On Chair assignments- part one

I mentioned a while back that I’m not really the section leader of the AWCB, and never officially have been. What I am, semi-officially, is in charge of chair assignments and making the little musical decisions when they affect the section, but not enough to catch the attention of the conductor, just the little things to unify our sound. I don’t have to do much, mainly because we’ve played together for a long while as a section and we’ve got enough solid musicians that for the most part, everybody knows what’s expected and what’s coming. But I have been thinking for a while about shuffling seating, which has gotten me to thinking about how that happens. In part one (this one right here!) I’ll share some of the systems I’ve seen over the years, and in part two next week, I’ll explain the thought process that we go through in the AWCB now.

Back when I was about 15, I started playing in a local community orchestra. Long story short, I had no idea what part I was playing at any point in my experience there. I was handed a first trombone folder when I got to the first rehearsal. Three rehearsals in, I was told there was a regular principal, and I should play second. Then the conductor told me to cover first for rehearsals, but practice second. Then at the dress rehearsal, the principal and second trombonist appeared for the first time, and were very angry that I had taken the music home to practice, and with one rehearsal, I was given the first bass trombone parts I had ever seen, and ridiculed for never having seen a pedal A before. This had a profound effect on my views on how to assign parts. (The whole story of that first year could be a good one for the “horror stories” tag!)

I think everybody has played in groups that audition for parts, like our local honors bands: the highest audition score sat first chair, and so on down the line, except when a bass trombonist did better than a tenor and screwed everything up. (Which was actually the case when I was in high school.) Around here, seating in the district bands was assigned entirely on the conductor’s recommendations, although moving up to regions required an audition. This lead to some “best trombonist[s] in the history of our school” getting seating precedence over trombonists who were not the best from their school, but would have been if they had been at the other school. In one group I played in while in high school, seating was assigned based on sitting next to the section leader for a couple of weeks. He then made a recommendation to the conductor, who assigned me a chair based on their need and the section leader’s assessment of my abilities. That group was extremely serious, though, and would move people around on a nearly weekly basis if somebody had a hard time with a part. I recall a trumpet solo being passed around right up to the dress rehearsal and being glad that I was never under consideration for a solo in that group, although I did have to play solos a couple of times in rehearsals when the conductor wasn’t happy with the way the section leader was playing that week.

In college, I auditioned for a band that did assignments a little differently. The highest audition score got first chair, just as expected. But the second highest audition score, or the highest bass trombone audition score, was first chair third trombone, and the third highest score was given first chair second trombone. The sections were then filled out from second chair first trombone down in order by score, with bass trombonists filling third part preferentially. The theory there was that it was important to have excellent musicians on all three parts, and the conductor felt that third trombone was often more important than second trombone, in that a real bass part was often distinct from first and second. (There is definitely an argument to be had about that philosophy, but either way, that’s the way things were done!) Seating preference was given to music majors, even though this was theoretically an open band for non-music majors with a stated goal of participation, rather than education. I heard that some seat shuffling was done based on people who couldn’t handle the amount of rehearsal and practice that was expected through the semester, which was a large part of why I declined to participate in the ensemble.

In assigning seats in the AWCB, I once again don’t have to do much. We’re a pretty easy going bunch, although we all seem to have our preferences and there are definitely some innate abilities that drive decisions. Next week, I will tell a little bit about how I picked over the techniques above and then ignored them to let the section more or less assemble itself!

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