*Note: Please know that I am not trying to stereotype or make fun of 2nd violinists. All this below is a true story, and one that hopefully inspires other violinists to become 2nds themselves!
Some questions for you all before we dive in:
#1: Raise your hand if you remember the first quartet concert you went to.
#2: Raise your hand if you remember the 1st violinist’s melody in any of the pieces played.
#3: Raise your hand if the violist was on the outside, across from the 1st violinist and did that really cool thing where they would pivot in their chair to be heard.
#4: Raise your hand if you remember the amazingly low and beautiful sound the cellist made.
#5 (This is the important question, and it’s ok if you don’t raise your hand): Raise your hand if you realized there was another violinist at that quartet concert. Do you remember their name? Do you remember what they sounded like?
If you raised your hand for all 5 questions, no need to read on. That is awesome, and you are a bona fide quartet listener/quartet-goer! If you didn’t raise your hand for #5, I would also not hold it against you, but keep reading!
The raised hands to #5, or lack thereof, is why I absolutely LOVE my job. It is what keeps me going day in and day out.
Ok. I need to get something straight right off the bat. I love being a 2nd violinist. For me, if you know me personally, or know my playing, heard my instrument, I think it is, has been, and will continue to be a perfect career for the rest of my life. Just wanted to put that out there to all you folks still trying to decide what to do with your wonderful lives. 2nd violin rocks! I also wanted to say this, because like all young and wonderful bright-eyed and bushy-tailed musicians, it wasn’t always like that for me. There were those definite aspirations of becoming the next Midori-playing with flawless technique in her Paganini 24 Caprices album; I wanted to be the next Leila Josefowicz or Alina Pogotskina, transcending the usual concerti and playing new contemporary pieces…the list goes on. As I grew older there was a time where playing 1st violin, or concertmaster, or even playing in the “inner circle” of orchestra was the cool thing to do, it was like being the quarterback of the music world if you will. (It still is, but let’s face it, playing in the back of the 2nds, near the percussion is where its at. #alwayshearingthebeat) High school was definitely such a place to be “first,” and yes, I definitely flaunted (when I probably shouldn’t have) my “first-ness.” When I got to college, and especially by sophomore year, that had all gone away. My aspirations of becoming a world-class traveler, concertizing musician, scotch-drinking-with-the-conductor-in-a-really-nice-suit-and-watch-after-every-concert…nope. That wasn’t me anymore. In fact, the friends that I surrounded myself with in college and grad school, that was none of us. By the time I went to the Banff International Quartet Festival, I was a tried and true 2nd violinist. I, alongside our 1st violinist at the time, had known our respective places, sounds and rehearsal ideas and opinions in our quartet for the entire school year, and to my surprise, we were good at it! 2nd violin…my ears were opened to listening to music in such a different way that year, but more on that at the end.
When I was in high school, I went to my very first chamber music camp, Madeline Island, and this is of importance as this is the first time I noticed the “other” violinist. Still in the lore and wonderfulness of being a “first,” I heard the Pacifica Quartet play their final 4-6 concerts of their Beethoven Quartet Cycle. During one of their final concerts, they played the Cavatina movement from Op. 130, and to my surprise it was not the 1st violinist that had the 8th notes at the beginning, but the 2nd violinist! I was awestruck at this simple 6-note up-and-down that I had heard thousands of times on CD’s and never really gave much thought of who was playing it. For that entire movement, I only looked at the 2nd violinist (Sibbi Bernhardsson at the time) and was entranced by his playing. How much power over chord changes, open strings, phrases, emotions he had as an inner voice, all of this complementing everyone else, while most likely not being the center of attention as Simin (1st violinist) took those beautiful melodies that we all know and love.
Ever since that fateful Summer’s evening, a summer also rife with high school romance, music, good friends, laughter and wonderful memories, anytime I have gone to a quartet concert, I dial into what the 2nd violinist is doing, how they move, how they position their chair, who they look to in phrases and passages, what kinds of strings they use, the list goes on. Every single quartet’s 2nd violinist is different, but they each have such an integral part to play in the music; Even if they don’t get heard that much, or seen, or complimented, they are doing their job, the proverbial glue that keeps everyone together…hopefully.
Throughout the years, as I have honed my craft (and will forever be honing my craft, mind you) of becoming a more mature “inner player,” part of that is being more assertive with my opinions, being not only open to suggestion, but giving it as well. As you may well have heard by now, a string quartet is somewhat like being married to three other people: You’re in the same room for multiple hours per day, there will be discussions, agreements, disagreements, everyone has an equal say and share in how a piece is dissected and stitched back up. With that “equal say” process, I have learned to think and converse a bit more quick on my feet (those of you who know me, you know what I’m talking about…for those of you who don’t, I’m a very…slow…….thinker) and to stand up a bit more for what a phrase should feel like. I also now have a duty and a more prominent role at Apple Hill to expand and to promote the organization and to be a good role model for all who attend the camp and concerts! I therefore will tell you, my wonderful readers, that 2nd violin is awesome! Playing 2nd violin is great! There are so many things you can explore within the part, so many dips and dives and contours and waves…Next time you go to a quartet concert, really listen to see if you can hear what the 2nd violinist does. Maybe they have unison parts with one other member of the quartet but just a third below, maybe they have the same note repeated over and over, maybe they forgot to come in because they lost count of how many rests they had, or maybe they just didn’t show up to the concert at all. Or maybe, that’s what they want you to think, for I think that the 2nd violinist is the best “wing man” a quartet could have. The ultimate “friend zone,” the “giver of phrases,” the “bridge between the other instruments.”
Come for the melody, stay for the repeating 8th notes.
Cheers all, and remember, practice beauty.