What's the Score?

(This is a follow-up to A Day in the Life, which gives you an idea of how a conductor prepares to work with an orchestra.)

By this stage in the process, I have done some research and played through each piece at the piano a few of times. I have a basic understanding of what each composer is doing musically and so I sit down with my ruler and pencil to begin to mark the score. This is a very personal process that has evolved over many, many years. (I cringe when I look at my very first scores, which are heavily over-marked in thick red pencil, with haphazard scrawl all over the place. They reflect an undeveloped approach, but I shouldn’t be quite so hard on myself – I was only just learning. Nowadays, my markings are far more ordered, refined, and neat.)

So anyway, I begin the marking process by flipping through the piece in fast-forward, looking for the major structural points. My eye has learned to detect these quite easily by now. I am looking for where the music departs from, where it goes to, and where it ends up. (Most pieces are essentially structured around a ‘Here – There – Back again’ kind of scheme.) I rule vertical lines at the main junctions so that I can start to deconstruct the piece and understand how it is built. It is like sitting down with the map before driving from New York to Boston and plotting out the main route; the side streets and your favorite highway burger place come later in the process. This is still big-picture stuff. 


I was once giving a presentation at music school that devolved rapidly into a heated debate on the merits of musical analysis. A colleague of mine was pointedly asking whether Mozart really had any awareness of all the details I was illuminating. I said it didn’t matter; analysis is about our explicit understanding as performers of relationships that were implicit for the composer. In other words, it is irrelevant whether or not Mozart – or any other composer – knew that here, there was an allusion to a certain dance pattern, or that there, the music cadences a bar earlier or later than expected. For them, the process was predominantly intuitive, not intellectual. My professor stepped in to quell the rising furor – though in fact she took up my cause and diplomatically pounded this moron over the head with it.

For me, there has to be an element of intellect because otherwise the music is just a stream of notes without any order or organization. Music performed without an understanding of the logic behind it becomes the equivalent of talking artificial intelligence (like Siri): there is no real understanding of what is being communicated, even if the words form a comprehensible sentence. (A conducting teacher of mine once reminded the class that most musicians are in love with their instruments, not with music, which are very different things. The sensuous allure of the sound itself along with the physical enjoyment of playing is often more dominant for instrumentalists than the particulars of structure, form, style, interpretation, etc.)   

Anyway – rant over.

So, I go through the score and rule vertical lines to clarify the larger structure. I then sit and begin to read the music through and hear it in my head. (This is a skill that has taken my entire lifetime to develop and I continue to work on it every day through a variety of exercises, some fun, some maddening.) I start to do a light, general analysis of the phrasing and the harmony to further enrich my understanding of the shape of the music. Where is it going? Where is building to or receding from? I need to know where to drive the energy and where to relax it. This helps to pace the performance. 

I also start to look for spots that might be tricky for the musicians (if I trip over a rhythm or a phrase in reading it, then its likely they may also.) I have a special way of marking dynamics because it is another way of helping me to see the large shape of the musical structure. I then write in some cues for important entries but increasingly I don’t like to do this because sometimes you inadvertently conduct the cues instead of the music. This then becomes like directing traffic instead of creating art.

Ideally, if you have enough time to learn a piece, you wouldn’t mark the score much because you could gradually internalize all the details. My approach to marking the score is a top-down, global-to-local, forest-to-trees, process. The end result is that hopefully when I stand in front of the ensemble I have a highly detailed preconception about the big-picture as well as the details that lend all its color and shading.

Remember that a conductor studies the full score, which has all the parts; the musicians only have their own part. Each individual does not necessarily know what is happening in all the other parts of the orchestra, though great orchestral players do! My favorite aphorism about this idea is, ‘Practice is for learning your part; rehearsal is for learning everyone else’s part.’

Full Score - 1st page of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra


Viola part - excerpt from Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra

The remainder of my process is repetition, with increasing detail absorbed on each go around. At this stage, I may sit at the piano and just play through one group of instruments, like the trombones; then I will go back to the desk and imagine those parts in my head along with the main melody, trying to hear in great colored detail. (This is very difficult!)

The final step, which comes towards the very end, is to watch videos and listen to recordings of the pieces. We are very lucky to have hundreds of performances at the click of a button. This is very useful in learning about various performing traditions, pacing, instrumental coloring, and overall stylistic interpretation. But, and this is a very big but, this part of the process has to be approached with an awareness of the habits of certain conductors and their orchestras. You cannot stand on the podium and try to imitate a famous conductor; it is disingenuous and totally transparent to the players. You will instantly lose their trust if you do this. But if you use recordings as a tool to enhance your own understanding and knowledge, then they can be invaluable.

In the next installment, we will talk about the rehearsal process. Stay tuned. 

Kirsten Hicks