Leading from the back...

By Maxine Kwok Adams  -  05 March 2016

Not all seats are created equal- some are indeed very uncomfortable! A Twitter follower once asked me about the difficulties of sitting in differing positions within the LSO 1st violin which made me ponder the question, having sat in every seat possible from number 2 back to the 16th player. Being a tutti violinist means you'll be sitting from 3rd desk (sometimes you'll even reach the dizzying heights of desk 2!) down to 8th desk (AKA - Might as well be backstage..). This is quite a distance apart - half the concert platform in reality, and when people say it's easier to play at the front, it really is. Sitting at the front of a section you have so much more contact with the conductor and the concertmaster with everything feeling more immediate and controlled. You need only to flick your eyes around to see the conductor, concertmaster and the music. 

Unfortunately some conductors don't really look towards the back of the section which can make players feel as if they're not really a part of what's going on, preferring to direct their attention to the front desks. This results in half the section losing concentration as we stop feeling like a unit. Every player matters in a section, from the person who is only spitting distance away (not that I advocate this obviously!) to the person right at the back, who will invariably reach the tea queue first. It's always wonderful when a conductor addresses the whole section rather than mumbling to the front desk. By the time that message gets passed back, the attention to that particular detail is probably lost. 
Sometimes we need Danger Money! 5th desk outside is traditionally known as suicide corner as it can feel like the loneliest seat in the section especially as on some concert platforms the back desks are raised up.  And let's not forget some composer's penchant for back desk solos... This is something you learn to expect as a front desk player and are paid handsomely for the extra stress, but quite frankly it's not something you want to see when sitting so far removed from the conductor with everyone turning round to stare in rehearsals. Nice.
Being the largest single section, space can be at a premium in the first violins and being a considerate colleague is definitely a bonus to prevent any angst. The heights of players in my section vary from 5 foot and not very much... to well over 6 foot. With long torsos blocking the views of those behind there is definitely a way of politely asking for an inch or two here and there rather than quietly steaming in your seat because you can't see the conductor. There are times though when conditions are not ideal on tour. For example, curved stages mean sight lines are often blocked or cramped stages mean we may sit six desks back in a row. 
So spare a thought next time you attend a concert and see violinists at the back craning their necks looking towards the conductor. They probably have an expensive trip to the osteopath booked that week. 

About Maxine Kwok Adams

Fashion correspondent and violinist of the London Symphony Orchestra

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