director / leader / conductor

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Senior Member
Hi folks,

I'm having some difficulties finding out where those three words differ.

My context : a musician's bio.
Sentence : Clio Gould enjoys an unusually varied career as a violinist, and performs as soloist, director and leader throughout Britain and Europe.

Later in the text

In 2002, Clio was appointed leader of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, becoming the first female leader of a symphony orchestra in London

The word "conductor" appears nowhere, actually. I mention it because I strongly suspect that's what that lady really is.

I also gather that the word "director" refers to a musical director.

I have two questions :
1) Is the word "leader" (in a musical context) strictly synonymous with the word "conductor"?
2) More generally, how do the 3 words in the thread title differ, if at all?

Any help appreciated

  • Roddyboy55

    Senior Member
    England, English UK
    I am not an expert, but I believe that violinists are categorised as second, first or lead violinists.

    Second and firsts are both groups playing different parts of the same piece and the lead plays the best bits. Presumably the lead violist will also play solos from time to time as well.

    Whether the lead/solo violiist would ever conduct I don't know.



    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Leader of the orchestra is the first of the first violins - I believe known as the concertmaster in some parts of the world. This is the link person between the conductor and the orchestra. The leader also determines how the violinists will bow - so they all go up and down at the same time.

    The conductor stands at the front waving a small stick so the orchestra plays in the manner he decides - this time

    The director?
    That's a harder question.


    Senior Member
    Hi Alien Leader!

    In AE, the person in front of an orchestra is normally the Conductor.

    The leader of the band is colloquial, and just as bandleader, is applied to wind ensembles, especially
    brass bands.

    In the world of opera and orchestras and chamber groups, director is just as you have stated, the music director. This is an administrative, rather than performing, position.

    Therefore, this...

    performs as soloist, director and leader throughout Britain and Europe.
    makes little sense in AE. The director only performs if she or he holds as dual appointment as both
    music director and conductor.


    Senior Member
    Thanks everyone for your prompt answers.

    After some research, I finally found out that she's been director to the Scottish Ensemble and that it did include conducting (she features as the conductor on a few recordings by the SE, as shown on several commercial sites).

    As for the leader, I think you're right. That's what we call the "first violin" in French. (it seems (s)he also called that in English sometimes).*

    Thanks again

    * Which is..... precisely what Panj said, actually :)

    EDIT : More
    The Scottish Ensemble is a dynamic group of 12 string players directed from the violin by Artistic Director Clio Gould.
    from the violin.....artistic director.....


    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    In a small string ensemble, there might be a musical director/ leader/ conductor all rolled into one. This would be the one whose head nods most, who seems to be making the most strange gesticulations with the bow, and whose eyebrows wriggle like furry caterpillars when the cello comes in a beat too soon.


    Senior Member
    English (NAmE)
    I used to play in an orchestra so here's my take on it.

    In general:

    Director - person in charge of the entire ensemble. They may chose a conductor and the other members of the orchestra or, in some cases, act as the conductor themselves.

    Conductor - person who leads the orchestra (keeps the rhythm, indicates crescendo/decrescendo)

    Concertmaster/leader - lead violinist in the first violin section an orchestra also in charge of tuning the orchestra. He/she is also in charge of making sure the violin section of the orchestra is in harmony.

    First violin - usually the group of violinists who play the main melody or important parts of a piece.

    Second and third violin - these groups back up the first violin section.


    Senior Member
    U.S. English
    Sounds like you already have your answer, but anyway. . .
    I can remember that in all the Chicago Symphony programs, Sir Georg Solti was always listed as the Musical Director (essentially, the overall director of the symphony); however, that by no means meant that he was the conductor of each and every concert. In fact, he probably conducted no more than 25% of the actual CSO concerts.

    So, I would imagine that Clio Gould is not only a solo violinist, but the conductor of his chamber group as well. This is exactly what Zuckerman and Perlman do with their chamber orchestras—play solo violin/viola and conduct.


    Senior Member
    English (UK)
    Beecham once said to the audience "We will now have the Second Dance Rhapsody of Frederick Delius, a work which was given some years ago and of which we will now hear the first performance". So having allowed everyone else to have their go I will now tell you what these jobs really mean. :D

    leader = the first of the first violins; sits at the front of the firsts, nearest the audience; plays any solo violin parts in the score not given to a soloist; gets to come on separately and take a bow; has final say over the string section's bowing (that's boh-ing not bau-ing!) [normally changed at the last minute - grrr]; normally has the most expensive violin; gets paid more; gives the down beat when the conductor is asleep (and sometimes when he is awake but away with the fairies).

    director [NOT the same as Musical Director!] = person who plays the soloist's part AND conducts an orchestra which has no specialist conductor (Google "directed from the keyboard"); when the solo part is prominent they just play; when the tutti passages come along they wave their arms about over-enthusiastically as if the orchestra really needed them. Most often found in period instrument groups as part of performance practice, but also in modern chamber orchestras. In the case of Clio Gould, it's the violinist playing the solo and waving the bow in the tutti bits. Examples of this practice include Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante; Andrew Manze and The English Concert; etc. (I get the feeling from cuchu's post that this is uncommon in the US.) River is right (as usual!) with the Zukerman/Perlman examples. LV's snippet makes this clear too.

    Corrections to posts above: there is no third violin section in the orchestra. There is however a viola section. There are no lead violinists (that's guitarists!). The leader is NOT responsible for tuning (normally the deputy leader, sitting at the front desk next to the leader does that) NOR for making sure the violins are in harmony. (That would be impossible - says a viola player!) The conductor does not 'lead' the orchestra (the leader does that). The conductor rehearses and 'conducts' the orchestra, which will include instructions on how to play (possibly including details such as bowing); this is different from 'leading'.

    EDIT: I should perhaps say that this refers to standard European professional/semi-professional practice. In other places and modes other things may obtain.


    Senior Member
    English (NAmE)

    Maybe it was just our orchestra that had a third violin section to replace the violists, which we didn't have. I'm not sure however about the rest. Our conductor did guide the orchestra (not by playing, but by indicating when to play, how we should play and when to play louder/softer, etc.). We also did have to tune after the lead violinist (who would be the one in charge of playing the solo, if there was one), unless there was a pianist, in which case we would tune after the pianist.

    Please note that my description is for a small orchestra following more traditional standards (especially for the role of the concertmaster). Winklepicker's description is appropriate for modern professional orchestras, which are much larger and follow a slightly different practice.


    Senior Member
    Thank you all. That was really helpful. Thanks, WP, for your very detailed comments.
    Although I'm a musician as well (and a music teacher), I'm learning a lot in this thread because the English and the French seem to give very different names to all those people.

    It's now clear for me what a leader is (as I said, the French equivalent transliterates as "the first violin" - not to be mixed up with "the first violins" which refer to the whole group). We too have the "strings" (ViolinsI, ViolinsII, Violas, Celli, Doublebasses) in front and what we call "the harmony" in the back (the wind instruments).

    Just an additionnal question. Later in the text, Clio Gould is said to be the principal violin in the London Sinfonietta. I'm not sure but here is where I'm starting from :
    - the LS is a chamber ensemble of 18 musicians
    - the strings are "one per part/voice" (not sure how you say that in English but that's how it would transliterate from French anyway), they're a string quintett.
    - Solo violin is called "violino principale" in Vivaldi's concertos, for instance.

    From that, I'm inferring that Clio Gould is both the first violin (obviously) and the solo violin, i.e. when there is a solo part.
    But then, this is very close to the defiition of a leader, as given by WP.
    The only reason that you wouldn't call her a leader is the size of the ensemble : every musician is a soloist, anyway, and there are only 18 of them, therefore they don't need a "leader", strictly speaking.

    Am I right in those assumptions?

    EDIT : mmmm.... found this in another bio, on the site of the LS
    Clio holds the positions of leader of the London Sinfonietta
    Could those writers be a bit sloppy in their use of words? Leader of principal violin? Are they the same, despite of what I'd thought in the first place?


    Senior Member
    English (UK)
    Yes, usage does vary. In the UK I would usually assume a principal player to be the leader of the section. But I had a friend who was a principal cellist in the Berlin Phil - but (if I remember rightly) was one of EIGHT principal cellists!

    The London Sinfonietta is a bit of a special case, a small orchestra specialising in contemporary music. You can find a list of its principals here. You will see that each is the leader of their section, and Clio Gould is described as principal first violin. If you read further in her biog however, it also says she is the leader.

    So I think they are using principal to mean section leader; the section leader of the first violins is also the leader of the orchestra.

    PS: You can't assume that the 18 principals are the only players.* For many works, more than one violin /viola / cello / flute etc would be required, and in many works piano, harp etc would NOT be required.

    Whether that helps you or muddies the water even further, I'm not sure!

    PPS: * You could email them and ask them?


    Senior Member
    Winklepicker's explanations are clear and direct. As he mentioned, usage may vary with geography.

    Here are a few AE notes to add to the collection.

    The principal player belongs to a section, whether it be one as small as the oboes and English horns, or as large as the second or first violins. The principle first violin, in a full orchestra, is known as the concertmaster.

    The use of "leader" in smaller ensembles such as string orchestras or chamber groups is pretty much as WP has described it, but may vary with individual ensembles. A string quartet, for example, does not typically have a
    designated 'leader', though the first violin performs the functions.


    Senior Member
    UK, English
    Just a couple of additional notes to add:
    English Horn = Cor Anglais in british english, though we'd know what you meant.

    The London Sinfonietta is different because Clio's functions will be different to those she perfrom with the RPO for example, simply because modern music does not generally have the same hierarchy of instruments as the baroque, classical and romantic orchestras.

    The person who tunes is not called a deputy leader in British pro orchestras. They are generally the co-leader or sometimes the sub-leader. A normal professional symphony orchestra generally has a couple of principal players per section in order to enable them to have teaching/solo/chamber careers outside of the orchestra. In the UK, there tend to be fewer principals than in mainland Europe because we have a much larger freelance workforce who are cheaper to hire. In France/Germany, there will often be for example 5 principal flutes on rotation.


    Senior Member
    Or concertmistress.
    Oh Gawd! PC gobbldygook has infused music? In my years playing in orchestras and symphonic bands, female concertmasters were known respectfully as concertmasters. Back in the day,
    clarinetists were clarinetists, violinists were not distinguished from violinistes, and trombone players were strange birds.


    Senior Member
    I refer the honourable member to my previous Karren Brady.
    I once had the terror honor of playing in an ensemble conducted by Vaclav Nelhybel.
    In an attempt to do something rare and scarcely logical, and elicit greater than average decibles
    from the French horn section, all female, he exhorted the musicians, "Ladies, just take off your girdles and blow!" The alto clarinet player, also female, sitting next to me couldn't stop laughing for ten minutes.

    Oh, the on topic part of that? She was the only alto clarinet player. Did that make her the principal alto clarinet?

    Awaiting expert nomenclature from the man with the baton coated with peas and honey.
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