stuff to round out your approach: studying scores and critical listening

Even if you can hear the music in your head when you look at a piece, it’s never a bad idea to listen to several recordings and study the score as part of your general practice curriculum. To experience mastery, you need to know every crevice, every detail, technique, stretch, shift and emotional/dynamic implication of what you’re playing. A performance, whether it be solo, accompanied, or with an ensemble needs you to be the motor, driving the direction- not a passenger, along for a ride, fading in and out of autopilot depending on how many notes are on the page.

This tendency is especially dangerous for cellists and bassists, who frequently have accompanying parts that are easy to think of as simple or secondary. While the melodic line may well be the focal point, it is the long drone and the quietly purring stream of repeated eighth notes that are the very context in which the melody resides. It is not unimportant drudgery. It is the lifeblood of the thing! Here are some ideas to enrich your knowledge and practical competence a musician.

nb: when I say score, I mean your part…but if you have a full score, absolutely haul that out, too.

Study the score first without a recording.

  • Key signature, time signature, road map! (repeats, DS al something, da capo, coda) Any page turns that require a player to drop out to make them happen? Mark them!
  • Go through and assess the notes and hand shapes each section requires. Is this a piece where open A is good? (some are! sometimes we want that insane ringy zingy sound!)
  • Turn on a metronome and go through tricky rhythms at a slow speed, either saying “ta” or tapping the rhythm on a leg/desk/whatever. Doing this makes sure you don’t learn something just by ear and accidentally get a weird idea as to how something is played.
  • Problem solve. Do not be in denial about a single note. Make sure you aren’t forgetting things like a Gb or E# in tricky keys.
  • Study the markings. Look for details in the dynamics. A crescendo to a mf is not the same as a crescendo to f. Not all hooked bows are percussive. Look for dots and lines above notes.
  • Know when the music was written and consider the practices of the time. Where does this trill start? Well, that depends on what era it was written in. Are these long notes sustained, or is the style slightly tapered? Are there accents on top of the notes?
  • Map out important parts in terms of where they would ideally be played in the bow. Is the first note quiet? Loud? What does the bowing say? Is that a bowing or a phrase marking?

Things to pick up on when listening with the score: 

  • Are repeated notes driving? Holding back with restrained elegance? Wild? Majestic? What about the spaces between them? How are notes ended?
  • What is every other musician doing during each section? How does your part serve them? Even if you have the melody, you must always play primarily in service of the music and other people in the ensemble. None of it is ever about you, even if it’s a concerto and you are the soloist. It’s about the music and the listener. We are just fortunate to be the conduit through which art flows. Never forget that.
  • How does the melody move around an ensemble? Who gets it and how does it express the theme differently? Are there variations on the theme? Does the character change?
  • Where does the character change? Is it gradual, or are there small transitions? Maybe it changes suddenly?
  • Who plays along with you, either with a similar or complementary gesture? Does another instrument rely on you to start or complete their part? Do you need to wait for someone else’s phrase to end before coming in?

Listen to recordings without the score. 

  • Practice picking an instrument other than yours and following it for an entire movement. Listen hard!
  • Listen many, many times. The notes on the pages should be reminders, not lifeboats. Mastery means you are not surprised by anything. It doesn’t translate into every performance being flawless, but creates an opportunity for excellence through meaningful preparation. If you have the feeling of reading notes during a performance, your output of art will be lessened- and the experience will be far more stressful. If the notes remind you of where you are and serve as signposts, leading you from one well-oiled passage to the next, you have a chance at making art.
  • Can you hum the melodies? You should be able to hum the melodies.
  • Watch a performance on YouTube. Anything surprising? Make a note of it.

Play along with recordings.

  • This practice is especially useful if there are sections that give you grief. Learning to stumble through and recover is a skill not enough teachers address. Sure, the ideal is that you nail every note, but if you’re playing in a good orchestra as one of the least experienced players, there is a chance you’ll trip over something at one time or another. Such is life. Damage control is the way through. Work on it!
  • Do this BEFORE your first rehearsal if at all possible.
  • Learn what happens in the rests, so you have an extra layer of security if you get the feeling you may have counted incorrectly before an entrance.
  • Play with confidence. This doesn’t always mean loud, by the way. Don’t be a passenger, waiting for the other players to start or stop playing. Lead your section of one during this kind of practice. Then in rehearsal, keep the confidence but allow your principal to guide the attacks and releases in the phrase. Cross reference this against what your standpartner is doing. This is how a section sound is formed. If you’re the principal, be very clear about what you want from your cohorts.
  • Monitor your technique during a run through of a long piece. Is it relaxed? Are you getting tired? There is never a bad time to pay attention to fundamentals.
  • Count in your head. The whole. Dang. Time. If not beat numbers, at least maintain the pulse. It is very obvious when someone stops feeling the pulse: the music starts to sag or run downhill thoughtlessly. It’s not rewarding to listen to and scares the hell out of people who have a zillion notes to play. I once saw a flutist take an actual swing at a percussionist who’d driven the tempo to a point where he could hardly get the notes of his solo out. Sadly, the flutist missed.

While this post is geared towards musicians in an ensemble, it is easily adaptable for solo instrumentalists. Knowing a piece by sight, physical sensation, by ear, and by memory is an immensely rewarding process: one that also becomes second nature with time. Many adult students lament their late start, and point to it as cause for their lack of progress or skill. And indeed, there is no surrogate for time spent honing your craft. But what you don’t have in years spent, you more than make up for in potential for sophistication in approach. This is not the way I was learning pieces as a young orchestral musician. It took years of trial, error…make than many, many errors…to develop an approach that would get results as close to watertight as possible. So take this, dear friends, and run with it. This is what the long road looks like, and it is time very well spent.



Featured image: the incomparably ridiculous, laughing until I cry hysterically silly masterpiece by John Stump, if that’s even his real name.

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