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.
- 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.
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.