First chair, or principal player, is second only to the conductor or maestro in an ensemble. It is the chair quite literally closest to the conductor in each section. Ascension to the position of first chair can be as mild as an audition, or it can be as competitively cutthroat as a scene straight out of Drumline.
In a large orchestra ensemble, the concertmaster, or first violinist, gives a subtle mark to the first oboist, who tunes each section with an “A” pitch. The first “A” goes to the winds, then the brass, then the strings. And this mark is pivotal to the cohesion of the orchestra. Edward Dolbashian, director of MU’s University Philharmonic Orchestra, says, though there’s room for rotating the principal players in most sections, such as the woodwinds, in the string section there are fewer opportunities. The principal string player is in charge of producing the kinds of sounds and activities the conductor wants.
“In the string section, you really have to have quality playing, advanced playing, and leadership to run their section,” says Dolbashian.
Vox talked to three first chair players in Columbia.
Playing an instrument is written in Clifton Gilliland’s DNA. Both of his parents are pianists, his sister earned a master’s degree in performance for the violin and his brother plays cello. In addition, the second-year graduate student is first chair viola for the University Philharmonic Orchestra for the second time. Originally from St. Louis, he began playing the viola when he was 8. Clifton’s father told him, “If you begin this, you have to play until you’re 18.”
Although he remembers moments in high school when he wanted to quit, Gilliland’s happy for the lessons of discipline and perseverance he learned during that time. The philharmonic’s general audition process, through which it chooses its principal players, is unique compared to professional ensembles and conservatories. It’s less cutthroat and more about giving senior players experience. It’s a single audition that everyone auditions for, and from there, the section’s professors and conductor decide. Additionally, he teaches the violin, viola and cello to sixth graders at West Middle School in Columbia and in the Missouri String Project, a program that offers string lessons to kids in third and fourth grades.
Playing the oboe is technically Trey Makler’s side job. A fifth-year senior at MU and principal oboist for University Philharmonic, Makler is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in music focusing on composition. Although he has always viewed himself primarily as a composer, he now embraces his dual identity. The oboe is known as a double-reed instrument in the wind family. Oboists don’t tune an oboe; they make their own reeds ahead of time. That’s why they tune the rest of orchestra: The oboe has the least room for adjustment, Makler says.
Being principal oboe means it’s imperative that he’s at rehearsal early, warmed up and equipped with a tuner and good reeds. Makler recognizes that everything in the ensemble starts from his tuning pitch. Despite his success with the instrument, his greatest love is composition and the creativity that comes along with it. “I think composition is just super vulnerable and intimate; it’s amazing that I get to spend my life creating this thing that may or may not be considered art,” Makler says. He’s currently interviewing at schools such as the University of Southern California, Yale University and the Juilliard School to pursue his master’s in composition.
Amy Kuhlmann Appold
As principal violinist for the Odyssey Chamber Ensemble’s upcoming performance on Saturday, Appold has had a prolific career that spans decades. She was a founding member and principal violinist for the Maia String Quartet from 1990 to 2005. Appold describes her role as crucial, but not any more important than the rest of the ensemble, because the sound and personality of the quartet is greatly influenced by the role. Listening to Appold talk about her instrument, she sounds like a wizard in Harry Potter describing their wand. On the day of a performance, she likes to arrive early so she can warm up and “feel like (she’s) friends with her violin.”
Appold says she believes the most important thing for the first violinist is to know his or her part better than anyone else in the orchestra. Appold did not audition for the principal chair; she was selected to be concertmaster for the particular upcoming show by Ayako Tsuruta, artistic director of the ensemble.