How To Become a Concertmaster
Timothy Lees is the acclaimed Concertmaster of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. A Concertmaster is the first chair player within the first violin section, an important leadership position and one of the public faces of the orchestra. He describes his job duties with the symphony, saying, “Each day of the week is actually quite different as our rehearsal days tend to begin mid-week with anywhere from three to five rehearsals for any given program. On a typical rehearsal day I get up early enough to warm up sufficiently at home before arriving at the hall. Then we begin rehearsing at 10:00 am and finish at 12:30 pm. If there is a second rehearsal, we would begin after a lunch break at 2:00 pm and finish at 4:00 pm. Prior to rehearsal though (usually six to eight months in advance), part of my role is to go through all of the upcoming repertoire and decide on bowings for the 1st violin section. This can be very time-consuming, especially if it is an unbowed ‘new’ piece. In rehearsals themselves, I spend a great deal of time communicating with the Conductor and, in turn, the violin and/or entire string sections to help unify our way of playing certain passages. Oftentimes it will involve altering bowings and/or articulations to achieve the stated goal of the Conductor.”
Like many professional musicians, Lees also works part-time as a University-level Music Teacher. He says, “On days when I do not have any rehearsals, I can be found teaching undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). I typically spend about ten to fourteen hours a week teaching and coaching students.“
Landing a role as a Concertmaster with a well-known orchestra is a major milestone for violin players. Most musicians begin their careers with roles in smaller regional orchestras, chamber groups, pops orchestras, and/or ballet or opera orchestras. From here, the trajectory could include roles as Assistant Concertmaster, then Associate Concertmaster, and finally, Concertmaster. However, these positions are not available within all orchestras, especially if they’re smaller organizations.
Education & Training
Many orchestra musicians — from Section Members to Concertmasters — have four-year degrees from Music Performance programs. Others go further and attain graduate degrees or certificates in Performance. Lees says, “Very few people I know who have Concertmaster positions around the country actually started off early wanting to be a Concertmaster. Instead, most become as proficient as possible on the violin and, in turn, end up pursuing jobs that best highlight the strengths of their playing. It is absolutely essential that anyone wanting to pursue a Concertmaster job be equally comfortable with the major solo violin repertoire, a good deal of chamber music repertoire and of course, much of the standard orchestral repertoire. The job of Concertmaster in any orchestra will require solo and chamber music playing in addition to the regular orchestra rehearsals and performances.”
Experience & Skills
As leaders within the orchestra, Concertmasters must have a certain level of experience. Lees explains that “having a good amount of experience playing chamber music helps a great deal when playing in an orchestra because much of the communication between string principals comes down to subtle communication involving eye contact, physical movement, and purposeful gestures. As a chamber musician, it is very important to be able to communicate and discuss your musical ideas with colleagues and to be flexible enough to try new things. The same is true as a Concertmaster: the musical leadership provided by the first chair player has to be something that is clear and easily understood by the section, the Conductor, and the other Principals.
As far as special skills, a Concertmaster must have a clear ability to lead that can be felt by everyone around him/her. There must also be great flexibility in playing styles. A Concertmaster must be able to fit in the section at one moment and then in the next be able to loft a soloist sound to the back row of a large hall. Concertmasters must also have some ‘people’ skills — the ability to hear the concerns of colleagues and to offer sound advice and direction where needed. Personnel and personal issues do and will arise in any orchestra and oftentimes it is the Concertmaster who helps to make decisions and set a standard for conduct. For this reason, the Concertmaster must be a good listener, one who doesn’t act impulsively but thinks intently before speaking and one who can be trusted with all matters personal, professional and musical.”
It takes a certain type of person to become a Concertmaster. Lees tells us, “I firmly believe that flexibility is the most important trait of a great Concertmaster: musical flexibility, physical flexibility, and personal flexibility. Rigidity is the enemy of all of us as musicians; flexibility breaks the hard brittleness of rigidity and allows all leaders to function at their best, both personally and musically. A Concertmaster also has to be unflappable under all kinds of pressure. The ability to focus intently and avoid distractions is essential to being a successful leader.”
“As a Concertmaster, the early part of my week (Sunday through Thursday) consists of filled daytime hours due to teaching and/or rehearsals,” Lees says. “The latter part of my week (Friday and Saturday) consists of busy evenings and nights due to two to three performances each week. There are a few exceptions, but usually, rehearsals and during the day (morning to afternoon) and concerts are at night. And of course, in and around all of this, there must be time alone with the violin preparing for orchestra rehearsals and various other solo and chamber music performances.”
Like all orchestra musicians, the path to becoming a Concertmaster is through auditions. Many begin their careers by landing a position with a smaller, regional orchestra and working their way up to more prestigious positions as they gain experience. Lees tells us how he became a Concertmaster: “My career trajectory began by getting a small orchestra job right after I graduated with my Bachelor of Music degree from the Eastman School of Music. I played in a total of four different orchestras that year including a chamber orchestra, two opera orchestras and a pops orchestra. My next move was made after I won a position as an Associate Concertmaster in a regional orchestra, Charleston Symphony Orchestra. Two years later, I won the position of Concertmaster with that same orchestra. During my five years in Charleston, I took approximately eight auditions (all for titled positions), some of which I made the semi-finals and some of which I made the finals. In my final year in Charleston, I won two auditions within months of each other: one for Concertmaster of the New Jersey Symphony and one for Concertmaster of the Cincinnati Symphony. I took the job in Cincinnati and will be celebrating my twentieth season with them next year.
So, my trajectory included several auditions and only auditioning for titled positions (Assistant Concertmaster, Associate Concertmaster, Concertmaster). I had become very familiar with the orchestral audition repertoire in my university years and also played as a substitute violinist with the Rochester Philharmonic during my undergraduate years. Other Concertmasters I have known have gone the violin competition route and then decided to pursue Concertmaster jobs later. Still others managed to win section jobs in major orchestras and then decided they wanted a different path and then began auditioning for Concertmaster positions. There is no one ‘formula’ for the path to a Concertmaster job, but it must include lots of perseverance and passion.”
“In my experience, most Concertmasters are compensated based on a percentage overscale,” Lees says. “In other words, most orchestras have what is called a base pay (or scale), which is the minimum amount that every member of the orchestra gets paid. Concertmasters are paid a certain percentage over that base pay, according to their level of experience and on their ability to negotiate. It has become very standard in the US to pay Concertmasters a minimum of double scale. However, in the past couple of decades that number has risen to anywhere from two and a half times to three times scale. In some cases, Concertmasters do even make as much as four times scale! In every case that I am aware of, the Concertmaster is the highest-paid musician in the orchestra (excluding the Music Director). In addition, in all but the smallest orchestras, a typical Concertmaster contract includes salary, paid leave and health benefits.”
Unions, Groups & Associations
To be prepared for auditions for Concertmaster positions, Lees suggests Orchestra Excerpts, “a great website which lists all major excerpts for violin (and other instruments) complete with printable copies of the music and several recordings for each.”
- “Get to know the standard orchestral repertoire early by taking orchestra rep classes, if offered at your school.
- Play for as many professional orchestra musicians (especially titled positions) as possible. The feedback they can provide is invaluable.
- Perform as much as possible! Audition taking is performing and the only way to get better is by performing.
- In this day and age of YouTube, watch many orchestral performances and note the different playing/leadership styles of various Concertmasters. It will help you better develop a sense of purposeful leadership.
- Begin learning the major Concertmaster solos early!”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Don’t limit yourself to only one career path. Instead, spend a lot of time honing your skills on the violin to become the most well-rounded and flexible musician possible. There are many different kinds of performing careers that are all very fulfilling in different ways…never limit yourself to just one! Set firm goals for your career but make them a bit broader than only one thing.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Often players try to play the way they think any particular orchestra or committee wants them to play. This means changing playing styles or characteristics for each individual orchestra. Instead, perform for the committee…get everyone excited about what you have to offer as a musician, not as a programmable robot who plays notes and rhythms. In my extensive experience sitting on audition committees, it is almost always the case that those listening want the best possible musician to join their ranks. This means communicating something with every piece that is played and engaging the listener!”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Is there a need for you to be in good physical shape to be an effective Concertmaster?
Being in good physical condition is a great benefit to helping deal with the demands of the job. There are moments of stress, physical strain, and mental fatigue. All of these can be made more manageable by regular exercise to increase flexibility and increase focus. I believe we must be absolutely and keenly aware of what our bodies are doing when we play so that we can make adjustments and continue to play in a free and relaxed manner. Exercise increases this awareness and gives me increased stamina for the everyday demands of the job.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“What do you do in your ‘free’ time and/or what other interests do you have?
I love doing DIY projects around the house (hand-friendly) and cycling in good weather.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“One word is difficult: I would say passion, perseverance, flexibility.”
- 1Drew McManus. "An Important Note About Concertmaster Compensation Reporting". adaptistration. published: June 14, 2018. retrieved on: Dec 16, 2019
Timothy Lees has been the Concertmaster of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra since 1998. He made his Carnegie Hall solo debut the following year. Lees previously served as a faculty member for the Aspen Music Festival and School and currently is a member of the Sarasota Festival faculty. He is an Adjunct Professor of Violin at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Concert performances by Lees have been broadcast on NPR Performance Today, WGUC (Cincinnati), Aspen Public Radio, Maine Public Radio, and Florida Public Radio.