How to be a better second chair performer

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By Bruce Chidester

Many years ago I visited with a great trumpet player at North Texas State. His name was Larry Ford. Larry, unfortunately passed away at a very early age and we who knew him, miss him greatly. During our visit, I mentioned that I preferred playing second parts over lead parts and his response was,

Why? Playing the second part is much more difficult than playing lead.

In some ways he was correct. Playing lead has definite requirements and second part players also have their own distinct responsibilities. As a lead player, you are expected to play with assurance and power. As a second part player, you are expected to follow the lead player’s dynamics, articulation and general playing style.

Different roles

Lead players by nature must be confident and consistent in their performance for the rest of the section has to know where to “hang their hat”. Second part players are expected to be flexible and constantly adjusting to changing situations.

Second part players many times are expected to be able to play solos and lead players are sometimes asked to play jazz but are most often are needed for their lead playing. Some players have the ability to function in both lead positions as well as jazz or second, third chair parts but more often than not, each chair has exclusive responsibilities.

I have performed with several top lead players who can belt out the best jazz. Lead players many times exhibit strong dominant characteristics which help in their lead responsibilities in a band. Second chair players are more of a follower than a leader. Second chair players must be very flexible and constantly listening for unexpected changes in the music. In other words, a second chair player is quick on his/her feet, being able to make instant changes.

A conversation with Bobby Shew

I remember another conversation with the great all around trumpet player Bobby Shew. When he asked me what kind of playing I did, I told him that I proudly consider myself a good second chair player and in a very whimsical way added that

we (second chair players) make you guys, (lead players) sound good!

Of course I was joking but there are many things a second chair player can do to help the overall success of a performance.


One area a second chair player must do to improve ensembles outcome is the issue of intonation. At the end of jobs, a lead player may start to pinch and go sharp or flat because of fatigue. If this happens, the lead player is to be followed. I don’t mean that you have to play flat or sharp, it only means that you have to make up the difference between the lead player and the rest of the band. Adjusting to intonation changes is just one of many responsibilities of a second chair player.

Other responsibilities

Another responsibility for the second chair player is to be ready at any time to take over the lead part in order to give the first part player a chance to rest. Usually this will be on an easier ballad or other low impact tune. As a second part player, you will need to adjust your thinking at that point on the job for by nature, a second chair player usually has to mentally adjust his/her playing style to fit the chair.

After playing a second part all night, I have to make a concerted effort to change my thinking when playing a lead. I have to consciously become more of a leader than a follower. This is definitely a conscious effort for it is against my nature to be a leader. As I stated earlier, a second chair player must be flexible in any situation.


Due to the added responsibilities of a second part player and the added expectations of playing jazz, you will have to learn and be able to solo on most of the standards used today. Learning the melody and playing over their chord changes is defiantly an area you need to address.

The best way to prepare yourself for this chore is to take time each week to learn a few of the standards and play along with recordings so that you can perform well if asked to cover some requested numbers. This preparation will take time but as a second chair player, you need to learn it.


Many times, Dixieland tunes are to be played and again it might be up to you to cover the lead part in a thrown together Dixieland band. Fortunately the number of tunes you would be expected to know would depend on the job you are on. To learn all of the “traditional” standards would take you most of your life.

When I single out traditional Dixieland tunes, I am speaking of the true, early numbers only known to the limited number of died in the wool traditionalists. These tunes might include Dixieland standards such as Wolverine Blues, Sensation, Ostrich Walk, Satanic Blues, Whistling Rufus, etc. To the average musician, these would draw a blank for only the purest would even recognize the titles, let alone be able to plot the structure and know the melody and chord changes. A more common Dixieland library would include the more often performed Dixieland tunes such as, When the Saints Go Marching In, Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey and Sunny Side of the Street. Unless you are hired to play in a true “traditional” Dixieland band, your knowledge of the standard literature should be enough to get by.

An honor

Becoming the best second chair player you can be is a challenge and to be known as a great second chair player is as much an honor as being known as the best lead player. The world may not know the difference between the two, but you and I do. It is my wish to have on my tomb stone this information, “He was a great father and a great second chair trumpet player”.

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