Guest post: musings and guidelines for section leaders

Kat Hatton, who often leads our viola section, has got together with our new leader, Mel Le Breuilly, to put together some guidelines for potential section leaders (we routinely rotate the section leader positions in the strings). Here’s her original musings on the topic, with a bulleted summary at the bottom. Both Kat and Mel are clear that what’s written below are possibilities to be lived into, not a list of demands that everyone has the time and capacity to achieve immediately, or indeed every time!

Here’s what it takes to be a good section leader in an amateur orchestra:

You’ve got a number of jobs. Firstly and most obviously, you’re essentially managing a bunch of people for the duration of the concert. You need to play in such a way that you’re providing cues at relevant times (and of course you have to figure out those times!), you have to do the bowings, you have to identify the bits that people need to practice both as a section and individually. You have to keep an ear on what’s happening behind you so that you can tell if there are any problems, and then work out whether it’s a whole section fix (and then persuade the conductor or sectional person to listen to you!) or an individual (and then communicate in a way that doesn’t embarrass or upset that person – so many fall down here). You have to think about technique, be ready to advise and teach, and know when to insist on something a bit harder (fingerings, string crossings, advanced bits of technique) because it’s musically right vs letting people stay in their comfort zone. You’ve also got to motivate, encourage, praise and create a feeling of “team”.

Then, you’re the voice of your section in your orchestra. You have to have the relationships and negotiation skills to get what’s right for your team in the Great Bowing Wars, and (in the case of violas particularly) explain why sometimes technique is different and what works for first violins won’t work for you. You have to work out what’s going on across all the sections, where you need to match, how to match and know when to refuse politely. During rehearsals you have to keep an eye on the other sections too to spot changes, things that haven’t worked, change them if necessary (with the minimum of disruption so as not to annoy the conductor) and feed them back (again, with minimal disruption). You have to spot where you fit in the music, who is doing what that you need to lock into (who has the opposing run to yours, who has the quavers that you need to know about, where there are handy counting cues), where you’re playing together with another section, when the conductor is going to make eye contact so that you’re ready, where a soloist needs your support and is going to need an acknowledgement that you’re ready, or even when someone else around you just needs a smile or a nod of encouragement.

And on top of that, you obviously have to be able to actually play the music! And when you can’t play it, you have to work out how you’re going to convincingly fake it – the key notes, the key bow movements, the point in a bar or passage that you have to get right. Not to mention the occasional pesky solo falling in there. You have to research the piece in advance, by finding recordings, downloading parts on IMSLP so that you can try to get a sneak preview, be prepared for that first rehearsal as if you’re genuinely sight-reading it’s one hell of a risk. Confidence at all times, making everyone think you have it nailed, and working out the balance between holding up your hand for a mistake vs not letting people realise you can’t play.

It’s no wonder I find it so thoroughly exhausting!

Section leadership in an amateur orchestra


  • Get to know the music to be confident of your part, including listening to recordings
  • Be able to spot how your part fits into the wider music – where you’re with another section or instrument, where handy cues are, who’s playing something to help with your rhythm/tuning etc
  • Be able to play your part as best you can!
  • Decide on bowings with other section leaders as appropriate
  • Identify areas for practice as a section and individually
  • Consider the techniques needed to play different parts of the music

Communication – while playing

  • Providing cues at relevant times
  • Listen to what’s happening behind you to identify problems
  • Listen to the rest of the orchestra to put into practice what you know about how your part fits with the wider music, so your team can follow you
  • Eye contact with the conductor, other section leaders, and players
  • Be confident!

Communication – while rehearsing

  • Motivate, encourage, praise and create a feeling of ‘team’
  • Work out how to solve problems, whether as a whole section or for individuals, and communicate this appropriately
  • Advise on technique based on requirements of the music
  • Be the voice of your section, with the relationships and negotiation skills to get the right outcome for your team
  • Be aware of what is going on across the sections – when to match and when not to, when there are changes
  • Make and feed back changes to the section with minimal disruption
  • Balance between holding up your hand to admit a mistake vs not letting people think you can’t play

One thought on “Guest post: musings and guidelines for section leaders

  • November 6, 2018 at 9:08 am

    I had no idea there was so much in it! But the lesson is clear – alone you are simply an(excellent) Viola but with a team of players you become so much more – if you all play together with respect and communication.

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