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The whole "first chair"/challenges concept of school bands is antithetical to good section playing.

If I were a high school jazz band director, I'd put my best sax player on baritone, the next best on 3rd alto and 4th tenor. (Note that like the old fart I am, I insist on the old nomenclature, because it means something - there are 5 saxes, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 - etc., not enough space to expand on this here.) Why? Because baritone anchors the section and the interior parts are what makes it a section.

Of course if I did this the helicopter parents would be showing up with torches and pitchforks baying for my blood because little Johnny is "playing second" to someone who's not as good - why, he might not get that scholarship to Harvard!

Also, a good band director will throw solos to all the members of the section. Either break open a solo section, or swap parts around. IN professsional bands, that's done all the time - for example, if you're playing a stock chart and one of the alto parts has a wicked clarinet part - and it's the other guy who is the virtuoso clarinetist - why, they swap parts. The one who was playing lead, plays 3rd - and knows how to do it - and the one that was playing 3rd plays lead - and knows how to do it.

Unfortunately with all they have to cope with, most band directors I suspect are happy if something resembling the music emanates from the band at all.

 

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Some other comments to the OP:

If you're playing 3rd and you're overpowering the section, you need to dial it back. Frankly if I were playing 3rd alto on a consistent basis I'd probably use my Selmer C* mouthpiece. I'm sure you have something similar.

As to "which voices should be heard" of course it depends on the particular moment in the music, but to me I always think of the saxophone section as being suspended between two poles: the lead alto and the baritone. In casually listening to the saxophone section in tutti passages that are written conventionally, I expect to hear the lead alto rising slightly above the other voices on the treble end, and the baritone sounding firmly below the other voices on the bass end. (Few kid bands I've heard have astrong baritone voice.)

Depending on the condition of the band and your relationship with the director, you could ask to get thrown a solo now and then. I'm sure that in your book there are some charts with sections that could easily be opened up for you to take a chorus or two.

I can't tell what level of charts you're playing but in many bands I've been in, the 3rd alto chair was occupied by a strong doubler. So if you've got clarinet or flute chops you could be making use of that in 3rd alto. (If the charts your band is playing involve doubles; I'm guessing they probably don't.)
 

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The whole "first chair"/challenges concept of school bands is antithetical to good section playing.

If I were a high school jazz band director, I'd put my best sax player on baritone, the next best on 3rd alto and 4th tenor. (Note that like the old fart I am, I insist on the old nomenclature, because it means something - there are 5 saxes, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 - etc., not enough space to expand on this here.) Why? Because baritone anchors the section and the interior parts are what makes it a section.

Of course if I did this the helicopter parents would be showing up with torches and pitchforks baying for my blood because little Johnny is "playing second" to someone who's not as good - why, he might not get that scholarship to Harvard!

Also, a good band director will throw solos to all the members of the section. Either break open a solo section, or swap parts around. IN professsional bands, that's done all the time - for example, if you're playing a stock chart and one of the alto parts has a wicked clarinet part - and it's the other guy who is the virtuoso clarinetist - why, they swap parts. The one who was playing lead, plays 3rd - and knows how to do it - and the one that was playing 3rd plays lead - and knows how to do it.

Unfortunately with all they have to cope with, most band directors I suspect are happy if something resembling the music emanates from the band at all.

+1 and thanks for sharing the link

Some other comments to the OP:

If you're playing 3rd and you're overpowering the section, you need to dial it back. Frankly if I were playing 3rd alto on a consistent basis I'd probably use my Selmer C* mouthpiece. I'm sure you have something similar.
Just what I told him in #5
 

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And if you play "In the Mood", the 2nd alto part is the hardest of all the parts. :(
That's true! I play first alto saxophone since more than 20 years and I think the second saxophone parts are way more challenging than the first alto parts, I the mood is a clear example of that. Also, it's very difficult to make these parts to sound nice far more difficult than to make the first alto parts to sound nice.

I remember a couple times being 3 altos the director preferred to duplicate alto 2 instead alto 1, that's because the importance of the alto 2 part in the section voicing/colour.

Playing alto 2 you can have "your moment" when playing themes with improvised solos. The trumpet 2 player is usually who plays the improvised solos, while the trumpet 1 player has a better register and a more solid playing.
 

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For string quartets it's said that the first violin should be the better violonist and the second violin should be the better musician...
 

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The second part is important. You need to play up to the lead player - as though you’re playing duets. I dislike working with second players who pull back too much. I play a lot of lead alto days. In any ways it’s easier. The lines tend to be more logical; second tends to be more technically challenging. Take the opportunity to work on technique, intonation, and support. If things are boring for you, work on your doubles.
 

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Once your section meshes well and you've checked your ego and mellowed the tone a bit, I think you may find the director will start finding ways to give you some more benefits. Charts with more interesting parts for you, or even allowing you and the lead to 'switch' on the occasional song. But you've got to prove that you're a team player first. :)
 

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So many valid comments. There is just something magical that happens when 5 individual function as one unit. I played 2nd alto all 4 years of college. Yes, the lead players were really that much better than I was. But I never felt like I was overlooked or somehow cheated, because I was part of an elite section that had one goal ... make beautiful music. Frankly, I didn't get a chance to lead my own section until I was 50. And I treasure it. I also make it a point to share the love with the rest of my section when and if they are ready. Keep working and you WILL get your shot when the time is right.
 

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So my main question and struggle for the time being is:
As the second alto player, what is my purpose in the ensemble...?
You've already gotten great advice in this thread - the only thing I want to add is I wish a LOT more musicians asked themselves this question. Once you leave school, 1st/2nd/3rd etc. parts aren't about who is the best player, it's all about the role in the music.

Try not to get hung up on being 'first chair'. I went for it and eventually got it in high school, but fast forward over 20 years and I much prefer playing 2nd alto. Everyone may want to play the melody, for me it's a lot more fun playing the notes that make the melody sound GOOD. :)
 

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The 2nd alto chair is one of the most difficult in the section, for the reasons mentioned elsewhere in the thread, and because you have to be much more of a technician so there's less room for artistic expression. If you want more improv solos, talk to your director and let him know you want to play. Directors can assign and reassign solos, particularly on a blues tune or some other "open" section.

The trick to playing 2nd alto is called "ghosting". You have to almost completely focus on the lead alto's performance and copy it as much as possible, but one step less. You volume should be one dynamic level less than the lead player. Your sound should be one step darker than the lead player. Your phrasing and time feel should match the lead player exactly. Your pitch should match the lead player exactly. This all takes a lot of work and concentration, but can be mastered with practice and focus. A good lead player will be consistent, and they'll really appreciate your nailing this "ghosting" technique because it will make their job a lot easier, and the section will sound a lot better, too.
 

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IMO the second alto (or second trumpet, trombone) is the lynch pin of the section. Meaning that the second alto player is the one who can really make the section sound great by being the shoulders on which the lead alto stands.

It's a hard job, and it's really important. And a lot of great lead players struggle on the second book.

As a tenor player in a big band, I can tell you it's very difficult for me to play when the second alto player is not locked-in to the lead. And when s/he IS locked in, it's easy-peasy, and the section sounds great.

My friend Matt Vashlishan (who is as bad-*** an alto player as they come -- he's in Dave Liebman's quintet right now) tells me that he LOVES playing second. He feels like he gets to determine the sound and vibe of the section. And he IS a great second alto player.

This is an underrated skill.
 

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I actually prefer playing the 2nd alto spot to any other chair, save maybe bari. You get to support (and listen to/learn from) a strong lead, and you get all of the cooler notes and pretty resolutions. Yes, definitely try to reign in the edge - you don't want to overpower the lead alto. The most prominent voice should be lead alto (and baritone if that part doubles the lead line) - everyone else falls in behind the lead, and matches his/her phrasing, inflections and dynamics. The sole exception would be when the section is playing a unison line, in which case 1st tenor will often take the lead both stylistically and in terms of volume.

The only downside to playing 2nd (for me anyway) is that the usual double for that voice is clarinet...I much prefer playing flute.
 
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