A musical score is a boundary object. “A boundary object is an artifact, document, or even an idea that helps people from different communities build a shared understanding. Boundary objects essentially provide a common point of reference for conversations and conventions; everyone can agree that they’re talking about and working towards x, even though they might not be actually thinking about the same specific things, ” Megan Winget observed in a report on “Annotations On Musical Scores By Performing Musicians…” The score is the object a composer gives to a performer to indicate her intentions for performance. To go from reading the score to performing the composition is what makes us specialized and skilled workers. You must be able to make musical decisions. How important is my part in the larger picture? Where should I stand? How can I build the musical tension to the climax of the piece? How can I sing with fabulous technique and still achieve the tone color the composer desires? All of these are questions that will arise during your score study and practice. As you excel in your field, you will only have more repertoire to learn at a quicker pace. Give yourself the advantage by being the most prepared one in the room.
Your 29 Days to Diva – Day 18 Assignment: Develop your score study skills
Time is money, darling. Which means two things. First, you can make more income by learning music better and faster than your competitors. Second, you will definitely lose money by not being prepared. Nobody has the time/money for you to learn the music during rehearsal. In school it may have worked to learn your part at home and everyone else’s in rehearsal. Not so in the professional world. You will need to show up knowing your part and the parts of other characters or ensemble members. Tears and gnashing of teeth are guaranteed if you do not heed this warning.
Have a process
Your goal is to internalize the score so you could hear it in your mind as if it were being played out loud. We can turn this into a checklist so that you have a practice plan. There are many elements of score study that are silent or require minimal sound. This is perfect for air travel, bus rides, and late nights in small apartments…
The first glance
What do these basics tell you about the piece and how it should be performed? Use your considerable education to draw inferences and make conclusions from the beginning.
- Dedication (aka: can understanding who this was written for help me perform the piece better?)
- Historical context:
- Tempo indications (make yourself aware of all of them)
- Expressive markings (make yourself aware of all of them)
- Dynamics (make yourself aware of all of them)
- When was the text written and by whom?
- Publisher (aka: is this the best edition available?):
- Any extended techniques or unusual notations or effects:
“Full-score preparation procedures of Upper-Level Undergraduates were similar to those displayed by Lower-Level Undergraduates in that there was little effort demonstrated to establish a general context of the piece, and participants tended to address elements in a similar random style.”¹ Be careful not to fall into this score study trap. We do not read books by just registering which letter is being used and in what order. We read for context. The first glance is just an overview. But, let that motivate you to look deeper into the context.
You may want to make a practice copy of your score so that you can mark it to your heart’s content. Lots of conductors like to use different colors for different considerations. You may choose to do the same.
- Number all measures.
- Get a sense of the landscape of the piece.
- Determine the key/mode & mark all key changes clearly.
- What is the big picture? How many sections are there and what happens in each?
- Melodic development
- The melodic development is going to be particularly important for singers. Identify motives and repetition.
- Harmonic organization
- For example, what is happening in the piano? How does that complement the vocal line?
- Rhythms – Be a singer who can count. Don’t make me say it again…
- Ask how complex meters will be grouped by the conductor.
- Text relationship
- Read the text aloud.
- Clearly mark the syllabic stresses (and any areas that should be purposefully unstressed – perhaps a schwa at the end of a rising line?)
- Write the literal translation word-for-word.
- Mark all breaths.
- What is the connection between the text and the composer’s harmonic/melodic choices?
Bring your best
- Distinctive characteristics: tension/release. How will you execute changes and distinctive characteristics without ‘giving away the surprise?’
- Check tempos and changes.
- How does the piece evolve?
- Are there any potential balance issues?
- Memorize structure and order of entrances.
- Mark any physical cues/gestures you may want to remember.
- Finally, listen to other recordings, if desired.
Next level sh*t
- Be able to describe the piece or parts of the work. How do you want the audience to respond?
I love these considerations from Geoffrey Thomas’ blog which he attributes to The Art of Delivery by Keith Hill and Marianne Ploger and Twelve Techniques for Increasing Listener Interest and Comprehension which is a summary of The Art of Delivery.
- Gesture: Shape the voices like natural forms which we find pleasing: e.g. eggs, leaves, and swan’s necks.
- Distortion: Without a few rough edges your music making will be insipid or plastic.
- Sans souci: A bit of elegant abandon at the right moment is a sign of mastery. Without this a performance is tense and off-putting.
- Stride: Certain tempos work because they correspond to the rate at which we process information.
- Evaporation: This is a means of emphasis by whispering something important.
- Hesitation: This is a means of emphasis by waiting before saying something important.
- Crunch: This is where you allow extra time for something which is clashing.
Music making and performing are about so much more than notes and words. Once you give yourself over to the details, emerge again to look at the piece as a whole. Fuse all of your findings from the process above into your performance. You’re right to think that it takes time to learn music this way. And yes, we’re all busy. We all have a choice how we spend our practice time. Being prepared helps ensure that you get asked back to perform with that company or ensemble. Do you have some good score study tips that I can add to the list above? Share them with me in the comments. I’m always on the look-out for good suggestions that I can add to my process. Or, let me know on Instagram/Twitter at @mezzoihnen.