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Articles:Score Study

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Thoughts on Score Study from some of America's Leading Conductors/Educators.

The following are thoughts gathered from members of CBDNA (the College Band Directors National Association) regarding their score study process. As there is no "one true method" when it comes to preparation, a varied sample of what different conductors/educators do could help young conductors/directors in preparing their own method.


---Score study begins when I select pieces for a program.

---I do listen to quality recordings.

---I listen and mark all of the "traffic control" issues, e.g., meter changes, important entrances, etc.

---If I have a major event (modulation, key change, dynamic change, etc.) I circle the change in the flute, clarinet I, trumpet I, and first percussion. This gets the idea across to me with a minimal numbers of markings.

---I read them with the band.

---I make a CD of the pieces (from quality recordings), and have it running on my computer while in my office. I listen to it many times.

---Macro, to micro, to macro. Study, study, study.

---I videotape the few rehearsals before concerts. This helps me to fix any problems that I don't hear while on the podium.

I know that some directors do not like to rely on recordings---I do. I don't always do what is on the recordings, but I respect the fact that others have a great deal to offer. I pick and choose what I like from the interpretations of others to create my own.

Joe H. Brashier (Valdosta State University)

1. Don't listen to one recording ten times--listen to ten recordings one time.

2. Know who needs to be conducted. We are preparing middle and high school teachers in undergraduate classes. They forget that it's the 3rd trumpets and back row of clarinets that need the most help. Know the strengths and weaknesses of the ensemble and prepare the score to help those who need it the most.

3. I never allow my students to use the term "cutoff." We tend to use that term to signify any time the music ceases--whether at the end, after a fermata, at a grand pause, etc. Often the music needs to taper and dissipate instead of simply stopping--therefore, use the term release. It can be a tapered release or an abrupt release, etc., but there is no such thing as a soft cutoff. Decide in advance how all releases will be treated.

4. Do not ignore terminology. Variations on a Korean Folk Song uses the term "Con Islancio." Or Grainger uses "to the fore," or Thomas Doss's German "wieder beruhigen", etc.

5. Do not use a vertical rebound in any meter. It inhibited the conductor's ability to show legato or sostenuto. It also makes control harder in detached passages. Have the rebound go the opposite direction of then next pulsepoint (referred to in most texts as ictus). In detached style, the conducting rebound will resemble the path of a checkmark (thinking "hit" for each pulsepoint). In sustained style, the conductor will use an arch-shape (and think of "brushing" the beat). This is so important that the conductor show the correct style as dtermined by the score preparation.

6. Anticipate problematic transitions, such as getting out of fermata. Will the fermata continue into the next section without a break, will there be a short breath and then continue, or will there be an actually pause. All dictated by marking in the score or by the harmonic or melodic progression.

7. Select good music. Don't make yourself or the ensemble endure spending time on bad music. There is good level 2 music available, but the conductor must take time to find it.

Robert Cesario (Missouri University of Science and Technology

My own approach varies with the piece, but generally, I do go macro-micro-macro. I am not ideological about listening to recordings and don't hesitate to listen to multiple recordings of a piece, at any stage of my study. I have often studied a score in detail, done a first reading with the group, and then gone back to hear what other folks have done with it. On the other hand, the opposite is also true; I will sometimes listen to recordings in advance, then look at the score with no sound, sometimes follow the score with a recording, and then go on to my own detailed preparation. I do tend to use recordings of my own rehearsals quite a bit, often going through the score to make notes of points to check or change in the next rehearsal based on what happened the last time we did the piece.

David Goss (Cranford High School)

Here is roughly what I do in my score study process. Note: I generally only listen to recordings as part of the music selection process and not for the study process. I occasionally refer to them if I have tempo issues (marked tempo versus what seems to make musical sense).

Create a general sketch of "what happens" like the following....

mm 1-8 - Introduction Brass & percussion
mm 9-24 - 1st theme woodwinds, repeated with brass
mm 25 - 29 - Transition percussion at loudest point so far and so on.

This also begins the initial process of identifying phrases and structure. Often I'll end up changing things, but it helps to give me a general idea of "what happens". During this process I really am just aiming for the literal, not so much inner details. Once this is completed I'll trying to identify an overall structure to see how that influences the smaller elements. During this part of the process I'll also identify the main theme(s) and when/if they change.

Once I'm armed with the overall structure and the basic theme/phrasing I'll start to mark my score. I've developed a color coded system for my score marking. During the marking process I'll often find more details and add it to my previous analysis.

Orange = Theme one ***
Light blue = Theme two ***
Yellow = Theme three ***
  *** depending on the piece this might also be an "order of importance" rather than distinct theme
Red = dynamics mf and louder as well as a crescendo
Dark blue = dynamics mp and softer as well as dimuendo
Green = Conducting warning (meter changes, unusual cues, anything that needs my immediate attention)

Carl Hess (Duquesne)

My position at Duquesne puts me in a peculiar position when it comes to score study (SS). Currently I am associate conductor of the Wind Symphony, Symphony Band, Contemporary Ensemble, Symphony Orchestra, Director of Athletic bands, Chair of Brass, and I teach three conducting classes (80 students). At any given time, I have about 25 scores (per concert cycle) that I must know and be ready to conduct. I don't say this to brag, but rather to illustrate where I'm coming from when it comes to SS.

I find that each study session must be "goal" oriented. For me, this means outlining exactly what I want to glean from each sitting with the score in hand. I like to choose my pieces at least 3 months ahead of time. As I'm sure you know, this isn't always possible, but in my ideal world it works best.

If I have a long preparation time, I usually begin by listening to several different recordings. This helps me to affirm or change by repertoire choices at an early stage, rather than a few days into the cycle. Next, I usually start at the micro-macro level. By this I mean that I spend the first few sessions singing, playing, and analyzing sections of the work in relative detail. Of course you have to begin by understanding the macro form. I.E. I might begin by singing each part, then analyzing key areas, cadence points, style characteristics, etc. Afterwards I'll move to other sections, but not usually in order. I simply find a section that seems the most interesting to me, and try to find out why it interests me. After I have completed this with several or all sections, I usually do the scribe work (marking meter changes, dynamics, macro form---basically how am I going to conduct this). I will often leave the piece for a while and do the same with another piece. Each time I go back to the score, I try to delve a little deeper, until I have a detailed analysis of the work. Depending on the piece, I may or may not do a complete analysis of the work.

If I don't have very much time to prepare (for example if I'm serving as a cover conductor), I start by concentrating on how I'm going to conduct the piece (so macro-macro). This would include meter changes, dynamics, tempo indications and relationships, etc. If I have time, I go into detail.

Regarding recordings: I studied with Craig Kirchhoff, and he admitted to me that he listens to recordings just like everyone else (!). Even Battisti has admitted such. For me, I find that if I don't consign myself to just one recording my interpretation isn't as compromised. I usually try to find at least three recordings. I then mark in my study score the conductor's tempi and how they are alike or different from the score indication.

Gary Hill (Arizona State University)

Gary Hill contributed his thoughts on conducting/score study via this PDF.

William Johnson (Cal-Poly)

a. The Importance of knowing the score (“Neither talent nor charisma can salvage a rehearsal for a conductor who does not know the score.”)

b. The development of the Sound Concept – The discovery of the composer’s meaning and purpose of the work, his/her mental process in creating the work and your personal sound imagery of the work based on your knowledge and experience.

c. The discovery of the direction of the music, its form and architecture, to see how it unfolds, to arrive at an interpretation. Chart it.

d. Discover how the work fits into the various styles of other works written for this medium at this point in music history. What other works similar to this have been composed by this composer? How and why is this work important?

e. Are you willing to invest many hours into its preparation?

f. Journeys through the score to discover its inner workings:

i. Study the title, composer, arranger, any program notes, performance suggestions, composer’s background, commissioned by whom, publisher, etc.

ii. Establish all tempos in your mind. Notices changes and mark them if necessary.

iii. Trace and sight sing the “melody” (most important line) Look for melodic inversions. Discover all ornamentation.

iv. Trace and sight sing all “counter melodies” and other parts that support the “melody.”

v. Practice all rhythms that are difficult to you.

vi. Discover the orchestration, who is playing what as well as the texture (monophonic – homophonic - polyphonic)

vii. Divide the entire composition into logical phrases, and mark the phrase lengths. Look for sub phrases and motifs.

viii. Sight sing each part. Use a metronome for rhythmic accuracy and memorizing the tempos.

ix. Discover the dynamics and all changes in dynamics

x. Discover all performance and expressive terms used by the composer. Translate them if necessary.

xi. Notice all changes in tempo; notice repeats and style.

xii. Do a harmonic analysis of the work. You must have the sound of every chord in your head. Determine the tonal basis of the work. What scales are used? Notice the various types of non-harmonic tones as they relate to chord progressions. Look for modulations and all changes in key signatures.

xiii. Make decisions as to what your interpretation of the work will be, tempos, dynamics, phrase contours, etc. Allow room for the players to influence you, however with their natural approach during rehearsals.

xiv. Conduct the work silently over and over until it becomes a part of you, until the music belongs to you. You own it. It does not own you. Introduce your own experience, knowledge and skill.

xv. Listen to some recordings, if available. In doing so, however, you are listening to another conductor’s Sound Concept, which may be different than yours. Don’t copy or imitate.

xvi. Memorize the entire work

xvii. Assimilate.

Mel Kessler (National Concert Band of America)

I study a score macro to micro. Usually I have heard the piece once, but if not, I will look at the score before listening to a recording.

First look is just for tempo and meter changes.
Second look is more detail of the woodwind parts.
Third look is more detail of the brass and percussion parts.
Fourth look is a detailed look of how all the parts relate.
Fifth and sixth looks are more of the same.

After that I go through the score a couple of times marking details to remember, relationships of parts and cues. I then put it away for a day or two and then do a much quicker macro to micro (twice) just to refresh myself and also to see if I missed something. At this point I will listen to a recording once. A large work I may listen twice.

The last process is to conduct through the piece several times.

I do not make any predeterminations of problems that might occur. Early on I found this a waste of time, because where I thought there would be problems there weren't.

By the way I conduct my rehearsal the same as when I study a score, macro to micro, which of course is how most professionals practice a new piece of music. I find if the musicians have an idea of the piece they will fix a lot of problems before the next reading.

Larry Marks (UNC- Charlotte)

Most people seem to have a generic approach to score study (memorization). I learned a lot from David Whitwell in this regard, concerning musical analysis and the memorization of phrases, based on counting measures and noting the composer's repetition of musical ideas, which aids memorization. Some composers make this easy, because many works are not "through composed."

I honestly think a knowledge of the particular composer helps greatly in the study of various pieces by the same person. If one thinks of Hindemith, it is easy to know that he wrote everything in "threes"--ideas repeated three times (check out his wind sonatas and then the Symphony in B-flat). If one knows Mozart intimately, it is easy to move from one score to another. If we learn the composer's harmonic language, along with his approach to the treatment of melodic idioms, I think that is the essence of score prep.

If I know the composer, I will look at the score first, and if a recording is available, consult it. After that, I do something of an overall study (macro, as you use the term) and then evaluate the melodic implications regarding the instruments/sections involved (micro), along with any special performance problems. The more complex the piece, the more time required. Nothing new here--just my approach.

Robert Ponto (University of Oregon)

Robert Ponto uses the following two handouts in his conducting class.

Amy K. Roisum Foley (Minnesota State University)

Amy Roisum Foley contributed her thoughts on conducting/score study via this PDF.

Frederick Speck (University of Louisville)

Analytical/Musical Preparation:

1. Dynamic (not related to volume) architecture of the work.
2. Large scale arsic/thetic gestures by phrase and phrase combinations.
3. Compositional analysis of motivation of all cresc., dim., tempo changes and fermati for context, motivation, profile.
4. Observation of accents and slurs as compositional, not merely technical devices.

Physical/Musical Preparation:

1. Singing lines while conducting with musical intent.
2. Simplifying to beatless macro forms (predictive trace forms - a Laban related concept) then recasting essential pattern beats.

Robert Spradling (Western Michigan University)

As a basic approach, I have my students purchase Frank Batisti's "Guide to Score Study for the Wind Band Conductor" where he uses "Irish Tune" and an example and goes through his thought processes for its preparation.

I agree in general with his approach and it is easy to discuss possibilities for variation with the students. In essence I stress approaching the "internalization/familiarization" of the conductor with the large form and phrasing of the score first. Then moving into the "micro" process of identifying tonal/key centers, metric and rhythmic logic/variation, and expressive elements.

I like for them to create a visual chart incorporating these elements so they can see how they may correlate and how their musical decisions need to reflect how the composer uses these elements.

When they feel like they have made the important decisions relative to what Batisti calls the "realization" of the score, I then encourage them to hear two or more recordings of the work, if possible, to see where their decisions may vary from other conductors' decisions. I also encourage them not to change what they are doing just because they hear someone else do it differently unless they agree that the other way is musically a better decision.

Finally, I encourage them to look for places in the score where they might anticipate difficulties for the players or opportunities for errors (rhythmic problems, key changes, articulation and expression contrasts, etc.). This helps them to begin a process for rehearsal preparation and to have a plan for dealing with anticipated problems prior to stepping on the podium.

I have been working for a number of years on ways to also "stretch" their ears and recognize errors while on the podium. In most cases, it comes back to the score preparation phase in that they begin to recognize those things they hear that do not match what the score shows. This has finally resulted in a collection of score excerpts with transposed parts where the parts have errors "planted" in them for the conductor to correct as he/she conducts from the "clean" score excerpts. It will be published by Carl Fischer this spring and available for fall classes if you want to check it out. It is called "Error Detection for the Instrumental Conductor" and is designed to compliment any approach to teaching conducting.

I don't know if these generalities are what you are looking for or helpful, but I do agree that everyone learns how to absorb a score slightly differently and our job is to help them find their way. Good luck with your responses and I hope they give you a variety of great ideas.

Cynthia Johnston Turner (Cornell)

For me score study changes with each piece. At Cornell, I premiere a lot of works, so I have the luxury of sitting with composers on a regular basis, sometimes being a part of the composition process. This is invaluable for learning the intent of a piece, the harmonic language, form, etc. I don't know how many times however, that I've mentioned harmonies or other observations about a composer's music and they've replied with something like, "Oh, I didn't know I did that." I add this only to make the point that sometimes we can over-analyse works to the degree that we can miss the overall sound vision or aural architecture of a piece when we do score study.

I find it helpful both for study and rehearsal to use colored 'post-it' notes to indicate what instruments have the same line, harmony, balance, etc. Post-its allow me to send back clean scores to publishers (if renting), but they can stay there for when I do the piece again.

I sing through every line. Anywhere I have trouble is usually where an instrumentalist or singer will have trouble. This can save an enormous amount of rehearsal time; knowing where the traps are before the first rehearsal. It also helps me know who needs me when. I was told once that as conductors we need to be visual representations of the sound, but I don't think that is always true. For example, sometimes we need help the bass line in a difficult rhythmic passage, but we really want to conduct the sweeping horn melody. If we conducted the horns, the piece would probably fall apart (and the horns don't need me anyway).

Dynamics are usually incorrect in most pieces. We all know that if everyone plays the vertical dynamic of forte, we get an imbalanced, strident sound. I therefore change the dynamics in a score given who has the melody or how I envision the balance. (My students are getting very good at this as well.) I do listen to recordings, if available, but try not to until I've had a decent look through the score.

Alan Wagner (SMU)

Alan contributed a PDF of the score marking system used by Margaret Hillis, long-time conductor of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. The PDF file can be found here.

Christian Zembower (East Tennessee State University)

For me with score study, yes, it is a rather personal activity that, as you stated, has to be developed in a manner that is comfortable and 'right' for that person in getting to know and study a piece (or really, pieces) to then teach to an ensemble. I think that, with everyone, it starts with how your teacher/mentor has told you (as a student) how they do score study. So, you telling your students about how you do score study, is a start for them. There has to be a starting point from which to begin and then grow/branch out.

For me, my mentor is Jack Stamp. I did my Master's degree with him in the early 1990's at IUP and what he told that he does/did then, is where I started and then have developed other ways from there. Obviously, he learned from his teacher, Gene Corporon, and so it goes.

For me, the first thing I do once I begin the process, is to mark the score (time signatures, cues for entrances, and then dynamics and articulations) with different colors to differentiate, etc. While I am doing this, I begin to learn the piece in this manner. This marking process is actually a three-tiered process from going through the score and marking the time changes first, then going back and marking the cues/entrances, then going back and doing the dynamics and articulations on the third time. Every time I do this, I learn more of the piece, but obviously, still not totally in depth (yet).

Once these things are finished, I then begin to study the score through analysis, in trying to 'understand' the piece in how the composer wrote it and why, etc. I always like and try to analyze the piece into some kind of form. This gets me to obviously begin to know the piece in how it is put together - is there an introduction starting out, where does the first A section begin and end, transitional sections before going into another major section (B), etc. I know that some composers do not write with a form in mind, they just write. Over the years, I have called Jack asking him about one of his pieces in my analyzation process, and he has, a lot of the time, said he doesn't know, because he didn't write the piece with a form in mind. But for me, putting the piece into some kind of 'foundation' in how it is put together, is necessary for me in studying the piece and then ultimately, teaching it to my ensemble in rehearsal. Once I know that say, the piece is in an A-B-A1 form, this will help me rehearsing it so then when I am working on the first A section, once my ensemble gets this, I can then skip to the latter section and measures, and teach this next since the material is already in their heads, even though the music/content might be slightly different, etc.

The last step in the process then, once I have analyzed it, is then to begin studying it through audiating the music and hearing all of the different parts in my head, in a place obviously free of distractions and other sounds, etc. How long the piece is then depends on how long it takes me study it properly, etc. Or, whatever section(s) I want to rehearse with my ensemble for that day, is then the section I study the day or two beforehand with audiation in hearing it in my head (the way you would like to hear it sound - in the end for the concert) to have something obviously to work toward with your ensemble.

Listening to recordings of works is not a bad thing. But, this needs to happen as one of the first things in the study process. Once you begin the process of studying it, the recordings need to go on the shelf and not be heard again. Hearing a piece(s) too many times by another conductor and ensemble will begin to influence you and your interpretation, and this is not what you want. You want your own interpretation of it.

Again, it is a individual process and each person's way isn't wrong, just because it isn't the way that YOU do it. But, it does have to be taken seriously and systematically in respecting the piece, respecting the composer, and respecting the genre that we call wind band and conducting.

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