Marking and Navigating the Musical Score

Nobody Knows the Marks You See...

Conductors want listeners (and perhaps performers too) to believe that there is a psychoemotional link between the composer and the conductor. The image that is cultivated is that the conductor looks at the score, has a mystical, psychic communion with the composer (and, if the programming of most symphony orchestras is any clue, the only good composer is a dead composer), then starts to wave one or both arms about as a means to communicate through indecipherable (to the typical listener) kinesthetic language to get the performers to make "heavenly" music.

This "vision" could not be further from the truth. A typical conductor's score is filled with marks in different colored pencils and/or pen, marginalia concerning research, erasures and strike-throughs as a result of rehearsal (and, perhaps, even an "A" or "B" option depending upon the quality level of the players or the acoustics of the space), possibly a seating plan, and reminders of an extra-musical nature (e.g. standing and sitting cues, the order of acknowledging soloists for bows, etc.).

No matter whether a conductor performs the music from memory, or never raises an eye to look away from the score, the process of marking music is important for three reasons.

  • Learning the music inside the notes
    Each and every piece of music can be thought of as more than the sum of its parts. The conductor's job is to absorb the individual parts and structural details of the music in order to best interpret the composer's intent. As each individual part is studied, mark phrasings, bowings, breaths, etc., in order to be able to anticipate and answer any questions (e.g. "on the string or off?") that might arise during rehearsal.
  • Visually depicting the structure of the score
    It is helpful to have visual reminders of whether a particular section of music is, for instance, a fugue subject or an episode, a first theme or second, a refrain or bridge, an introduction or coda. One system that works well is to consistently mark sections according to a color code (blue for a first theme, red for second, for instance). 
  • Quickly recalling necessary information on the fly
    In the course of rehearsal or performance, things can go wrong. It is helpful to know, if there are a number of cuing options, for instance, which is the most important. It is desireable to know that the cue is for the second trombone, rather than just pointing in the general direction of the brass section. It is helpful to be able to say to the sopranos, "get your cue from the d natural being played on the second beat by the oboe." Marking a score will ensure that the information is there "at a glance" when needed. 

How to Use a Score Effectively...

score is paper and ink, not a holy shrine. A conductor's job is to discern the intent of the composer and move past the paper and ink to bring the intent to life. For a conductor, score study is the most important process of the craft. Sustained, regular score study is often what separates the artistic performance from the hack. Making the time to study scores may seem to be impossible in a typical conductor's schedule. There is administrative work, public relations needs, there are financial details, attendance reports, meetings, meetings, and more meetings. Without score study, however, the conductor is just a "lead musician," in essence responsible only for keeping the ensemble together, not creating a work of art based upon a vision of the musical vocabulary. To repeat, score study remains the most important asset to musical leadership.

At the highest level, many conductors purchase a new, "clean" score every time they come back to a work, in order to rediscover, through study: the structure, substance, and delight of a work. This may seem to be overkill for a 3 minute choral anthem, but the principle remains. If a conductor is not studying the score in advance of the first rehearsal, the conductor is just reacting on the spot, and trusting his or her instincts.

Consider a seven step process for a complete study of a new work, and for a new performance of a work not done in some time.

  • Text
    First, if it is appropriate, do a complete analysis and study of thetext in a piece in which a composer sets words. Do this away from the score. Examine the poetry or prose for structural details, sound patterns, and potential "word painting" (where a compositional device 'paints a picture' of the text).
  • Musical Overview
    Second, do an overview look at the music, noting large-scale structural divisions (perhaps based upon text sections discovered in your text study), the assignment of differing orchestrations to movements or sections, etc.). 
  • Horizontal Analysis
    Third, do a complete line by line horizontal analysis of each part. In the process of doing this, sing each part to get the sense of breathing/phrasing for wind instruments and singers. Note potential problems caused by tessitura or register changes, etc. During this step, place initial bowings and phrasings in the score.
  • Vertical Analysis
    Fourth, do a complete vertical analysis of each moment in time. Note the doublings of individual lines, if any. Determine if the dynamics will work in the eventual performance space. During this step, a full harmonic analysis is done.
  • Revisit the Overview
    Fifth, as a result of the horizontal and vertical analysis steps,revisit the overview to revise, if necessary, the structural decisions made as a result of the first overview. If steps 3 and 4 are "taking the score apart" then this step, which is often bypassed by conductors, is "putting it back together again." It is during this step that most artistic decisions will be made, tempos will be set, and the performance intent will be established.
  • Leave the Music Alone
    The Sixth step is perhaps the most underrated. It (and the next step) can be and often is eliminated by conductors who do not plan long range. Leave the music alone for an extended period--at least two weeks to a month--and no longer than six months (remember that all of this is to take place in advance of the first rehearsal).
  • Finalize all Artistic Decisions
    The Seventh step is to do a final revisit (another step 5), to finalize all artistic decisions. This should be done shortly before the first rehearsal.

Final Thoughts

The information above is taken from the book entitled A Conductor's Handbook: Volume 2 - A Basic Conductor's Alphabet, written by fellow MME writer Doug Lawrence and myself, and published by Thomas House Publications, which is now a part of the Fred Bock Music Company. The principles can be applied whether you are a conductor, a player, or a singer, at any level of accomplishment. Blessings.

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