In an orchestra, the concertmaster is the leader of the first violin
section. There is another violin section, the second violins, led by
the principal second violin. Any violin solo in an orchestral work is
played by the concertmaster (except in the case of a concerto, in which case a guest soloist usually plays).
It is usually required that the concertmaster be the most skilled
musician in the section, experienced at learning music quickly, counting
rests accurately and leading the rest of the string section by his or
her playing and bow gestures.
The concertmaster sits to the conductor’s left, closest to the
audience, in what is called the “first chair,” “first [music] stand” or
“first desk” (in the UK or sometimes elsewhere). (In one instance, Ferdinand David had been concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra since Felix Mendelssohn became conductor in 1835. In 1847 Joseph Joachim joined David on the first desk.) The concertmaster makes decisions regarding bowing
and other technical details of violin playing for the violins, and
sometimes all of the string players. He or she leads the orchestra in tuning before concerts and rehearsals, and other technical aspects of orchestra management.
Leading the orchestral tuning is not just a mere formality; if the
concertmaster believes that a section is not adequately tuned, he or she
will signal to the oboe
player to play another “A.” Several larger orchestras have one or more
assistant concertmasters, who lead the orchestra in the concertmaster’s
The concertmaster, along with the conductor and section principals, will normally participate in the auditions of important musicians (e.g., principal players) in the orchestra.
The concertmaster in a standard concert band is the principal clarinet,
oboe, flute or saxophone and leads the ensemble’s tuning. The
first-chair clarinet concertmaster will, in common practice, play all
solos for their instrument. Often the lead flautist
will receive similar responsibilities to the clarinet concertmaster,
depending on several factors such as age, skill and time spent in the ensemble.
The concertmaster will, in both orchestral and wind band settings, also
coordinate with other principals and section leaders, in most cases
being their senior in terms of group pecking order.
The duties and tasks of the concertmaster are myriad. Primarily, he
or she acts as the conduit between conductor and orchestra and is
accountable to both parties.
One of the principal tasks of the concertmaster is to provide bowings
for the 1st violins prior to rehearsal. This entails a great knowledge
of historical playing styles in addition to complete idiomatic
understanding of the mechanics of string playing. Section leaders among
the other strings will base their bowings on those of the concertmaster
and these section leaders (called principals) may confer during
rehearsal in order to ensure unity and cohesion of execution between the
string sections. Ensemble cohesion emanates directly from the contact
and connection between these vital front desk positions. The
concertmaster assumes responsibility for the tone and execution of the
entire section of 1st violins, in addition to performing any solo
passages that occur in a given piece.
Another primary duty of the concertmaster is to translate
instructions from the conductor into specific technical language for the
strings. Some conductors prefer to speak more broadly and defer to the
concertmaster on such matters out of respect for the musicians who are
expert specialists while the conductor is by definition a generalist.
Full-time professional orchestras work with several conductors
through the course of a regular season. Accordingly, while the conductor
may change week to week or month to month, the concertmaster lends a
sense of stable and constant leadership day to day. While the impetus
for the orchestra to play is given by the conductor’s gestures,
oftentimes for reasons of precision, the orchestra will actually follow
the bow of the concertmaster as their cue to play. This is because the
conductor’s gestures exist in the abstract whereas the concertmaster
produces sound along with their fellow musicians. Further, the
idiosyncratic technique of some conductors can make it difficult for the
orchestra to enter together. Yet another duty of the concertmaster is
to maintain a sense of decorum during rehearsals by setting a personal
example and by monitoring the room to ensure all members of the
orchestra are being cooperative. It is more appropriate for the
concertmaster to ask for quiet if there is a bit of chatter than it is
for a guest conductor unfamiliar with the orchestra.
In performances given in America and/or featuring American or British
orchestras, the concertmaster will usually walk onstage individually
after the rest of the orchestra is seated, and bow and receive applause
on behalf of the orchestra before the conductor appears. In continental
European orchestras, this practice is uncommon. There, the concertmaster
usually walks onstage with the rest of the orchestra. As the
representative of the orchestra, he or she will usually shake hands with
the conductor at the beginning or end of a concert as a sign of mutual
respect and appreciation.