Illegible parts

Every musician has her pet peeves. Most of mine are related to travelling on planes with a cello, but there are a few others, such as cramped rehearsal venues, chairs that are too low, and so on. And then…hard-to-read scores. I’d always felt ashamed of getting so irritated with these, as it seemed like a bit of a first world problem. (After all, there are musicians in developing countries who are desperate for the things we take for granted, such as access to decent strings and rosin.)

So it was with some surprise that I read in Dianna T. Kenny’s The Psychology of Performance Anxiety (Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 51) that 65% of orchestral musicians named illegible music as one of the biggest stressors in their professional lives in a survey by the Fédération internationale des musiciens.

65%. I felt like less of a whiner after that.

Part of the problem, of course, is the IMSLP-ization of the music profession. I have a love-hate relationship with IMSLP. In so many ways, it’s incredibly useful. I love, for example, that so many libraries have scanned in composers’ manuscripts, first printed editions, and so on. It’s pretty amazing that I can get a look at Anna Magdalena Bach’s copy of J. S. Bach’s Cello Suites in high-resolution, full-colour glory in less than a second by clicking here. And it’s marvellous for geeky curiosities such as obscure pieces by the nineteenth-century virtuoso composers such as Kummer and Davidoff, which can be hard to get when so many of them are out of print.

The bad side of IMSLP is that it makes it so tempting to take shortcuts. I’m not denying that old-fashioned sheet music can be ridiculously expensive, but there are reasons for this. Composers, musicologists, editors, arrangers, typesetters, printers–there are a lot of people involved in making a good edition. High-quality paper in larger sizes is expensive. Reducing it all down to 8.5 x 11 inches (or A4, in other countries) not only causes sheet music companies to lose money, it makes it harder for performers to read scores.

I’m not exclusively blaming the illegible score problem on IMSLP, because it existed long before they were around. So for my own amusement, I thought it might be fun to put together a list of the top annoying things that you find in sheet music.

  1. Not very common, but common enough to be wildly aggravating: the copyists that seek to save ink and paper by omitting the clef and/or key signature from the beginnings of lines. It’s not that I habitually forget the clef and key signature of what I’m playing, but it’s definitely nice to have it there to jog your memory. I couldn’t find an example of this from my own library, but you see it from time to time.
  2. The hand-copied part that jams a massively chromatic, difficult passage into a very small space. (Now that music notation software is so universal, couldn’t we have a moratorium on hand-copied parts?) I present a photograph of something currently on my music stand:schoenberg
  3. Rests of different values that are written as squiggles. A lot of copyists from the nineteenth century love to make crotchet rests look like backwards quaver rests (why? why?). I couldn’t find an example of this among my own music, but I present the following example from a Bruch orchestral part that had me squinting and grumbling:bruch
  4. These annoyances aren’t limited, of course, to hand-copied music. Some printed music drives you crazy too. I present to you what I call the Dvořák Special: right when you have a glorious cello solo, the composer or editor puts it up into treble clef to be played down an octave rather than going to the trouble of writing tenor clef. (This is becoming less of a problem now that there are new, performer-friendly scholarly editions of Dvořák, but you still see it from time to time.) dvorak
  5. And this, my friends, is why you shouldn’t get your chamber music parts from IMSLP. I shouldn’t really call it the Dvořák Special, because it was commonplace for most music publishers to do this before modern cleffing conventions were standardized. Here it is in an awful old edition of Schubert’s B-flat Piano Trio that some folks are still using. (Just for good measure, the typesetter will also cram the music tightly into as few lines as possible. Schubert himself wore spectacles, and so will you by the time you’ve rehearsed this a few times.) schubert
  6. It’s not always the fault of the composer, copyist, typesetter or editor, of course. Sometimes you just get some rental part that’s as old as the hills and covered with so many pencil marks and erasures that you can’t figure out what on earth you’re supposed to be doing, and the conductor yells at you for not doing some agreed-upon marking. You hesitate to write on the music for fear of busting through the paper altogether….20151127_115736

What can we do about this? We’re musicians, so it goes without saying that we’re all broke and can’t always buy the beautiful editions that I’m sure we’d all rather read from. But a couple of things spring to mind. Perhaps we could all agree to write as little as possible on library and rental music, but when we must, to do it lightly in soft pencil and erase it before giving the parts back. This seems so obvious as to be not even worth mentioning, but it’s pretty normal for parts to arrive covered in dark pencil marks.

For their part, music organizations such as orchestras could go to a little more trouble to source parts that aren’t hard to read, and to avoid renting them from providers who send out bad parts. I’m not quite sure how to do this, but I’m sure there’s a way. Even asking for parts that aren’t hand-copied or heavily written-on would help. We could simply say “Look, we only want parts typeset in the twenty-first or late twentieth century, that are of reasonably scholarly provenance, use standardized notation practices, and generally clean and legible.”  If everyone did this, eventually the bad parts would fall out of use, or the providers would realize they’re unacceptable, and publishers would typeset all those previously hand-copied parts to everyone’s greater satisfaction.

When it comes to our own music, I think it’s worth making an investment in “real” scores wherever possible, and by supporting the publishers (and musicologists and editors and typesetters) that go to some trouble to make them user-friendly. I particularly love the new Bärenreiter editions that are beautifully legible and put the page breaks in convenient places, and the Henle ones that often put larger “fold-out” pages into the fascicles so that you can avoid page turns altogether. I know these editions are hugely expensive, but the quality both of the edition and of the paper means that if you take care of it, it will last a lifetime.

Those of us who teach can also set an example to the next generation by avoiding photocopies and IMSLP printouts, and not allowing students to use them either. In any case, it’s illegal to perform from photocopies, and the legality of printed downloads must be pretty questionable too. I’m not suggesting that we require students to purchase thousands of dollars of music in one go, but we can ask them to build their libraries gradually. It typically takes one to two semesters for a student to master a major concerto or sonata, which is plenty of time for them to save up (or ask their parents to save up) for a good edition. It’s OK, I think, to copy one’s own part so a student can refer to penciled bowings and fingerings, but not for the student never to purchase the original.

Together, maybe we can solve the first world’s problems, one score at a time?

The intonation addict

Many years ago, when I was at university, I remember being jealous of another student in my class who played flawlessly in tune. She never seemed to put a foot (or finger) wrong. I asked her how she did it, and she shrugged and said “I just got really addicted to playing in tune.”

I was a bit peeved at this response. I thought she might be superciliously implying that the rest of us were addicted to playing out of tune. I scowled and went back to my practice room.

Much later, it occurred to me that perhaps a lot of people are addicted to being out of tune, in the sense that they let poor intonation go unchecked in the practice room, glossing over it with big slides and vibrato, without really figuring out what good intonation is. As I wrote in my book, this question is an absolute minefield. It depends hugely on whether other instruments are playing, and if so, which instruments. Sometimes we simply have no choice but to tune to the equally-tempered tuning of the piano, because the pianist physically can’t adjust to us. Sometimes we have to adjust to the woodwind and brass instruments in an orchestra or chamber ensemble, because they can’t hear us well enough to adjust to us. In a string quartet, we can use just intonation, but there are always cases where the intonation is negotiable and debatable.

When we’re playing solo, we can go with what makes the cello ring the most, and what makes our phrasing the most convincing. Barry Ross’s book Violinist’s Guide to Exquisite Intonation, which proposes that our instruments will “tell” us what’s in tune and what’s not according to the properties of the harmonic series, changed my life. These days, I practise and teach a cello-adapted version of his principles.

After I read Ross’s astonishing work, I realized that I had become addicted to playing in tune! Nothing else satisfied me any more. If I couldn’t hear the cello making the optimal resonance that comes from a combination of really good intonation and really efficient bowstrokes, it bothered me hugely. I had to fix that thing, and ensure that I always played it in the way my cello “wanted” to be played.

It only took me 15 years to figure out what my classmate had known all along. Ah well, better late than never.

The compromising musician

I know how hard it is to write artist biographies for concert programme notes and so on. I always feel a bit awkward when I have to write about myself in the third person, and just hope that I’m not making myself sound too stuffy or conceited. But I do have a few pet peeves about certain overused tropes of the genre. Top among them is “X attended the prestigious Juilliard School.” I don’t like this, because if you went to the Juilliard School, you don’t need to point out its prestige, and if you have to say the school you went to is prestigious, chances are it isn’t. In the immortal words of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, “Prestigious’ is an adjective of last resort: it is in the dictionary, but you don’t have to use it.”

A close second is the statement about “X is known for his dazzling technique and uncompromising musicianship.” What does this even mean? Exactly what is it that they won’t compromise on? Are they saying they won’t compromise their lofty principles to play less fancy gigs to pay the rent? That they won’t accept the ideas of collaborators in case they compromise their ideals about tempo, articulation, and phrasing?

The more I thought about it, the more I decided I’d rather be a compromising musician. Making music with others is all about compromise anyway, isn’t it? Ask any member of a string quartet if they ever have to compromise, and they’ll burst out laughing. If you make music with others, you never get to have your way 100% of the time. You always have to compromise.

I remember once almost coming to blows with chamber music partners in my student days when we were rehearsing the second movement of Dohnanyi’s Serenade for string trio. There’s a section in the middle where a viola solo is accompanied by cello pizzicati, and I wanted to slow down the tempo to make my phrasing sound more “shaped” and resonant. The violist, however, hotly disagreed, saying that my slow tempo would sound “notey” and disrupt the phrasing of the solo line. Voices were raised, and some unnamed person may or may not have stamped out of the room to cool off.

I was, to put it lightly, massively irritated by this dispute, but after recording ourselves a few times at different tempi and evaluating the playback as neutrally and critically as possible, I conceded that the violist was right. To do so, I had to I let go my pride as much as my tempo. Did it hurt? You bet. Was it the right thing to do? Again, you bet.

And that’s what music-making is all about, isn’t it? Trying other people’s ideas as honestly and sincerely as if they were your own; letting go of your pigheaded ego; helping your colleagues sound their best; trying to blend your sounds so that you sound like a giant, multifaceted, multicoloured super-instrument instead of a bunch of individuals doing their own thing. Maybe if all you ever play is solo unaccompanied music, you can an uncompromising musician. For everyone else, there’s compromise.