Monday, August 23, 2010

Being "Second" Chair: Learning to FOLLOW is a needed skill

By Mark T. Burke

Every musician's dream is to become the "first" player, be it "first chair" or playing the "first part." Being "first" means we play the hardest music and more often than not, are the leaders within our section.  Yes sir, being first is the only real musical dream to have.

Now hold on a minute. What about all the other players that AREN'T "firsts?" Aren't they important? Well certainly they are.  I thought it high time to praise the "seconds" of the world and compare the lessons learned from being a second player to real life situations (for all you K-12 students and teachers out there).

Today, I re-read an Article titled "Do Something: Let's Hear It for the Little Guy", Fast Company, April 2010.  The article highlights how over-obsessed we are with becoming "leaders" and that unless we are "leaders" we often find ourselves placed into a heap of "also-rans" called "followers." WOW...this corporate themed article reflects the musical world so well that I thought it created a great concept for a post.

I had a really great experience throughout high school and college as a second trumpet player.  In fact, I played first within my own school, but at band festivals, I always played second Cornet and LOVED it. In fact, I attended the PA State Band festival for 2 years after placing 1st chair on 2nd cornet at all the preceding festivals during that time.  In college, I had a similar experience playing 2nd Cornet in most groups I played in.  I learned (or was taught) early on that my responsibility as a second player was to support the lead players. By listening and responding to the first players, I could create many great musical moments. Being second meant I had to balance the first player, play in tune with the first player, match phrasing with the first player, articulate like the first player and overall, ensure the musical moments between first and second where harmonious.  As a follower, my responsibility was to always be on guard, ready to respond when called on. If the first player was flat in the upper register and we were playing in octaves, I had to make the adjustments, that was my role.  In the end, the first player may have taken all the bows, but I knew much hard work rested on my shoulders and I was proud of my contribution.

I didn't know it at the time, but playing second was teaching me life lessons that would prove extremely important. As the article states, leading is not for everyone.  Now, my goal is not to turn this into a discussion about leadership vs. followship. No, in fact, I feel both skill sets are critically important to develop in youth and adults. As Nancy Lubin points out, where would the world be if it was filled with only leaders? Ideas would be aimlessly floating about with no one taking any action toward developing those ideas.  She didn't say that exactly, but read the article and you'll see why I make this point.

What students can learn about following is that being a supporting follower often means you are someone counted on to "execute" tasks, get things done, make things a reality. Leaders can bring focus, change and direction, but often times do not execute well. The real bonus for young musicians is that they can learn the true JOYS of being second (or a follower or someone responsible for execution).  I feel fortunate to be in the position at viaAcademies I am in. I've had the pleasure of learning how to execute a thought out plan through my years as a musician.  When it's time for us to execute an initiative, I like to roll up my sleeves and jump right in.  When leading the team toward our goals, I have always counted my blessing that as a young musician, I learned to follow my leaders and get things done. I often transfer that skill into my leadership role and hopefully, I make those who really do much hard work around our shop feel the effort is rewarding (maybe they should chime in.)

As we look for ways to advocate for our art, I've read how musical activities help students develop leadership skills.  One truly powerful skill is the ability to follow, using creative abilities to help focused leaders accomplish great things.  Consider the power of teaching your students the real pluses and responsibilities of being a follower.  Teams around the world will benefit from their future team members.


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