Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Score Prep

I was recently asked about my process for studying and preparing scores for my classroom and rehearsals. I have seen many seminars and master classes on the topic of score preparation over the years and have always been impressed with the variety of approaches and detail with which conductors prepare their scores.  I always take something away from these seminars and apply it to my own work.

My answer to the question this week was necessarily shorter than the sometimes one hour or longer seminars I have attended on score preparation. This required more of a "quick hit" concise response do the question.

As I thought about it, I really came up with three important categories that I use for score preparation: Listen, Analyze, Play.  These three elements have become incredibly important to me as I squeeze score preparation into my already busy academic schedule. These apply to every level of score preparation that I endeavor. So, this would include string orchestra, full orchestra, Grades 3 to 6 and the standard repertoire. (These days I rarely find myself in the grade 2 and below setting but these concepts still apply.)

First, I typically begin the process by listening. I like to find a period of time where I can sit quietly with the score and a pencil in my hand and listen to the piece multiple times performed by multiple performers. At the beginning, I am looking for basic material: what voice has the melody? What voice carries the fundamental? Others include: specific entrances of winds, first entrance of every voice, tempo changes, meter changes, and other pertinent basic material. I try to clearly mark everything. As I become more familiar with the piece with the score in hand, I begin looking for places that I can make the score my own. Where does the tempo push, where does it pull?  What voice has the important rhythmic material at any given time? (Who is the rhythmic student and who is the rhythmic teacher?) Where do I need to be particularly conscious of any given voice or specific conducting techniques? This process of listening and marking the score is absolutely vital to my preparation. It allows me to be confident in rehearsals and frees up my intellect, permitting my imagination to move in different pedagogical and artistic directions throughout any given rehearsal. I would call this the nuts and bolts of score preparation for me. It is foundational and it is vital.

Second, in recent years I have spent a great deal of time analyzing a work. For me this includes form but is not exclusively form. Obviously, I want to have a clear vision of the various sections of the piece. I want to be able to articulate form clearly to students during rehearsal. Understanding form also allows me to be imaginative in my approach to phrasing, musicianship, and expression throughout the piece. But, in addition to form, I have been quite committed to harmonic analysis for the last several years. As I am preparing the score, I typically pick up my guitar and sketch out the chords, allowing me to really see inside the harmonic structure of the piece. This is a game-changer for me. By understanding the harmonic underpinning of a composer's ideas, again, my imagination can go in more complex directions as I endeavor to articulate function and meaning to my students.  In my early years of teaching I would skip this step. In fact, I really didn't even consider it. Now I understand how vital it is to teaching true functional musicianship in every single rehearsal. This process also permits me to step to a guitar or piano quite easily during a rehearsal process and explain harmonic function. It is so nice to be able to do this without analyzing on the spot. If I have done my homework, it is seamless and easy.

Finally, I play the parts. Those of you who know me well, know that I play in rehearsal rather than conduct during one out of three rehearsals per week. This process is vital to my score study. It informs how I approach technique, difficult passages, fingering, shifting, watching, and expression in profound ways. I find that I hear the score differently from within the orchestra. I hear mistakes more clearly with my instrument in hand. I am able to identify tricky sections in a significantly more holistic manner when I am playing with the orchestra. I am also much more able to articulate the performer's thought process when I have my instrument in my hand. Sometimes I sit in the front of the section, sometimes the back. I alternate between each of the stringed instruments. I'm not a very good cello player, so I often play cello parts on the violin or viola. It still makes a difference. A side benefit of this is that my students realize my proficiency at each of the instruments and (I believe) are the beneficiaries of my holistic thinking about ensemble performance and technique.

Obviously, there are more than just these three elements in solid score study. But, as I think about my top priorities, these hit them pretty strongly. I hope that you find these thoughts valuable and can possibly apply some of them to your own teaching and conducting.

What did I miss here? What are your priorities in score study and preparation? I would love to hear from you and add to the tools in my tool belt!



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