Last Chair

I started my journey to officially being a musician as a violinist with my grade school string section.   The good part was that I was officially a part of a musical group of people.  The bad part was that I was officially the worse at what I did.  I was last chair violinist.  It’s somewhat of a humbling feeling to look to your right, see nothing there and realize that you are the least skilled musician in your section.  First chair represents the most talented musician in your section and last chair represent the polar opposite.

Being last chair violinist didn’t really phase me all that much because I was just so excited to be handpicked to leave my fourth grade classroom a few times a week to assemble with this group of people that, joined together, made this amazing sound.  I had zero aspirations to be first chair or even second or third chair violinist because being in the orchestra at all was satisfactory enough for me.  Before being asked to join the orchestra I wasn’t connected to anything at all.  I didn’t belong to a sports team, or any other kind of group; not even a book club.  I was just excited to have some kind of musical identity and a group to belong to, even if it meant I had the least glamorous seat in the house.

Just months after I had convinced my parents into getting me a violin, I asked for a drum set for my birthday.  My mother frowned and said, “But what about the violin I just paid all of that money for?”   I abruptly stopped eating my cereal and smugly said, “I’m going to play both”.   Surprisingly, neither of my parents insisted that I drop one of the instruments and just decide to  play one of them.  Unlike playing the violin, playing drums seemed to come to me quite naturally as if I had been doing it my whole life (all nine years of it).  There wasn’t any room in the school concert band for another drummer, but I still played drums in talent shows and for the choir performances my general music teacher would put on at my grade school.

I was a musician version of Jekyll and Hyde; I had one identity as the nervous, poorly skilled, shy last chair violinist, and another identity as an arrogant drummer with few musical peers.  You would think that I would quit playing violin after having much better results playing the drums, but I loved being in the orchestra.  It wasn’t about me achieving a higher status playing violin, it was about being a part of the group.  I clearly understood that on average, most people don’t know the last chair violinist from the first chair violinist in the orchestra, they just see a group.  When I performed, I was on the same stage as the first chair violinist.  We all took bows at the end of the performance at the same time.  I rode the same bus and read the same music as the first chair violinist.  I think you get my point.

My highest achievement on violin was being next to last chair when I was a seventh grader in middle school.  To my shock and surprise there was a girl from a different grade school that managed to play violin worst than I did.  I didn’t even think it was possible to play violin worse than me, but alas I was effortlessly promoted one seat up to the left because it was indeed possible to suck more than I did.  The saddest part was that the girl hated my guts and was embarrassed to be last chair and would regularly challenge me for my chair.  She failed every single time.  I thought my days of being last chair were finally over.  Then something unexpected happened.

At the beginning of my eight grade school year in middle school, the orchestra only had one bassist because the other bassists went on to high school.  Before orchestra rehearsal, the conductor said, “We need another bass player.  Is there anyone in the orchestra that is interested in switching instruments?  I’ll give free private bass lessons after school to catch you up to speed if you’re interested.”  Without hesitation, I quickly jumped up out of my seat and raised my bow wielding hand.  I looked around the band room as I stood and was relieved to discover that I was the only student interested in the conductor’s proposal.  The conductor was genuinely excited, as was I, and that was my last day as a violinist. 

I spent most of my extra time after school, in eight grade, in a small instrument storage room near the band rehearsal room, switching my brain from reading treble clef sheet music to reading bass clef sheet music and learning the proper way to hold and play upright string bass.
During the first semester of eight grade, I was strictly confined to private lessons in a small room during the regular orchestra rehearsal time and didn’t get to join the band as a bassist until the following semester.  The other bass player was my friend and bassist in my after school R&B band, so that made the instrument switch experience even more fun.  One day, during downtime at orchestra rehearsal, the other bassist and I were sitting, hiding behind our instruments talking and I laughed.  He asked, “What’s so funny?”  I said, “After years of being last chair violinist, I finally get bumped up from last chair.  I switched to upright string bass and now I’m last chair again.”


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