Friday, November 21, 2008

Confessions of an Obsessive Score-Keeper

As you may have discerned from previous writings, I’m obsessive about the care and management of my choral scores. I don’t try to figure out why I do all this; I just enjoy it. As a music theorist and historian, I take a rather technical approach to editing and marking my music, and I invest a fair amount of time in score preparation and study.

One of my favorite “jobs” is editing my scores prior to a first rehearsal. My favorite choral director prepares “master scores” from which the singers are expected to copy into their own scores his instructions for breathing, interpretive dynamics, divisi assignments, etc. These advance markings and annotations must be entered into one’s score before the first rehearsal. Really, though, this must be completed before one can begin any serious personal practice.

My score editing usually takes place very early in the morning, while the rest of the family is still asleep. I gather my new scores, copies of the edit masters, my favorite mechanical pencil, and the first of several cups of strong tea. 

The editing process requires that I examine each master score, looking at each measure of music, for each voice part, then transfer all marks or instructions to my own score. This sounds tedious, but I love it! It gives me a chance to study the score as a whole, not just my own part; it provides an opportunity to see how the director intends for the voice parts to interact; and helps me to understand that my part is just one of many threads that make up the whole work. Context is essential! (I often prepare program notes for concerts in which I sing, so this editing-thinking process informs that process, as well.)

When I’m working with brand-new scores, the transcription goes pretty quickly. Editing scores that have been used by other singers is entirely different. I usually start by erasing most or all of the previous markings. (I have a big pink eraser for the purpose – as I said, I’m obsessive!) The older markings are usually messy (ugh), often inexact, and typically include reminders and notes pertinent only to the previous singer’s thinking. These can be distracting and even misleading, and of course they may not fit in at all with the director’s current interpretation.

Not all older marks can be removed, of course. This morning I tried in vain to erase big bold marks made in red pencil. But worst of all is trying to deal with scores which the previous singer has marked in ink.

The act of erasing the older marks can be somewhat disconcerting, psychologically. The first time I did this for an entire set of concert scores, I ended up with a substantial pile of rubber crumbs which, I realized guiltily, represented the hard work and once-important thoughts of the prior singer. The erasures sat there on the kitchen counter for a while before I mustered the nerve to gather them up and…into the trash they went!

As a poet-linguist-writer, I am also deeply interested in textual matters, so for texts and translations which I do not already have committed to memory (e.g., the Latin Mass), I often transcribe the literal (and sometimes poetic) translations into my scores During rehearsals, I often jot down the director’s comments and observations about texts, history, composer, etc.; these notes are often interesting and always meaningful, and become part of my overall experience.

During rehearsals, I take down every instruction for every voice part (and the accompanist or orchestra); this helps me understand and assimilate the director’s intent and better execute his vision. (I like to use “sticky notes” to record logistical instructions that pertain only to a specific performance, such as sit-stand cues or notes about performance-specific cuts. These can be discarded later.)

Despite my technical obsessions, I’m also rather sentimental in my approach to music-making. Ultimately, my scores – marked with pre-rehearsal notes, embellished with notes taken during rehearsals, and filed with programs, reviews, emails, notes, and other memorabilia – are preserved as tangible records of my musical experiences. It can be deeply moving to page through a score, years later, and re-live those musical memories.

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here:

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