Thursday, August 6, 2009

Orchestral Seating Arrangements

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from an old friend with a question about orchestral seating arrangements. I wrote a rather extensive response and thought that some of you may be interested in my thoughts. So, I have copied it below. I welcome your comments.

Hey Scott! I hope that you are enjoying your summer. I have a question and I thought that maybe you'd have some good input. Can you shed some light on the various orchestra string arrangements? I've been having long discussions about it and I would like some more input. What I mean by that is I see the following set ups and I would like your input.





I have actually tried all of these. I think they can all be effective in various settings.

The following is from the Wikipedia Entry on String Orchestra Seating:
The most common seating arrangement is with first violins, second violins, violas and cellos clockwise around the conductor, with basses behind the cellos on the right.[2] In the 19th century it was standard[3] to have the first and second violins on opposite sides (violin I, cello, viola, violin II), rendering obvious the crossing of their parts in, for example, the opening of the finale to Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony.

If space or numbers are limited, cellos and basses can be put in the middle, violins and violas on the left (thus facing the audience) and winds to the right; this is the usual arrangement in orchestra pits.[4] The seating may also be specified by the composer, as in Béla Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta which uses antiphonal string sections, one on each side of the stage.

I have reverted to the traditional 1st-2nd-Vla-Cello at this point in my conducting life - most because I have a set of gestures that seem to be most effective with that set up.

Having 2nds on the left outside seems to bring them into a more prominent role, but the downside is that they are sort-of set up for their sound to go backwards into the stage. It is good, however to get the fundamentals that are being played by cello/bass into the middle of the orchestra. Everyone seems to tune differently/better with them in there.

The other set up - with the violas on the outside/left grows from a string quartet set-up. Same deal though - the viola sounds tend to get swallowed up, in my opinion. It is hard enough to get their sound out there. I would only use this if I was doing string quartet literature with a string ensemble - like a Mozart Divertimento or something.

It is funny - because I was working at a camp this summer where another conductor was using the set up with the 2nds on the left and I felt the ensemble was really lacking between the 1sts and 2nds. Anyway, I sort of revisited the arrangement issue and, again, decided that the traditional arrangement works best for me.

I don't like switching around, especially when conducting difficult literature, because I throw cues to the wrong place. Also, if I used one of the other set-ups in my orchestra and then go to guest conduct with a traditional arrangement, it is easy to get confused and I just don't like that. I want my gestures to be accurate and predictable from the first rehearsal.

I hope this helps.
Take care!!


  1. Hi,

    I'm a first year middle school orchestra teacher (orchestra is not my main area of expertise). I also set up my orchestra the traditional way; however, do you have any input about balancing each section? For example, do you put most of your stronger players up front because they deserve to be there? or do you disperse them throughout the section? or do you actually put more in the back hoping that their sound will carry out the most and help the other weaker or quieter players? You get the idea of what I'm saying... any thoughts or strategies on this issue?

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful question. I definitely try to get an equal balance of skill in both the 1st and 2nd violin sections and really try to sell the concept of the sections being EQUAL in terms of duties. You have to have solid players in both sections. That is fairly obvious. You question about seating is a great one.

    I try to mix it up from rehearsal to rehearsal. There is definitely a benefit to be gained by placing strong players at a stand with weaker players. There is no substitute for hearing the parts played correctly. I also believe that for performances, the stronger players ought to be in the front.

    Me recommendation is to make the seating arrangement within a section quite fluid. Kids that are in the back this week, are placed in the front this week. Strong with strong this week, strong with weak next week. You get the idea. As you get closer to performance time, I recommend that the arrangement become less fluid and a bit more predictable. I find that the kids who tend to be in the front, really benefit from spending some time in the back of a section. I also think that they benefit from sitting next to weaker players from time to time. So, everyone wins when the seating arrangement is more fluid.

    I also recommend that you work out a method form planning that arrangement before class actually begins. It is better not to have surprises at the beginning of rehearsal.

    These are just a few quick ideas. I hope they are helpful.

    Anyone else? Feel free to chime in on the subject!!


  3. Hi, my name is Héctor, I harked that this arrangements on different ways of seating orchestral members have a name, for example, someone told me that traditional arrangement is the American way of seat, and there is the Italian, French and German... What's the difference? Why does conductors arrange like that? How does conductor decide to arrange on that way or another? Is there any book that explains that? I know you had explained some of my questions, but I would like you to explain me more or to tell me where can I found this information

    1. Hi Hector. Unfortunately, I don't have any book recommendations on this topic. My experience with this is more just from trying things and seeing what works. I do believe that this is largely a decision for balance and blend, rather than simply "geography." If I come across a book or chapter of a book on the topic, I will post a note about it.

    2. I think it is not geography but the development of orchestra and his history through different country and later the development of record tecnologies how are responsible for the evolution. Read the very good article in German by Ermanno Briner at Reclams Musikinstrumentenduhrer.

  4. When Bernstein insisted on placing the cellos outside and violas inside he would screw up the string sound of the Vienna Philharmonic every time (I was a musician in Vienna at the time). When cellos are inside more upper harmonics are present out in the hall - which blend much better with the french horns btw (Stauss etc.) and actually help the viola sound project (they don't get drowned out by a woofier sound). Sitting on the right of the conductor cellos naturally sound less brilliant because the full sound gets projected toward the conductor and clarity is lost (out in the audience) and the violas practically disappear (conductors will never pick up on that unless they sit out in the hall). When Violists sit outside (even though their instruments are angled inside) they tend to play out more. The greatest string sections in the world (excepting Concertgebouw) all play with this configuration (Vienna, Berlin, Dresden, Cleveland etc. etc.).

    1. Thank you for these insights!! I really appreciate your perspective and will take your thoughts into account moving forward.