Last Chair Seconds

Last Chair Seconds: The Story

At the start of 2020, before the pandemic had had a chance to overtake us all, I was looking forward to retirement in the spring, and practicing the violin. I had always played, but never very seriously.

However, a year or two earlier I had started practicing again, and had reached a basic level of competence. In fact, I had played a concert with the Portland Civic Orchestra of fairly challenging music and survived.

So, at the end of 2019 I had contacted the Beaverton Symphony Orchestra to ask if I could join as a violinist for their next concert, scheduled for March, 2020. I heard back that I could start by attending the early rehearsals, and if things worked out, I could play the concert.

You may be aware that the violins in an orchestra are organized into two groups called, unsurprisingly, first and second violins. Composers write creatively for these two groups, with the second violins (commonly called just “seconds”) often playing simpler, accompany parts supporting the more melodic parts played by the “firsts.”

You may also know that the players are organized into groups of two who share a music stand, and the the groups are staggered front to back. There is a hierarchy to this grouping–players closer to the conductor are considered higher in the pecking order. And of the players sharing a stand, the ones on the outside–the ones closer to the audience–have a higher status than the inside player.

So, of all the people who play violin in the orchestra, the top dog sits on the outside of the front stand of the first violins. That player–called the “concertmaster”–is considered the leader of the strings, responsible for creating bowings, assigning seating, and tuning the group.

Conversely, the person on the inside of the back row of the second violins–the last chair seconds, as it were–is tacitly understood to be the player on the lowest rung of the violin ladder.

In a great orchestra, of course, every player, including the one in this lowly seat, is world class, and there is little or no dishonor residing in that spot. But in a community orchestra, it is understood that the skill difference between first-chair firsts and last-chair seconds could be quite vast. The person parked in the latter location can be understood to be potentially lacking.

As you may be expecting, it was in that lowly spot that I found myself parked as the rehearsals for the BSO concert began.


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