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A silly tradition?


Omobono
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Hmm.. haven't contributed here for a good while.

Talking to a young professional player the other day, she decried

the custom of orchestral instruments being passed up the line

should the section leader break a string.

Surely, in this day and age, she pleaded, there must be a simpler solution.

Everyone ends up playing on an unfamiliar instrument,

never mind the hygiene issue and risk of infection in the sensitive neck area.

Would it not be simpler to have a spare instrument prepared and waiting

in the event of a setup failure?

Is this still the practice in most orchestras?

Is there any valid reason why it might continue?

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Hmm.. haven't contributed here for a good while.

Talking to a young professional player the other day, she decried

the custom of orchestral instruments being passed up the line

should the section leader break a string.

Surely, in this day and age, she pleaded, there must be a simpler solution.

Everyone ends up playing on an unfamiliar instrument,

never mind the hygiene issue and risk of infection in the sensitive neck area.

Would it not be simpler to have a spare instrument prepared and waiting

in the event of a setup failure?

Is this still the practice in most orchestras?

Is there any valid reason why it might continue?

I would say the chance for a string leader in a very god orchestra (professional one) to own 2 violins worth each several thousand pounds is pretty slim. So...

As for passing infection, wouaw! That's a pretty optimistic thought!

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Hmm.. haven't contributed here for a good while.

Talking to a young professional player the other day, she decried

the custom of orchestral instruments being passed up the line

should the section leader break a string.

Surely, in this day and age, she pleaded, there must be a simpler solution.

Everyone ends up playing on an unfamiliar instrument,

never mind the hygiene issue and risk of infection in the sensitive neck area.

Would it not be simpler to have a spare instrument prepared and waiting

in the event of a setup failure?

Is this still the practice in most orchestras?

Is there any valid reason why it might continue?

I think it is mostly sensationalistic. It is exciting for the audience,I suppose, to see the soloist trade violins with the concertmaster and continue without missing a beat. Musically it is questionable, though. The soloist is likely not to play as well on the substitute instrument as on the original and the concertmaster has to get another instrument somewhere. If the instruments are passed up the line then the last chair player has no instrument and, as Omobono says, everyone is playing on a strange instrument. I guess the motivation for taking the concertmaster's instrument would be to make the switch as rapidly as possible so the flow of the music would not be interrupted. Hard to say if the musical minuses are outweighed by the logistical pluses. So I think it is mainly for show.

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As someone from the playing side AND the operations side of the equation, I'll just ask. Is this backup violin supplied by the orchestra? Who's budget is that coming out of, and who gets to pick the section back-up? And if it is for the soloist, should we also have on hand a spare cello for Josh Roman when he plays with us, or a backup trumpet for Byron Stripling (valves could hang up), or a clarinet AND reed for Alexander Fiterstein (both instrument OR reed could crack)? Does the visiting guest artist approve of the instrument that the orchestra management has selected prior to their performance, or can I just pick up one up from my usual back-line supplier? Or perhaps we should require in our contract that the ARTIST (and section player) needs to bring their OWN backup instrument, ready to go at their feet--but then they would have to take more time at the beginning of the piece to tune it at the same time as their primary instrument, and it would still need to be retuned if and when it was "called into action."

I don't know--I think it might just be easier on everyone to simply hand over a fiddle that is currently being played. Besides, it gives a section player an opportunity to not play when they were supposed to be playing--they will appreciate the opportunity to just sit and listen for a change. And maybe the soloist discovers a modern gem that someone is playing in the section and handed over to them to use (it could be a Borman!), or a section player, upon finding themselves empty handed and another instrument being handed up to them to play, discovers WHY their standpartner always sounds so good--it IS their instrument (and it's a Burgess). (And no offense to either maker--it could have been the other way around.) And the audience loves it anyway! They will talk about it for years. And maybe a luthier gets another commission out of the process! And the newspaper reviewer gets to add something interesting to their review about why their reader should have been at this concert. Sounds like a win-win-win-win.

Besides, the section was probably too loud for the soloist anyway! :)

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What's the alternative? Passing all the way down is a bit excessive. About halfway back someoone can get up and go offstage and change the string, unless someone was enterprising enough to actaully bring spare strings on stage - which I have seen. I once knocked my bridge over putting on my mute a bit too vigorously (as very quick transition). I was concertmaster and I had it back up and was playing within 10 seconds, I was lucky, my tuning stayed inplace, but my soudn post moved so teh instrument didn't sound right. I was also playing in an orchestra when the soloist broke and e-string in the Prokovief. It was in a huge passage, she actually played for a bit up on the A-string, but it was too high and complex so we had to stop. She borrowed the concertmaster's violin, (a wonderful Guadanini) and the concertmaster borrowed one from back in the section and that person went off and changed the string. Perlman broke one during a broadcast of chamber music. They stopped and waited while a fellow musician ran off and changed the string for him, Perlman entertained the audience with a play by play of what was happening backstage. It was so funny they kept it in the broadcast edited version of the concert.

If your worried about an infection from a borrowed violin, I think you need to eat better, get some exercise, and sleep, it would take a pretty wasted immune system for that to be a problem.

But thinking that the Concertmaster should not be given a violin is just not realistic. The concertmaster is the working leader of the section, usually the strings, and often the orchestra. Second only in importance to the conductor. All good orchestra string players keep and eye on the concertmaster as well as the conductor.

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The concertmaster is the working leader of the section, usually the strings, and often the orchestra. Second only in importance to the conductor. All good orchestra string players keep and eye on the concertmaster as well as the conductor.

And take Dr. S's "usually" with a generous amount of salt. Even in normal situations, there are many more eyes from the orchestra on the concertmaster then just from the string section. As a wind player, in some situations, seeing the concertmaster's bow is a safer refuge then...hum, what was I going to write? I ...don't remember...must be short term memory loss...I'll come back and edit this later if I remember...

Lets also consider this question from just the practical angle of the utilization of available player resources--if an instrument is NOT handed up to the Concertmaster or Soloist who just experienced mechanical failure, the players who most likely are the highest compensated individuals on stage will not be producing what they are paid to do.

Reflecting on the bacteria dangers present on a chin rest, I remember not that many years ago when everyone was told they needed to get rid of their wooden cutting boards in their kitchens and buy plastic ones, because the wood ones would just absorb all that bad stuff, the germs would multiple, and food poisoning would run rampant through your household (I don't remember that ever happening growing up, but it MUST have been happening because they said it would). Then they discovered that the wood cutting boards actually deal much more effectively with bacteria, and the surface of the boards were not only clean, the bacteria that would be absorbed and migrate into the board would die. I don't know if anyone has looked into chin rests, so this sounds like a grant opportunity or doctoral thesis in the making for a chin rest study!

Perhaps the "young professional" just needs some more experiences AS a pro. I was just having a discussion this morning with a colleague regarding a possible seminar class offering--there are lots of expectations regarding professional musicians that are often just not taught. With some players, learning via osmosis on-the-job may take more time than a players committee, conductor or contractor is willing to invest.

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Not always....

I am reminded of an anecdote once told to me by a senior member of the Philharmonia.

An almost amateurl soloist once turned up to play the Brahms concerto and during the rehearsal hacked his way through the music much to the horror and amusement of the players.

Come the performance; the big tutti rises for the first solo entry and this particular soloist attacked the violin with such ferocity that his bow went under the bridge and ripped all the strings and the bridge off his violin. He turned to the leader for his instrument and the leader turned away while shielding his fiddle shouting 'No way!'.

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Thanks to all for the responses.

I have to say that the young lady in question is a fine player

in a quite reputable orchestra where she maintains this is current practice.

She does have a very noticible violin 'hickey' on her neck -

That could explain her concern about aggravating the situation.

I don't see a huge problem about a good orchestra reserving and maintaining one

reasonable instrument and bow for such purposes - maybe on stage behind the last desk

of fiddles. Among the string section someone would usually be happy to do this, surely?

People are often keen to display a second instrument of merit.

I'm still interested to hear what is the practice in orchestras you know.

The only time I can remember seeing it happen, the concertmaster's desk partner

surrended their instrument, produced a string and on stage changed the offending string.

No big deal really.

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(I think some violins get stolen becouse of this)
Gibson-ex-Huberman Strad comes to mind.

I've never seen the swap happen, though having been a second chair player, I'd have happily swapped over my violin to the concert master and taken care of a breakage during a performance. I'm very clear on what's important to a successful concert.

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Omobono,

As far as I know a lot of players keep a back up one, but not on stage. (I think some violins get stolen becouse of this)

Yes, this is exactly what happened to Hubermann during a concert in Carnegie Hall in the 1930's

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Then there is the true story of Milstein who was playing the Mendelssohn with the New Jersey Symphony back in the 1960's. He broke a string and turned to the concertmaster to exchange violins. The concert master refused to relinquish his violin , but Milstein insisted and grabbed the concertmaster's instrument. After a few notes Milstein made a gesture of extreme displeasure directed to the concertmaster. He signaled to the conductor to stop and asked if anyone in the orchestra has a good violin. Up through the ranks of the second violin section came a Peter Guarneri and the performance continued. Moral of the story: If you are the concertmaster of a professional orchestra don't play on a 50 dollar violin. Milstein relates this story in his biography.

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