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:
  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:
  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.) 
  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.) 
  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….

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?


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