Part Preparation for Composers

Computers make it easy for us composers to write and publish our own music. They streamline or automate much of the process of creating parts.  This is truly a blessing for those of us who do not have access to copyists or a publisher to get our music into musicians’ hands. It is also a curse for many musicians who have to deal with poorly-prepared parts when performing self-published works.

Musicians who are frustrated by poor parts will not want to play your music again, nor will they recommend it to others. This is a huge problem.

Fortunately, it does not take much to make your parts “musician friendly”. Here are a few tips to get you started:

Start on the first sound

If your piece starts on beat 4, start the pickup measure on beat 4, not beat 1. Rests before the first sound will confuse players in an ensemble. The result will be counting problems and bad entrances, followed by frustration and time wasted in rehearsal.

Use rehearsal marks

Ensembles large and small often have to stop in the middle of a piece to fix something before continuing on. Rehearsal marks save precious time by allowing the group to quickly agree on a starting point.

The rehearsal marks may be a measure number, a number, or a letter placed in a box or circle above the staff. In the orchestra world, letters and numbers are generally used. In the band world, measure numbers are generally used.

Place your rehearsal marks according to the structure of the music at intervals of no more than 24 measures.

Note: Placing rehearsal marks at regular intervals of 5 or 10 measures should be avoided. It obscures the structure of the music and will lead to counting problems and bad entrances.

Think about page turns

When a part runs more than two pages, the problem of turning the page must be considered.

When possible, allow the player three seconds of consecutive rests to turn the page. If not possible, ensure that the page turn is not happening in the middle of a complex figure.

Also, make sure that players do not have to turn pages in sensitive moments such as silences or pianissimo passages. If this cannot be avoided, ensure that different parts turn their pages at different times to minimize the disruption.

Special cases:

  • The violins, violas, and cellos in the orchestra share stands. They will handle page turns by having one player continue playing while the other turns the page. While this makes sure the music continues, it does take half the players off the part, momentarily diminishing the volume.
  • Keyboard soloists may reasonably be expected to have a page turner. However, the cautions above still apply to them.

Use cues

Individual parts do not always contain the information needed to help performers understand how their notes relate to the larger piece. Cues can help overcome this by showing the player what others in the ensemble are doing.

Consider providing cues in the following situations:

  • Preceding an entrance after a long rest. This helps the player confirm their counting and feel secure in the upcoming entrance.
  • On a transition where a particular instrument leads the ensemble from one tempo to the other. Seeing the moving line can help the player understand the structure of the transition.
  • Near then end of an extended solo. Seeing the end of the solo helps the players in the ensemble re-engage with the music.

On the matter of what to cue, the general rule is to cue the part that is most audible and relevant. If possible, cue within sections. If cueing outside a section, consider who might be proximate to the player in the ensemble. Also, be aware that melodies and moving parts are easier to recognize than held notes or repeated patterns.

Read the “Bible of Notation”

If you are preparing parts regularly, Behind Bars by Elaine Gould is an invaluable resource that goes into great depth on every facet of classical music notation. My copy lives right next to my computer, ready to provide guidance on every notation problem I can get myself into.

Take care of the musicians

Musicians reading any music want to be able to focus on playing it beautifully. They do not want to get hung up on notation problems.

Take care when preparing your parts to ensure they are clear and easy to read. The musicians will reward you with a better performance of your music.

Sharpen Your Performance with a Pencil

Amateur musicians often wonder what the pros do differently. When one goes to the symphony, it is tempting to think that they players on that stage are so good we could never be like them. However, professional musicians do some simple things we could all start doing today.

Professionals musicians are well acquainted with the effects of performance pressure. They know it makes them anxious. They know it will make them forget things. So, they reach for the most important tool in their arsenal: The Pencil.

The Pencil helps them remember what to practice. The Pencil helps them play it right. The Pencil helps them stay aware of what else is happening on stage. It can do the same for you.

Basic Marks

In addition to things like dynamics, articulations, and fingerings, here are some basic marks I have found useful:

The Dollar Sign – Place a dollar sign ($) near hard passages that need significant practice to get right. These “money parts” are the reason professionals get paid.

Eyeglasses – There are times when we need to watch the conductor (or a fellow player). Put eyeglasses a little bit before the point you need to look up. Then, memorize the music that occurs while you have to watch the conductor.

Breaths – Mark where you plan to breathe if it is not obvious or if you need to coordinate with others. When you are required not to breath between notes, mark “NB”. 

Cutoffs – Conscientious musicians make sure they are ending notes with the rest of the ensemble. If a note is full value, mark “FV”. If the ensemble is ending on a particular beat, mark minus (-) and the beat number at the end of the note, such as “-3”.

Cues – In an ensemble, it is important to know who is playing when you are resting. Some key times to mark cues are:

  • At the beginning of the piece (if you don’t play)
  • Near the end of long rests
  • During and after fermatas

One special sort of cue to mark is any silent beats at the beginning of the piece.

Page turns – Write “VS” (volti subito, or change quickly) only for rapid page turns. If the page turn is in the middle of a difficult passage, write the first couple of notes of the next bar in the margin. If you need to turn your page at a particular point to avoid disrupting quiet music, mark this before the page turn.

Repeats – Long repeats require our eyes to jump quickly around the page of music. Put wings at the beginning and ends of long repeats to help yourself out. On D.C., D.S., and Coda markings, put a short arrow pointing towards where you need to look next and circle the mark you need to find.

Don’t Overdo It

In general, marks in music should be as neat and concise as possible. The shorter your marking, the less you have to process when reading it.

Mark only those things which you need to remember. Too many marks will overwhelm you and cause you to ignore all your pencil markings. To avoid this, I generally do not mark up the music until after the first rehearsal. At that point, I will have a grasp of what I will need to remember going forward.

Finally, avoid marks that interfere with the music notation itself. Some players will write in long arrows that cross the staff to mark the roadmap of the piece. Markings such as this make it more difficult to read the music.

Pencil Only, Please

In most bands and orchestras, sheet music is a shared resource. You will likely not be the only person who will use your part.

Since your markings are personal to you, make sure they are in pencil and can be easily erased. Markings in pen or highlighter are permanent and will be frustrating to people who will read your part in the future.

Highlighter is especially problematic as it gets darker over time. I once spent an evening guessing at the key signatures on a show because the pink highlighter a previous player had used in the book had turned purple.

The Dullest Pencil…

…always beats the sharpest memory. Use your pencil to sharpen your performance. Your fellow musicians will thank you.

The Paradox of Ensemble Playing

In recent weeks, the topic of playing well with others in an ensemble has come up several discussions I’ve had with fellow musicians. Some of it has been musical, some simple etiquette. This has led me to reflect on what it means to be an ensemble player. Douglas Yeo has some invaluable insights on this topic. One thought, in particular, resonated with me:

Back in my college days (early 70's), I went to hear the Chicago Symphony every week. After one particularly inspiring concert, I went backstage to offer my congratulations to Mr. Kleinhammer. I said something like, "Wow, you sounded incredible!" His response?
"If you heard me, then I was a failure. You should have heard an orchestra, not a trombone player."

An ensemble made up of players who thought like that would be a conductor’s dream and have nearly limitless expressive potential. As Mr. Yeo laments, this attitude is exceptional even in the professional world. How do we inspire the musicians around us to work towards being a single ensemble?

It begins with the paradox of ensemble playing: When everyone in the ensemble is trying to stand out, no one will be heard clearly. When no one in the ensemble is trying to stand out, everyone will be heard clearly.

Why is this? Consider some common actions players take to be heard better:

  • Playing louder
  • Playing with brighter or more penetrating tone
  • Adding vibrato
  • Articulating more
  • Changing note lengths
  • Phrasing differently
  • Playing slightly sharp or flat

To understand how these actions impact the listener, we must know how our brains process sound.

The brain uses a few key dimensions to sort through complex sets of sound:

  • Timing: Do the sounds start and end at the same time?
  • Volume: Are the sounds similarly loud or soft?
  • Pitch: Are the sounds similar in pitch?
  • Harmonics: Are the frequencies of sounds the ratios of integers (e.g. a perfect fifth being a ratio of 3:2)?
  • Timbre: Is the character of the sound similar?

The brain finds similarities in these dimensions and groups the sounds accordingly. When players employ the tactics listed above to stand out, it makes the music more difficult to comprehend by reducing the similarity of the various sounds.

Let us imagine an ensemble where everyone was playing loud and out of tune with bright tone, lots of vibrato, and different articulations and phrasing. The result would be chaos. With few similarities, the listener would have a difficult time deciphering the music or hearing individual voices. When everyone in the ensemble is trying to stand out, no one will be heard clearly.

Let us next imagine an ensemble where everyone was playing in tune, with dynamics, vibrato, articulation and phrasing that were aligned and appropriate to the music. With many similarities, the listener would have an easier time deciphering the music and hearing individual voices. When no one in the ensemble is trying to stand out, everyone will be heard clearly.

Now that we understand the paradox, what do we do?

  • Adopt the ensemble mindset: The first step is to change your own mindset. Come in to every rehearsal and performance with the mindset that your job is to make the ensemble sound good.
  • Broaden your horizons: Expand your awareness of the music to understand how you fit in. Listen to the rest of the ensemble during rehearsal to get the bigger picture. Seek our recordings to do the same. Make note of what you hear in your part.
  • Tighten up the details: Focus on playing together with the ensemble. Align rhythm, pitch, dynamics, articulation, and phrasing with the ensemble around you.
  • Evangelize: Once you have refined your own execution, start encouraging others to do the same. Share this article with them. Point them towards other resources to help get them on the same path.

As musicians, we only do as well as the ensemble. If you want to be great, you have to help your ensemble be great.