A reporter once asked the celebrated orchestra conductor Leonard Bernstein what was the most difficult instrument to play. "Second fiddle! I can always get plenty of first violinists, but to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm, or second French horn, or second flute, now that's a problem. And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony.”
It's supposed to be the pinnacle of ensemble playing, being on the 'first' part. It means you're the best, you can play all the hard stuff, you can do the twiddly bits. It's just one step down from being a soloist. It's fascinating watching the jostling for position - both physically and metaphorically - that can happen in some groups. So-and-so should play first because they've been here the longest. Whatshername should do it because she's 'better'. Ask a big group of musicians to allocate themselves to parts and some will rush to either end - they want to play first because they're 'good enough', or they want to play fourth or fifth because they're 'not good enough'. They want to show off or they want to hide. They'll insist on playing the top part or they'll step back and offer it to someone who they think is better than them - there can be a game of "no, no, after you"... "no, no, I insist".
This ranking of musicianship is ingrained in us from the early stages of playing - 'first' is something to aim for, it's where the better players end up. And it's true that first parts tend to be more technically challenging and mostly, in a higher register, which is something that flute players, at least, learn as we get more advanced. But that doesn't mean that playing second (or other parts in different ensembles, such as a flute choir) is easy or any less valuable. You might not get the high twiddly bits, but you might have a vital harmony part. Can you blast out those lower notes so they blend with the higher ones elsewhere rather than being drowned out by them? Can you maintain a repeated pattern on the same couple of notes for ages without it losing energy? Can you handle playing on the off-beats for ages? Can you concentrate to count for lots of bars rest?! Can you match your sound to that of the person playing first? Someone once described the role of orchestral flutes to me as the first providing the 'colour' and the second having to adapt into that first players sound - that's quite a skill. Sometimes the second or third part will be doing something completely different to the first, and having to blend with the violins or the French horns.
As individual instrumentalists, our education doesn't always prepare us for this - flute players, for example, mostly learn solo repertoire. We're used to playing the tune (I've had transfer students who could only play the top line of duets because they'd never played the second part - they found it such a challenge visually to follow the lower line!). So when we join an ensemble, we might opt for what seems like the 'easier' part, but then discover that it isn't that at all. We're not accustomed to playing harmony parts, to making so much use of our low notes, to playing parts with so many gaps in them. Equally, ensemble directors might order the parts with the most experienced players on first and least experienced on 'lower' parts, and find the balance really not working.
I wish we could get away from this idea of first as better. One of my very accomplished flute colleagues likes to sit in different places at our ensemble rehearsals, and noted that some less advanced players asked why she was "lowering herself" to play third or fourth flute. But it's enjoyable, good for your playing, and great for exercising different skills to mix it up. In the orchestra I play with, we have three regular flautists, and we rotate around parts, depending on who would prefer to play what and playing to our strengths. For our next season, we're playing first for one concert each, and second for one half of each of the other concerts (with the occasional piece that needs all three). We figured it out through an online chat whilst one of our number was sunning herself on holiday, and I was on my sofa. We put forward our requests to play certain parts because of musical preferences, because we wanted to be in or out of our comfort zone, and so we could have a quieter time when other parts of our lives were hectic. It works - nobody feels left out or under pressure. It keeps us on our toes and makes us better players because we all get a turn at the twiddly bits, the harmony bits, the counting, the matching our sound to other people's.
So, I guess this is an appeal to players, not to get hung up on the numbers. The composer wrote two parts or seven parts because they wanted them all, so they're all important. Try them all. Feel how glorious it is to play a bassline, to harmonise under the melody. Twiddle away on top or embrace those syncopated rhythms in the middle. And to teachers, too - get your students playing duets with you, and group pieces with each other, right from the start. Help them to be a flexible player who can happily get stuck in with any part of an ensemble and do a great job of it.
A few links:
This article by flautist Rachel Taylor Geier has a great summary of the skills needed to play second flute.
An excellent blog post by David Barton Music about the role of duets in lessons.
"Who's on first?" - nothing to do with music but I was introduced to this comedy sketch last year, it inspired the title of this post, and the play on words makes me laugh so much!
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