Alternate Career Titles:

Principal Player

Career Overview: Leads a section of the orchestra, may supervise rehearsals with the section, assigns parts to musicians.

Career Salary Range: $25,000 to $95,000+

Become a Section Leader

Career Description

Orchestras are made up of sections, and each section has a leader who is the principal player responsible to the Concertmaster. His or her main function is to lead their section to produce the best sound possible during each performance. While most people can settle on what sounds “good,” it is up to the Section Leader to communicate what they expect. However, while doing so, who the Section Leader is should only be obvious to the orchestra, and never to the audience. Take for example, the Section Leader of the stings, who must work to decide where bowing should be inserted, and who in the section should play individual or solo parts.

To come into the position as a Section Leader, an individual must audition and essentially “compete” against others. Those who stand out in auditions are individuals who maintain a good stage presence and advanced music ability. Other things like a thorough understanding knowledge of symphonic repertoire is essential if one wishes to obtain a position as a Section Leader. He or she should know how to sight-read and, and should be ready to do so at any time.

At other times, the Section Leader might be asked to be able to recognize talent, as he or she may be on the selection committee during auditions. Additionally, the Section Leader might be asked to supervise any rehearsals within his or her section. Some orchestras ask their Section Leaders to participate in the chamber music group of the orchestra.


Salaries depend on the type of orchestra, where it is located, and how long the member has been in the orchestra, or their rank in seniority. The American Federation of Musicians (AFM) sets minimum wages. Sometimes, the Section Leader will earn the same amounts as other Section Members, and in others they may be paid more. For example, the Section Leader’s salary will be from 10% to 35% over those of section members. Either way, this amount is negotiated between the Section Leader and Orchestra Management. Those in full-time and major orchestras might earn anything from $25,000 to $95,000 or more per year. Section Leaders. In part-time positions, Section Leaders may be paid on a per service basis. Also if part-time, Section Leaders may earn additional income by teaching.


As mentioned, those who apply for Section Leaders are currently members of an orchestra, and have been for quite some time. Also, these older players are the ones with the most experience in a few different orchestras.


The ease of advancement depends on which section of the orchestra one is striving for. For example, the Section Leader of the violin section can move on to take the position of Concertmaster/Concertmistress position. However, by tradition this is a role given to violinists, so it’s not an option for other Section Leaders.

Education and Training

A college or music college degree is not generally required, but conservatory training or a degree in music performance will assist the musician in his or her goal of becoming a Section Leader. And, years of training and instrument study are essential.

Experience, Skills, and Personality

As mentioned, to become a Section Leader, one must have experience as a Section Player. Also, many play in chamber music ensembles. In general, Section Leaders gain experience by playing in youth orchestras, and eventually work on and on, crafting their skills and abilities. And, as said above, the Section Leader must be a good leader, but this cannot be obvious to the audience.

Unions and Associations

Most Section Leaders belong to the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), which is the union that sets the minimum pay scale for musicians.

Suggestions for Getting Started

  • Apply and audition whenever you have the opportunity to do so.
  • Gain experience by taking part in many orchestral situations.
  • Involve yourself in training programs held by the National Orchestral Association.
  • Sit in on seminars and look for internships offered by orchestras, organizations, colleges, and associations.
  • Check music-oriented journals and newsletters like The International Musician.
  • Check for online listings via orchestra websites and job search sites.

Know someone who would dig this article?
Help ‘em out and share it.