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.