A college-bound student came in yesterday with a report on his summer activities. He’d played a gig with a local college orchestra as first oboe, which was the same position he’d held throughout the past year. At this concert, though, the regular second oboist was not available, and a professional had been hired. My student had felt nervous and uncomfortable playing first chair to a player who was obviously older and more experienced, and imagined that she thought poorly of him, and kind of wished that the roles had been reversed because he felt out of place playing solos that she should rightfully have had.
And this is a common misunderstanding among younger players, and a reasonable one. Of course, in a high school band, the best player will be picked to play first, and the second best will play second. Of course if the first chair player is not working hard and practicing, someone will challenge him. Of course second chair is a phone-it-in position and third chair might as well just stay home.
But that’s not how it works in the real world. First Oboe is a job, and Second Oboe is a different job. If I resign from my position, the second oboist doesn’t necessarily move up to cover it - a new first oboe is hired. And if I am hired to sub into an orchestra as second oboe, it doesn’t make the least bit of difference whether I am a better player than the principal or not. All that matters is that I do a good job playing second.
Playing excellent second oboe is a specific job requiring great flexibility. No matter what the principal chooses to do or what he or she sounds like, the second player has to match and support it. Even a second oboe solo should not really diverge from the sound and style that the first oboe has established. Ideally, no one really notices the second oboe, and that person suspends judgement in favor of working to blend and meld with the section as it exists.
So I pointed out to my student that the professional sitting next to him (a colleague of mine and a great player) was probably not secretly seething about all the juicy solos he was playing, but focusing on doing her job to her best ability, and that he should in future use that kind of situation as motivation to deliver his own best work.
After all, if you are surrounded by stronger players, you have two choices. You could shrink, and play defensively, and try not to embarrass yourself, or you could rise to the occasion and put your best foot forward, secure in the knowledge that you are surrounded by people who won’t let you down musically. I know which I’d prefer to choose!