Who's on First Chair?

Susan Spector has played Oboe in the MET Orchestra since 1992. She is also known through the orchestra as a baseball fanatic and blogger. Her family, entirely comprised of opera fanatics, come to operas often, and her daughter is the famous @msoperageek on twitter.

© Jaime Green 2014.  Source:  The Wichita Eagle

© Jaime Green 2014. Source: The Wichita Eagle

I’m not in on the Metropolitan Opera Stagehands’ NCAA pool.  I won’t be constructing a bracket nor could I tell you who the top-seeded college basketball teams are at this point.  But I am awfully proud of and have enjoyed following, for a second year in a row now, the outstanding performance of the men’s basketball team at my alma mater, Wichita State University.


Anyone who knows me well knows that baseball is truly my sport of choice and the New York Mets are my team. As a season ticket holder at Citi Field, I attend most home games, and my family and I travel to see the Mets play elsewhere as well.  Although the team’s performance in recent seasons has not inspired me to write much about them lately, I do have a Mets-related blog.  My main motivation for starting the blog, and the subject of many of my posts, is my fascination in the similarities between the two disciplines of playing for a baseball team and playing in an orchestra.  I’m not surprised to find that college basketball and playing in an orchestra have comparable equivalents.


One of the challenges that both organized sports and an orchestral ensemble face as I see it is, first, acquiring highly talented, sought-after, star-quality players—the “cream of the crop”.  Secondly, a team must practice or rehearse together and take the strategies/interpretations onto the court/into the stage or pit and repeat and perfect these over a string of games/performances.  Thirdly, a competent coach/manager/conductor must endeavor to bring these stars together to perform as a team, rather than as individuals.

Perfect Pitch , Susan Spector's Mets Blog

Perfect Pitch, Susan Spector's Mets Blog

Of course, not everyone’s job on a team or in an orchestra is identical.  By design, some positions come with more exposure or visibility and more responsibility or accountability.  An ace starting pitcher or concertmaster or principal wind player knows that he/she is in the “hot seat” every day they pitch or play. 

However, anyone who’s been to a ballgame or has been to the opera must be able to recall a time when some auxiliary player came off the bench or was brought up from AAA or a cover singer was announced in the Playbill or from the stage prior to curtain.  Similarly, the MET Orchestra occasionally performs with a section player sitting “out of position” in the Principal’s chair and playing the solos in that part, either because of illness or a vacation.  This is not as visible to the average operagoer as a cover singer.  But that’s the point:  while the MET Orchestra is a team of professionals, each with his/her assigned role, the orchestra doesn’t rely solely on first-chair players.  A good team depends upon many players, each doing their unique job in the very best way possible to help the team in any way at any given time.

Except for infrequent substitutions such as I mentioned above, the star players must be the ones up to the task of the responsibilities of the leadership role to which they have been assigned.  Equally well, each section/bench player must excel at his/her unique craft which is separate from the more visible stars’/Principals’ roles, but essential nonetheless.

But even an All-Star team such as I describe requires one more ingredient for continued success, I think:  each player must surrender him- or herself to adhering to the specific role to which they have been entrusted and trusting others to do the same. 

Yes, a homerun by David Wright is a magical thing.  But the lead-off man getting on base with a single—not trying for a homer—and David Wright then hitting a two-run homer following that is twice as magical.   The Principal Clarinetist gets appreciative foot shuffles in the pit after his beautiful solo at the opening of e lucevan le stelle in Act III of Tosca, and rightly so.  Once the tenor starts singing, however, the solo clarinetist knows that his role is now one of accompanist and he becomes merely part of the orchestral fabric once again.  Ditto the First Oboist in O patria Mia in Act III of Aida.

My beloved Shockers won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament last Sunday and have clinched their berth in the NCAA proceedings.  They did so having lost not one of their thirty-four regular season games.  They will be the first undefeated team to enter the NCAA championships since UNLV in 1991.  And they did so to the surprise of many who underestimated what this team was capable of and despite their second-best ranking.

WSU sophomore point guard Fred FanVleet’s contribution on Sunday was huge.  In that deciding game, he led the team in scoring with 22 points.  He also successfully stripped an opposing player of the ball late in the game, driving the length of the court for a layup.  Asked after the game about this sleight of hand and the big grin it had prompted, he said, 

It wasn’t about me. It’s about everyone in yellow and black.

That must have been music to the ears of WSU Coach Gregg Marshall and his coaching staff.  The quote certainly reflected the esprit de corp that Marshall credits for his team’s success:  

I just credit my staff and our players for being willing to play as a team, accept their roles on the team for the betterment of the team,” head coach Gregg Marshall said. “That’s what we’ve got, some really talented guys that are team-first and allow us to coach them on both ends.

Although a true partnership like this is the ideal—for any symphonic ensemble and any sports team—it doesn’t always happen.  Colleagues in workplaces outside of music and sports do not work in tandem either.  Perhaps it’s my Midwestern naiveté, but I’d like to think that quotes like Marshall’s might make an impression on more than just basketball players and their fans and could go far to inspire a spirit of collaboration and partnership well beyond the basketball court, concert hall, or orchestra pit. 


When that happens, everyone wins.