Make Your Mark, Use Your Pencil Wisely

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A guide to marking your music with tender loving care.

One of the most important tools to have at a music rehearsal is a pencil. It is required to mark the music with indicators that are unique to your performance. These markings can be anything from simple reminders to more complex, interpretative markings. They can be added as dictated by the group leader or as a personal choice to help you perform better.

Pencil holding clips are common and are widely available. With a pencil clip on my horn, I have a pencil at every rehearsal without even thinking about it. Bottom line – there is no good excuse for not having a pencil at a rehearsal. It is as important as bringing your instrument, your music and your mute. Marking, editing and “customizing” the music is a one of the basic responsibilities of being a working musician. To forget a pencil to a rehearsal is to be an irresponsible musician.

It is a great tool, but a pencil is very easy to abuse; discretion should be observed. Sheet music that belongs to others should always be treated with respect – whether it is from an orchestra, a library or from a friend. Many times I have taken music home from the opera or symphony to erase manic scribbles and scrawlings made by previous users. While scribbling may be a great catharsis for the scribbler, for the next person that uses the same part it can be disconcerting. For example, I always erase penciled comments like “count!” (as in count your measures rest at this spot), “don’t rush!!” and “watch!!!” by default.

At this point, I must admit to a special loathing for compulsive circling.

For example, I once received an opera part with so many circles on every page that the music itself was not readable beyond the markings. What circumstance, I wondered, merited marking the music to this degree? It was like of form of vandalism. They might as well have written in black marker in large letters “I AM VERY UNHAPPY AND HATE MY MUSIC.”

This is a very extreme example, but it does bring up a relevant issue. Some musicians obligate themselves to circle every little thing in their music that bothers them. Whether the marking is helpful or not seems irrelevant. All that matters is some psychological urge to point something out and circle it.

On a deeper level, circles like this can telegraph a subliminal message that says “don’t mess up here!” This is not a very positive message and I personally avoid making circles around specific trouble-spots for this very reason. Besides, over-marking a part with careless gusto is in effect defacing it and beyond that, it does not really help to inspire better performances.

With that preface in mind, markings used wisely can be a big help. I personally avoid, whenever possible, specific words to mark my music; I prefer abstract symbols. In my mind, word directions can be a distraction and can take away my focus.

Some of the most common symbols that many professional musicians use are illustrated below.

The horizontal arrow pointing right – move ahead, accelerando, or stay on top of the beat.

The horizontal arrow pointing left – relax, rallentando, or as a replacement for “don’t rush.”

The vertical arrow pointing up or down – an intonation indicator, play that note low(er) or high(er).

Sometimes (especially in opera and music theater) a cut in the music is required. An arrow indicating the cut can be helpful.

This symbol means watch the conductor. A special circumstance may make this passage different at every performance. In opera for example, this usually means a spot where a singer is taking special liberties and every night it may be different.

The “Squiggly”:
An indication of rubato where the tempo will fluctuate within a measure or over several measures.

“Railroad Tracks”:
A complete stop or a grand pause. This can either be a for special circumstance that is not printed in the music, or as a reminder of a grand pause that is already printed.

Accidental or note name reminders:
Written above the note, this reminder can help with clarify a note. I generally write enharmonic equivalents for notes that are double-sharped or double-flatted. For example, for a B-double-sharp I would write a small “C#” above the note.

If I need to practice a certain section of music, I draw a small star in the corner of the page as a reminder for later use. This is an excellent alternative to drawing circles.

Transposition reminders:
Sometimes I get a little confused with Italian and French transpositions and I need to mark them in English. Sometimes transpositions change so often within a composition that is it easy to lose track of what key you are in. A reminder written in the outside column or before the entrance helps. So that I do not confuse the letter name with a specific note, I always add the prefix “in,” as in “in C” or “in B-flat.”

Odd Meter, 2+3 or 3+2
With composite meters, the patterns can be divided into different groupings. A conductor will beat these patterns accordingly. Adding slashes and triangles above these barred patterns matching the conductor’s beat pattern is often helpful.

Inserts/Page Turns:
Taped inserts, or measures written into lower or upper corners on the music can facilitate an otherwise impossible page turn. With borrowed parts this is preferable to cut pages into segments or risking tearing the page in a panicked flurry to turn the page and make the next entrance.

Breath Marks – V and BB:
I like to make a symbol that looks like a letter “V” for breath marks. It is quicker to write than the typical breath mark that resembles a comma. In some instances where I need a reminder to take a big breath, I write “BB” as an abbreviation for “big breath.”

Markings to avoid:

Colored pencil or pen.

This is a big no-no. All marks should be in the standard no. 2 erasable pencil. Any inerasable markings in a rental part will cost the ensemble renting the music a fee. Even in non-rental music, all markings should be erasable. One musician’s medicine may be another’s poison, so to speak, and the choice to erase a marking should always be an option.

Fingerings and transposition note-by-note.

Occasionally it helps to write in a single note name or special fingering (

especially for stopped notes within a transposition), but as a rule writing in all the note names is not a good idea. If a transposition is that confusing, it should be transcribed on staff paper and used as an insert.

Treat your music with respect and make your pencil markings with tender loving care. The point of marking your part is to help you perform better – exercise caution and restraint. However, if the music must be heavily marked, making a practice copy is a great idea. Mark up this copy to your heart’s content and use it instead of the original part.

The music librarian will thank you.

University of Horn Matters