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Chamber Music: Score Prep

When I have a chamber music project before me, one of the first things I do is prepare the score. This implies lots of things, of course, and learning the music is only one of them. I sometimes joke that I'll institute a class called Score Prep 101, inspired by my surprise that students often don't do it without a bit of pushing. So in this post I'll talk about the tasks we face when preparing to play from a score. 

First, set up for easy page turns. Most scores/parts are not published with this in mind, so it's up to us to set them up. Scan for spots where there will be enough time and arrange pages accordingly. I'm referring to the cutting of copied paper here, but the same can be achieved using photographing and manipulating images with various apps or software and then printing. 
(The day is coming when we will all play from iPads with infinitely adjustable font sizes, brightness, and foot-controlled page turns or scrolling, but that day isn't here yet...)

I like to look at a maximum of three pages across. More than that and it's hard to see the edges. I have found it's nearly always possible to reduce my stage scores to a maximum of three pages. Many scores don't come with seperate parts. In these cases, it is normally necessary to eliminate the other part so you will have fewer pages to work with. I call this cut-and-paste, and it is a regular feature of the score-prep process. (Yes, I literally cut out little strips of paper, assemble them in order, and tape them down on blank paper, in a carefully-planned arrangement to allow for turns.)

In special cases, there are so few opportunities for turns and the material is so long that it is necessary to take additional steps. I will often reduce the size to 90%, buying quite a lot of horizontal space and so enabling the creation of narrower pages with more staves. If done this way, I'd use up to four (narrow) pages. Another option, of course, is larger paper--moving from 8 1/2 X 11 to 8 1/2 X 14 (legal). 

Then I tape the pages together. I do it carefully so they sit squarely on the music stand. This simple act, taping, can save many headaches and embarrassments. How many times have you seen (or been a victim of) three seperate pieces of paper carefully balanced on a music stand, when one falls off mid-performance? This won't happen if they're taped. Then, set up like a little book with page turns, it will behave reliably. I often find myself with a complex arrangement in which a fabricated booklet includes page turns plus a three-page fold-out. Each piece will be different. I am dismayed when I see music put on the floor during a performance. So many players do this, though, just tossing paper down like they were in their bedroom instead of on stage. To me, scores belong on the stand, and our management of the physical score helps enable it to stay there! Of course there are exceptions: exceptionally large scores for certain contemporary works may require special treatment, and putting them on the floor may be the only option. But to me this is a rare exception to a simple rule of decorum. You dress up to perform. Keep the stage dressed up, too.

Once the score is physically set up, it is necessary to prep the other elements. If you are reading from a guitar part, write in rhythm cues from the other part(s). The more clarity you have about the other players' rhythms, the more easily and quickly the ensemble will succeed. I write small rhythms above my part where I have long notes, rests or have other need of cues. You should know how to count your silent measures AND you should know what your partners are doing while you sit out. If you do both, you won't miss your entries. 

Always translate every foreign word in the score so you don't miss important musical instructions. It startles me how often even advanced students neglect to do this. It is basic and absolutely necessary. 

Finger every passage. Be absolutely sure how you intend to play each part, with both hands. Advanced players can improvise fingerings with no difficulty, especially in simpler sections, but in solos or tricky passages, don't take chances. Make decisions, and write them in. Then practice for reliable, consistent execution. It is a nice feeling when, at your first rehearsal, you are completely prepared. 

Of course all of this advice is applicable to playing solo music as well. But since most guitarists play solo music by memory, the preparation of the score itself, as a physical object, is less critical. 

So, in summary, set up the score for page turns, tape it together, translate all text, write in rhythm cues and fully finger your part. These steps don't take that long. I often hear complaints from students that the score prep took the whole evening to accomplish. Well, good! Then it's done and ready. And next time it'll be quicker. We improve with practice. And after all, what is the option? To show up at a first rehearsal totally unprepared and hope for the best? Get your score together, make a good impression, enjoy the rehearsal process more, accomplish more during rehearsal in less time, and make some new friends with no worries or stress. 

That's score prep. 

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