Music Librarians: the Composer’s Best Friend?

Last Friday I attended the Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association (MOLA) 2009 conference in Washington D.C., where I participated in several interesting panel discussions on topics ranging from professional standards of music engraving down to just how new works get selected for performance.

But the best part of the experience for me was getting to spend time with some of the country’s best music librarians, including a couple of folks who absolutely saved some of my first orchestra pieces from certain disaster. Why is it that a good music librarian might just be the composer’s best friend? Because a good music librarian can make your music sound better.

How exactly? Well they can’t touch up that fugato section, but what they can do is suggest changes in the composer’s score and parts that are likely to make his or her music more comprehensible to performers and more practically manageable in rehearsal. In this way, the eye of an experienced music librarian can help the first performance of that new work come off closer to the composer’s actual intentions than if said composer was left to his or her own devices.

Based on an informal consensus in one of our sessions, here are the top five ways for composers to shoot themselves in the foot in rehearsal and render their otherwise excellent music unpalatable to artistic staff:

5) Incorrect Binding.

Before anyone can even consider the music printed on the page, they’re going to notice how those pages are held together. Especially for orchestra musicians (who usually have folders for each week), it’s important use a good cloth tape or saddle stitching, never any kind of plastic binding that can get crushed. And for large scores, go for spiral binding over the comb variety that can come apart and dump all those awesome, compelling measures right on the floor.



4) Performance notes for extended techniques not given where that technique first occurs.

If you have a fair amount of special symbols or directions it can be helpful to group them in a legend at the beginning of the part; however, this must never replace explaining the technique right where it occurs—otherwise during rehearsal you’ll most likely get a bunch of people flipping back to consult your notes.



3) Staff size/paper size is off.

Not only do orchestra players require parts made to very specific standards of visibility, but getting this wrong also sends an unfortunate message to both performers and administrators about the composer’s professional competence. No smaller than 9×12 for orchestra parts, even if 8.5×11 is tempting.



2) Lack of cues, intelligent page-turns, and other “extras”.

I put “extras” in quotes because a lot of composers seem to view them that way; but these are very much obligatory. It shows a level of respect for the players as well as a level of self-respect on the part of the composer. (If you’ve taken extra steps to make your music come off well, others will be more inclined to follow suit.)



1) Incorrectly combining parts.

In your score it may be convenient to have two trombones sharing one line, with the bass trombone and tuba sharing another, but remember that in the orchestra all wind players are soloists and you’ll have to make them separate parts. Also, most percussionists prefer a percussion score even if you have very clearly assigned numbered percussion parts; but if percussion one has an epic, triumphant musical saw solo in the final movement, you might consider making that player an additional “musical saw” part so they won’t have to be encumbered by the other two staff lines.

In short, make sure you really consider who is going to be handling your parts (whoa!) and in what capacity; in fact, it’s not a bad exercise to mime all of your parts with page turns just to get a sense of the amount of time and physical exertion it requires to do things like tune timpani, change to an A clarinet, or play whole-note tremolo marked fff for three straight pages.

I was glad to have a chance to present the composer’s point of view at the conference, and I’d like to send out kudos to National Symphony principal librarian and current MOLA president Marcia Farabee for organizing the event.

3 thoughts on “Music Librarians: the Composer’s Best Friend?

  1. June

    Thank you for the list. I’m concerned about the 9×12 parts. What’s the best way to make that happen? Most consumer laser printers will only print 8.5×11 or 8.5×14.

    It is expensive to do printouts at Kinko’s or another print shop (and very time-consuming to visit a branch if you don’t live near one). Is there a better solution?

    Reply
  2. danvisconti

    Hi June–for orchestra players particularly, it’s very important that the paper is large enough to see clearly, especially the string players who share stands. If it’s just a reading through a school orchestra you might be able to get away with 8.5 x 11, but I really would not advocate it when there is a live performance involved.

    You ask a great question though, as I definitely unerstand how dififcult it can be to swing the 9 x 12 or larger sizes. If you can possibly make it to a copy shop I suggest printing your masters on 8.5 x 11 and then blowing them up a little bit at the store.

    But the good news is that there *are* definitely some affordable inkjet and laserjet printers that will handle 9 x 12 perfectly well. You can get a load of good thick parts-paper custom cut at the copy shop and then stock your home printer with that.

    This and a couple reader emails have convinced me that next week I should write a post about buying composer equipment on a budget.

    Reply
  3. arssubtilior

    HP 5100
    I’m very fond of this printer, which now that it’s passing out of production, can be found relatively cheaply (stock up on toner!); check on eBay. Handles paper up to 12×18″, meaning that with the duplex unit you can print 9×12″ parts on single sheets and saddlestaple them; the only challenge is special-ordering the odd paper size. Conversely, the printer is very happy to print onto standard-size 11×17″ paper, which can then be cut down to either 11×14″ or 10×13″ (really the ideal size), and bound as desired.

    Reply

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