In Defense of the Clean Part

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I recently noted a link to an article by hornist extraordinaire Jeff Nelsen,

Feel free to read his entire article first, but this is the key quote I will focus upon in my response:

Recently I coached a student on some excerpts, and he didn’t have marks on his part. I am someone who aggressively urges people to mark their parts. I use a red pen….

I told this student that when I see someone playing excerpts for an audition off of a clean part, I thank him for training so lamely. I think, “Thank you for getting out of my way and letting me get the gig!” This student went, “ohhhhh, ouch! Okay, I get it now!” Fast-forward to the next lesson…no markings on his parts, again. After teaching at IU full-time for the past 7 years, I am still shocked when I see this but sadly no longer surprised.

The topic seems to touch on a pet peeve of Nelsen. As much as I like and respect Jeff, this topic touches on a pet peeve for me as well and I would respectfully take an opposing viewpoint.

I like a clean part and I think for auditions especially you really need to be used to playing off a clean part. Markings can be a tool, sure, but also they are a crutch.

For a first, quick example, one time among the many professional orchestral auditions I took (27 in total–more on that in this article) the entire first horn part of the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony was requested. I would have liked to have written in a bunch of fingerings as I was using my descant, but instead I had to really learn it and remember/internalize everything. Everything! That included the descant fingerings and breathing, dynamics, etc. Essentially the part was close to memorized by the end of the preparation, but I could play it on demand from a clean part.

At auditions the music will be on the stand and it will most likely be a clean part from a standard edition of the work, with possibly some “foreign” markings you did not make. For auditions I strongly feel you are safest getting really used to the clean part in your practice for the reason it will look the most like the part that will be put on your stand at the audition.

Extending out a bit further on orchestral music, when you look at a set of parts it will be immediately clear if a pro group played from them or if students played from them. Students write in different things and professionals a lot less in general.

People are visual in different ways and have different visual styles. I have had a number of students that mark parts more than me, and more power to them! But as to me, a bunch of markings gets distracting.

I never ever use colors and never use ink. What I do mark lightly in pencil is very simple for the most part, especially in large ensemble works. Breath marks; notations about time signatures (“in 2”); cues to help with entrances and counting; notations about transposition changes; alterations of dynamics or articulations as needed or requested; etc.

Pretty much the only actual words I will write in are “count” and also occasionally random things some conductor said but more for the humor of it than to act upon it. I was reminded by a successor in the Nashville Symphony that I had for example written in a comment about a “giant cosmic accordion.” It was a conductor quote. For entertainment value only, not an action item.

Turning finally to solo literature, I again feel there is a strong benefit to the clean part. Sometimes it is just time to start over. I know that often college level teachers will suggest that students coming back to Strauss 1 (which they probably learned, with issues, in high school) use a new part to get a new perspective. Myself, there was a point where I lost my original copy of Strauss 2 that had all the markings from lessons with Verne Reynolds. I was sad for a time but then realized it was a blessing. The markings he made on that music carried with them emotional baggage. It was time to move on, and I have enjoyed rethinking my interpretation with students.

Mozart-3-snipAlso, it should be noted that some solo editions, especially of Mozart, are just bad editions. I encourage students to become comfortable ignoring the strange staccato marks and low dynamics rather than mark them all out. Make the music happen!

The bigger picture goal of all of this (major excerpts and solos) is that you should be able to play them correctly from memory if it is actually completely prepared. That is the ultimate clean part. You become free from doing the markings for visual reasons, instead just making the music sound as you visualized it in your head. This is especially helpful if later in some audition the librarian accidentally pulled transposed parts out for the audition! If you are really reading the part still it will throw you off, but if you have it essentially memorized already you can adjust. I can easily play any standard excerpt from memory to this day.

Again, this article is not about picking a fight with Nelsen but it is in defense of the clean part. I like clean parts. If it better suits your visual style to have a clean part don’t be apologetic, and even if many markings do suit your visual style try to internalize things and get away from making excessive marks in your music.

UPDATE: Be sure to click on the comments tab below, as there is a very thoughtful reply from Jeff Nelsen.

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