of orchestras there, so I was — I think they still have the symphonious. I forget. It’s I think the thing the middle of orchestra or something. There’s five of them and it’s third from the top. Not terribly prestigious or anything. The second chair and my stand partner who was 25, he couldn’t –
[0:44:45.8] NC: Wait. How old were you?
[0:44:46.8] AT: 14. He couldn’t make it to rehearsal, or he was late or something. I had to be concertmaster, which I had done as a little kid in my little tiny orchestra, but I had not done it in any more grown-up setting certainly. There were actual grown-ups in this orchestra.
[0:45:07.1] NC: Professionals.
[0:45:08.0] AT: No, no, no, no, no.
[0:45:11.2] NC: More like graduate students, I mean –
[0:45:11.1] AT: Students even maybe, or maybe more like – maybe it was just older high school, or I don’t know. I mean –
[0:45:15.9] NC: Still, it’s really scary.
[0:45:16.7] AT: It seems scary. I don’t really know. It just happened. It wasn’t like I had any warning, I don’t think. It was terrifying. I didn’t know when to come in. The conductor yelled at me. It was horrible. I think I still carry around some of that trauma from that experience. Then there was another time that was – it’s like, that guy was a jerk. In high school, at Juilliard pre-college, I was concertmaster. Preparation wasn’t really my strong suit back then. I was concertmaster for Shostakovich 5. I remember – yeah, I got to the rehearsal and I started. We started playing and I just took – I think I completely double timed the beginning. Still the beginning of Shostakovich 5 scares me, because we’ve heard even professionally, we’ve heard things happen.
I took off twice too fast or something. The conductor stopped. He’s like, “No.” He’s like, “No. This is the quarter note,” or something. He just shook his head and I was so, so mortified, because I really – I knew I was going to be concertmaster, I should have been prepared. That’s why now you see me. I’m just like, I have to be just prepared, just to umpteenth degree, because those things happen. I was like, “I’m not going to let that happen again.” Especially not as a professional. [Inaudible 0:46:42.6]. It was a very is nice man who was conducting. He was just like, “What is wrong with you?”
[0:46:48.1] NC: I mean, I’ve got a couple – I guess in a way, they’re both light-hearted. I mean, thankfully I haven’t had truly terrible professional concertmaster experiences yet. I mean, I may be forgetting something, but –
[0:47:03.7] AT: It doesn’t have to be crash and burn. Just something that was very uncomfortable.
[0:47:07.6] NC: Trip and fall. In Youth Orchestra, I remember the first time I would have played Scheherazade and I was concertmaster, this is Youth Orchestra, but our conductor Elizabeth Stoyanavich and she’s still – she’s out here in Southern California. Then yeah, I really have to thank her for really teaching me so many early lessons in orchestral playing. I remember we did Scheherazade.
The whole piece starts just, “Boom, boom, boom.” 30 seconds later, you’re playing a concertmaster solo. I’d really practiced. I thought I was super ready and prepared and everything and we got to that moment and the winds were holding this chord, holding it and holding it. I was waiting for something. Finally, she just put her arms down and said, “Well, Nathan do you need an engraved invitation, or what? This is you.”
I’m like, “Yeah, — ” Yeah, there was that, okay, which is I guess the playing, or the solo side of things. Then as far as the logistical side; similar age, I was probably 14. This was another Youth Orchestra. Interesting project. Toyota sponsored one to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Kentucky becoming a state, which was –
[0:48:22.7] AT: Which was from Paducah to Pikesville or something?
[0:48:26.0] NC: Yeah, from Paducah to Pippa Passes.
[0:48:27.7] AT: Pippa Passes.
[0:48:28.7] NC: We covered the whole state. It was the Toyota Bicentennial Youth Symphony. We covered the whole state. [inaudible] who was then the conductor of the Lexington Philharmonic led us and we rehearsed with him for a week and then toured all the corners of the state for a week. That culmination was this concert in Louisville. There’s going to be broadcast on live TV. I had been given explicit instructions about the timing, because the broadcast was going to start that 7 or something like that. Under no circumstances could we start the concert before 7, because that was going to be the start of the broadcast.
I don’t know whether I misunderstood the direction on when to walk out, or whether I had walked out too early, or whether I misunderstood the instructions about the cue for when to tune. For whatever reason, I walked out too early and then I just stood up and tuned. It was still 6:53 or something. It was a 7:00 broadcast. Once I tuned and sat down, it was silent, right? Nobody was playing. Audience was silent. It was just dead.
The conductor walked out and he was a great – I mean, he had the gift of gab. Yeah, he walked out, bowed. Big applause and everything. He turns to me in the same motion that he’s grabbing the microphone that they’d given him, turns to me and says, “I’ve got seven minutes to fill now. I’m going to kill you for this, Nathan.”
He turns the rest of the way around, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to – let me tell you about the pieces on the program.” It was great. He talked for seven minutes. Then at the stroke of 7, we could start the show. I felt so – I thought maybe he really was going to kill me.
[0:50:17.2] AT: See, this is why I want a very precise roadmap of how the beginning of the concert – I don’t want to do that. Logistical nightmare.
[0:50:24.8] NC: Yeah. Well like I said, I think it’s easier now. You’ve got handlers, you’ve got people telling you, “All right.” Even now they’re like, “All right, Nathan. Are you ready? Okay, the lights are going to go down, then you’re going to walk out.” That’s great and I don’t mind that.
[0:50:37.0] AT: Well and by way of closing, I think to me one of the scariest things is how to get off the stage.
[0:50:43.3] NC: No way.
[0:50:43.9] AT: Believe it or not, you’re in charge of that too when you leave.
[0:50:46.1] NC: Right. When is it done? Are they really done applauding, or –
[0:50:49.2] AT: It’s happened. There’s been times when you thought it was done and then you come off the stage and run into the conductor coming back out.
[0:50:57.7] NC: Yeah. They’re still trying to come back.
[0:50:59.1] AT: Everybody’s got awkwardly, try to file back on stage. You don’t want that, especially for me who doesn’t do – it’s like, I remember the one time I do it to – and with somebody bumping into me as I’m trying to leave.
[0:51:13.5] NC: Well, I hope this is – for any of you thinking of playing concertmaster, I hope this hasn’t given you too many cold sweats about all the things that can go wrong.
[0:51:22.1] AT: Believe me, I’ve had the cold sweats.
[0:51:24.0] NC: Yeah, me too. Me too. It’s a fun job. It’s fraught with danger, but fun and rewarding and you get those juicy solos too.
Well, thanks for joining us here at Stand Partners for Life. Remember to subscribe, standpartnersforlife.com. We’ll see you next time here on the show.