Marking the Parts

When I see a piece of music on my stand, the pencil markings of the previous performer can really tell me a lot.  About that performer, usually. 

Frequently I see notes about which fingering to use for F or Eb.  In a tricky passage, this is often very helpful.  Sometimes EVERY F and Eb in the entire part is marked – this is just silly. 

Often the dynamic markings have been changed or circled.  Neither is particularly meaningful, as the previous performer was most likely not playing on this exact stage for this exact conductor, with the same colleagues, and was probably not me.  Therefore, what his conductor told them about the precise level of their solo is not relevant right now.

I have seen parts where the previous performer did such a careful and tidy job of changing the dynamics and articulations that her marks were indistinguishable from the composer’s, which led to a lot of frustrated apologizing in rehearsal when I thought my part was correct and, subsequently, a lot of erasing.

I have also seen parts where the performer was SOO not careful and tidy, and SOO concerned about writing down every single thing discussed in rehearsal, that I had to go in with an industrial eraser before I could even begin to prepare.

Many people circle things.  Just at random, apparently.  Notes, dynamics, accents, and even lengthy passages.  This clearly meant something to them at one point, but does not help me now. 

To be fair, I guess I don’t really think long term when it comes to marking my music.  I put x’s in the margin to remind me to check a passage before the concert.  I note any unexpected fingerings.  I make dynamic corrections as the conductor requests them, usually by writing “more” or “less” to distinguish those corrections from the printed ink.   When I see the same part again a few years later – popular pieces of music recycle quite frequently – I work on the passages with x’s,  and relearn the piece from recordings or memory.   But as I work in the orchestra I don’t think specifically about making my job easier in the future.  I usually assume that I’ll have grown up and moved on before I see, say, Tchaikovsky 4 again in this particular orchestra. 

In addition to performing A Moveable Feast in two different cities last week, I was working with the Milwaukee Symphony, in a terrific weekend Pops cycle and in two sets of morning youth concerts.  I was impressed with what I saw in the music.

For the youth concerts, I was playing principal oboe, and therefore reading off the same music that Stephen Colburn has been playing from for the past 40-some years, and what really stood out to me was the tidy, helpful, thoughtful markings he had in his parts. 

Almost nothing in the works I played was conductor-specific, or interpretive against the composer’s wishes.  Everything was useful.  Notations of cues in the orchestra (flute comes in here) or of accompanying figures (with clarinet here).  Every time I made an entrance, and noticed something interesting going on the texture, I found it notated on my page.  Sometimes I hadn’t’t interpreted that marking until then, but it was always spot on.  Told me what to listen for and match, or how to come through.  It felt like all of my homework had been done for me, and I loved it.

So I am inspired, now, to treat my orchestra parts like investments in my future.  I’d like to take the time to put one or two helpful things in my music for each concert.  Cues, doublings, and harmonic hints never go out of style.

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