Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Practical Tips for score/part Preparation

Over the years of working with various musicians to perform my works, I have learned some very practical experiences that I wish other experienced composers would have shared with me. These tips help me and the musicians save time in rehearsal and also help produce the best musical results.

The basic goal is to best utilize the time during rehearsal. This can be done by: 1. Aiming for effective communication on sheet music, verbally, and gesturally. 2. Minimizing chances for mistakes by providing helpful information and better readability on the sheet music. 3. Maintaining a positive attitude.

Effective Communication

If possible, conduct the group yourself. I am very lucky that one of my musical mentors, Judy Moore, gives me the chances to conduct all my pieces when her group performs my works. Originally I thought it would only save time communicating what I want musically with the conductor, but it turned out to be a valuable experience to actually learn about the sound of a particular performing group. Understanding a group helps me tremendously in writing the most suitable score for the group to sound its best. In rehearsing with the group on the conductor stand, one learns about its sound characteristics (including strength, weakness, durability, balance, and tone colors), as well as how to help musicians understand and produce the sound I want. A lot of information is beyond printed sheet music and effective communication during rehearsal is the key to a good performance.

Provide as detailed expression/articulation marks on the sheet music as possible -- dynamics, slurs, accents, tempo, etc. To reach a good ensemble sound, these marks are crucial. Unless the musicians are experts in that particular style, leaving out these marks would yield to a very sloppy and unbalanced sound. Besides, having everyone find a pencil and jot down marks that I could've provided during rehearsal takes a lot of time and should be avoided if possible. Those marks also helps the performer practice better at home when you are not there to explain everything.

Mark every measure with measure number. It may seem dumb but this has saved me so much time in rehearsal. There was even a performance when a player got lost and I was able to give the next measure number for the player to resume playing immediately.

Minimize the chance for sheet music disorganization. I do this by putting dates of rehearsal, page number, title of the work, and part name on each page of each part. Sometimes I also include the total page count on each page. All these help distributing the right part to the right performer. Having a date there turned out to be a life saver particularly when I revise the music. Before each rehearsal I'll ask the performers to verify the dates, which are used as version marks, to make sure everybody is on the same page, literally.


If possible, break staff systems at structurally meaningful places. For example, if the music phrasing is based on 4-bar units, break each line at the end of the 4th bar. This not only helps performers understand the structure of the music, it also enables them to quickly find where the music is now, during both rehearsals and performances.

Consider friendlier enharmonic spelling. Write F instead E#, B instead of Cb, G instead of Abb, even though theoretically it may not be accurate. Use # for chromatically ascending lines (C, C#, D, D#, E) and b for descending ones (E, Eb, D, Db, C). Most musicians I work with prefer easier spelling so they can concentrate on things that are more important than theoretical perfection. For me, I actually have my score spelling the way that I can understand better (the correct way) and have their parts that they can read better. When I communicate with them, I'll translate those note spellings on the fly. (Be sure to check the part when preparing a concert pitch score; some software may not transpose the enharmonic spellings correctly.)

The same principle goes with the key signature. For modal, atonal works, or melody with lots of accidentals, or even just less familiar keys (Bb minor, F# major), I found it better to give performers no key signature (i.e. C major) and mark all the accidentals in every bar. Again, I can keep my original key signatures in my own score and just spell out the each note's accidental when I communicate with the player. Ideally I would like all the performers to hear the implied key signatures I have in mind (say, to hear C locrian natural 2 in the context of Eb melodic minor). However, the nature of modern performing groups puts a constraint on total rehearsal time (a group has many concerts and many pieces to work on), so expecting the performers to spend a lot of time understanding the music on the theoretical level is simply impractical.

Provide cue notes, particular toward the end of long rests. Of course we all trust that musicians can count, but why not reduce the chance of mistakes by giving them some assurance?

Speaking of long rests, it's also very helpful if we break the multi-measure rests into smaller and meaningful units. For example, if there are 14 bars of rest, one may consider break them into bars of 4, 4, 4, and 2, assuming those units signifies phrase boundaries. This helps provide performers a peace of mind when they can confirm where they are during a long rest counting.

Use friendlier rhythmic notation. One tip that I've found very helpful for musicians is the imaginary bar line in the middle of the bar. For example, if we have a 4/4 measure with a quarter note, a half note, and another quarter note, I would re-notate as a quarter note, a 2nd quarter note tied to the 3rd quarter note, and the 4th quarter note. This will be even more helpful in the case of 8th notes and 16th notes. Sometimes I even give a note (or a rest) in every down beat to help performers count visually. There are, however, exceptions. For example, if there are a series of syncopated notes (very effective on string section in lower registers), it may be better to write an 8th note, a quarter note, a quarter note, a quarter note, and an 8th note tied to another 8th note of the next bar. It would be just too confusing to have lots of ties. The other exception is Latin music. Latin music has a long notational tradition and most literature follows that tradition. Introducing lots of ties may create unnecessary confusion for musicians who are already familiar with traditional notations. Use good discretion based on your performers.

Positive Attitude

It takes a lot of conditions for musicians to get together in the same place at the same time. It is also due to, at least in my case, a lot of fine musicians' generosity and kindness that my pieces get to be performed. I think being very appreciative is just a very basic attitude. They dedicate the time to help your music sound better so respect the musicians that you work with, be it a professional group or an armature group.

Different players may need different help, but I also need them to help me to do a better job on the stand. The purpose of rehearsals is to find ways to overcome difficulties together. Judy Moore's rehearsal sessions are always very inspiring to me. Her wonderful sense of humor always makes the rehearsal sessions fun and enjoyable. I always remind myself that I write music to make people's life more enjoyable, and that should be the case in both the rehearsals and the performances.

I hope these tips help somebody out there.

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