Sharing Information

No, fear not, this particular written rant has absolutely nothing to do with the intellectual property debate, promise. Rather, it’s about parts for musicians in compositions requiring more than one player.

With the exception of parts for accompanying pianists in chamber music—which thankfully contain everyone else’s part, too—parts for almost all classical music repertory only contain the notes for that particular individual to play. It is a foolish tradition that lives on in most contemporary music.

In other performing arts, this is almost unthinkable. Imagine being an actor and being given a copy of a script that only contained your lines. Being an effective ensemble requires a fundamental understanding of what everyone else is doing in addition to what you’re doing. In fact, in that sense, ensembles in theatre, dance, and music are art’s most poignant metaphor for how individuals coexist in a society. But before I’m tempted to go off on some oddball philosophical tangent here, let me make a practical argument.

Last night, attending a rehearsal for a new piece of mine that’s being played by folks who normally don’t play classical music, was a real eye and ear opener. Every time these musicians had a problem, it was because they had no idea what the other musicians were doing at that point. Sure there was a score on hand but referring to it just slowed things down. I’ve had the same experience for years with classical ensembles, but it’s not just me. I’ve also witnessed it time after time in rehearsals of other people’s music.

Sure there are folks out there whose music thrives on the ambiguity of each musician not knowing what the other musicians are doing. Some work, like Joshua Fried’s Headset Sextet , generate uncharted sonic possibilities by carefully calculated deprivation strategies. However, most of us are aiming for everyone to blend together somehow.

So, what would it take to share more information with all of the musicians in each of their parts? Computer notation software allows you to configure parts anyway you want. There are many ways to give some notational hints about what other folks are doing without distracting from the notes each musician needs to learn for his or her own part.

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7 thoughts on “Sharing Information

  1. ian

    I couldn’t imagine reading from a part the way these chamber musicians do. Most of my performing experience has been as a choral singer, and in choral works you are always given the entirety of the vocal score as well as at least a piano reduction if there are other instruments. I often take advantage of this by circling notes in other people’s parts in order to get my own, and it’s great simply for knowing what is going on in the music before my entrance.

    This approach fosters a very different way of making music than the read-and-count variety. Relying so heavily on one’s ears may not encourage technical mastery as much as the single-part approach, but it does promote a more complete and musical result in my opinion. Plus, when everyone understands the overall shape of the sound, it is much easier to be flexible about performance details, not to mention being able to recover gracefully if things start to get derailed.

    The biggest practical issue with giving instrumentalists more music to look at is introducing too many page turns. Unlike singers, instrumentalists don’t have two hands at their disposal at all times and many cannot play their instrument one-handed for any length of time at all, requiring page turns to occur at times of rest. If your music is of the “perpetual motion” variety, this can be a problem. However, there are other ways to produce cue notes and indications for performers that give them only the information they need. I think for many composers, the problem is that they are so happy and exhausted after finishing a piece that they don’t want to spend a ton of time tweaking the parts! I know I sometimes feel that way.

    Still, you never know–I’ve had a couple of situations involving duo pieces for classical chamber instruments where I thought it might be easier to play from the score, since it’s only two lines to follow….but no, they wanted those parts!

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  2. dalgas

    Back when I was actually spending a lot time making scores first and foremost, my smaller chamber stuff (2-6 parts) generally included everybody’s part. I used to use an 11″Hx16″W paper with 12 staves; big enough to hold enough music per page, yet could still fit on a music stand and be seen from a reasonable distance.

    In parts extracted from bigger works, I liked to be overly-lavish with cue lines, sometimes giving some most-important features for some measures before the player’s own part entered.

    But even with all of this, it’s no guarantee that it’ll go any better. I remember rehearsing some small, intricate pieces I’d made for three violins, all the while taping it on a small cassette. Parts of the coordination and ensemble just wouldn’t gel, until I just had them take a break and listen back to themselves while following the score. The response was “Oh, I can hear it now!”. Even with each player having all of each other’s part on the page, their own focus was on their own part and playing; kind of like tuning out a conversation going around you when you’re trying to focus on some task. Unfortunately, the “conversation” they were tuning out was the very parts they were supposed to be working in concert with!

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  3. wright

    I approach things differently depending on the type of ensemble. My orchestral parts have tons of cues. For chamber music, I give each player their part AND a copy of the score — I’ve found that chamber musicians often prefer to mark in their own cues.

    On a related note, I’m preparing a performance of the chamber version of Berio’s O King. To my astonishment, the published version of score and parts includes a part for the vocalist with just her line, as if she were one of the instrumentalists. Berio, of course, intended the vocal line to be part of the instrumental texture, but I’ve never seen a vocal part extracted like that before. Helps to have a singer with perfect pitch, since she doesn’t have anyone else’s notes to check herself on!

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  4. larryb

    “So, what would it take to share more information with all of the musicians in each of their parts? Computer notation software allows you to configure parts anyway you want. There are many ways to give some notational hints about what other folks are doing without distracting from the notes each musician needs to learn for his or her own part.”

    If it’s so easy, why didn’t you do it?

    Reply
  5. drewmcmanus

    When I ran my own chamber orchestra, I regularly arranged the parts of whatever we were playing for the instrumentation at hand. Whenever there was a particularly tricky spot between sections of players I always printed the score form out for the respective players for those passages. No one complained about it (except those with bad eyesight already) and they all appreciated how much it helped. It saved time in rehearsals and made my job conducting much easier.

    I think innovations like the eStand are going to help with this in the future. Ideally, they’ll allow each user to move in and out of solo to score view on the fly. Perhaps even add selected lines from other instruments, etc. those of who use finale or Sibelius know what I mean but from a player’s perspective it could become one of the greatest advances in ensemble playing since the invention of the printing press and the electric stand light.

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  6. Frank J. Oteri

    “larryb” poses a good question here.

    Honest answer? Ultimately…Ignorance. Conforming to a perceived set of standards for how parts should be done. Kinda like the folks who thought that the heavier of two objects would land first until Galileo demonstrably proved the law of gravity.

    After the rehearsal, I offered to redo the parts to offer snippets of other people’s music in them, since, as I said, it is relatively to do with music notation software. But, by that point, the musicians had worked with each other and knew what was going on so they said it was unnecessary. But I sure know what I’m doing with parts for new musicians next time around.

    Reply
  7. David

    I think you said something really important:

    “But, by that point, the musicians had worked with each other and knew what was going on so they said it was unnecessary.”

    Chamber musicians have to learn “what’s going on” during a piece. That’s what rehearsals are for. No one expects new music ensembles to sight-read.

    Printed parts need a balance between too much and too little cueing. Cue-clutter can be just as unhelpful as having no cues at all. There are a lot of ways to add cue information and maintain clarity. There are also ways to muck things up with cues. I hope you consider that before you start re-doing your instrumental parts.

    The demands of cueing vary according to the musical context of course. Some cues get the player through a long rest. Others call attention to major section changes. Others might help with a tricky entrance. Cues tht work in a conductorless situation might not work so well when the player is following a stick. Time and budget usually prevent the creation of parts which would eliminate a conductor (in effect, reduced scores), but that is possible.

    You should expect that players will write in cues – even if you’ve provided plenty to begin with. Things written in are somehow more memorable than the same thing printed. Some players demand copious cues and mark up their parts obsessively, even humorously. (I always prefer part spacing that allows plenty of room for adding cues.) Others write cues very sparingly.

    The best players will always want to see the score – and will refer to it during rehearsals. But during performance the players’ parts ought to provide just the information they really need – no more, no less. Tricky; more like an art than a science.

    Reply

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