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Playing Your Own Part

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!


  1. This post really spoke to me, I've been thinking about it since you wrote it. Playing in a community orchestra, sometimes its easy to get caught up in high school like politics. Thanks for reminding me to keep it in perspective!

  2. Glad you enjoyed it - thanks for reading, Sarah!

  3. Wow! I'm in exactly this situation, right now, and reading your post was encouraging.

    I play with a university-organized community band. Ordinarily, I'm principal oboe or ONLY oboe (you never know from one semester to the next who'll show up). This summer, we've been joined by a fellow who's studying for his DMA in Oboe Performance. My conductor insisted that he play second to me, and I was at once humbled and extremely nervous.

    To make matters worse, he has been subtly and not-so-subtly making jabs:

    I was warming up before rehearsal and I noticed him kinda listening to me. I'd play a chromatic run and then I'd hear him play my last note on his instrument -- kinda like he was echoing me. He said, "My pitch is... so much flatter than yours." (Translation: you're always sharp; your intonation is awful)

    He kept asking to look at my reeds and wanted to inspect my instrument (a used Fox 400). He plays this really tricked-out Yamaha oboe. He wanted me to try out his oboe. I did. He said, "Isn't that so much easier?!" (Translation: your instrument is awful)

    At the end of the second rehearsal, he turned to me and said, "You have a good sound." I said, "Oh, thanks! You have a nice sound, too!" Then he said, "Thanks. It's a very different sound." (Translation: your tone is awful)

    Needless to say, I'm not very comfortable playing alongside him -- especially when we have unison passages. I feel I used to be a confident player and I've always prided myself on my ability to match pitch with the group. Amazing how someone can come in a quickly reduce me to a quivering mess.

  4. That's a sad story, and worthy of a post in its own right. No one should try to one-up a colleague. If it's possible - even just barely possible - that you are misunderstanding the motives of your colleague, I'd advise assuming that his intentions are nothing but honorable and that he only wants to share information in order to learn and to improve the oboe world for everyone. I'd always prefer to assume that about everyone!


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