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Hello everyone-

Yesterday I was asked to start a discussion about the notation checklist I posted within another thread.  So here it is:

Notation Checklist

Back in 2000, I had three lessons with a well-known composer who lives and teaches nearby.   We didn't discuss any music in those lessons, but our discussions changed my life!

My teacher described a piece he had just judged for an international competition.  "It was the best piece of music I've seen in years, but we had to disqualify it because of the composer's lack of understanding the rules of notation."  He then said we were going to have a series of lessons on notation.  I was aghast - I couldn't imagine anything duller or less inspiring.  But I stayed the course, listened and took notes.  A few weeks later and almost a thousand dollars poorer, I realized how little I had been taught, even with my degrees in theory and composition.

My teacher related several horror stories of composers going broke because they had to pay overtime for orchestras or chamber groups, to "explain their scores".   He said that a composer usually gets one and only one rehearsal with professional groups and if there are any questions about the score itself, there is no time left to play the music.  The music needs to be of the highest quality - but the best musicians won't even look at it if the notation is poor.  I decided back then to commit myself and my students to learning all we can about notation and to care enough about our music and our performers to make our scores perfect in all ways!

I began creating the Notation Checklist from those fateful lessons almost thirteen years ago, and have added to it since from my own experiences working with performers and teaching composition.   Please feel free to make suggestions for additions to the list. 

--- Julie

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This is a great idea Julie, thanks for sharing it with us! :)

I am pretty sure composers of the past followed that advice. I don't think we have any scores in Bachs own hand, and if you try reading Beethoven's hand you'll propably go insane.


Raymond Kemp said:

Julie,
Here is an answer to that problem about overtime rates etc. I know for a fact, quite a few well paid composers simply send their music to an orchestrator who maybe doesn't have the same imagination but earns his corn never the less.
Collaboration is key to many success stories.
Ok this will probably be falling on deaf ears in the teaching fraternity.
Keep up the good work, keep teaching the teachers.

Raymond Kemp said:

I know for a fact, quite a few well paid composers simply send their music to an orchestrator who maybe doesn't have the same imagination but earns his corn never the less.
Collaboration is key to many success stories.
Well, these orchestrators must come from SOMEWHERE... might as well be failed composers with a knack for making stuff comprehensible. :)

I think we're talking about two different things here. 

I teach mostly young composers, although I do have one over seventy and one over eighty-five.  The youngest is four.  The most prolific is now nine - he conducted a professional group of woodwinds and strings premiering his five movement chamber piece at seven.  The ten year old is rehearsing her string quartet with symphony players next week.  The fourteen year old is leaving next month to enter Juilliard pre-college.  The seventeen year old has been commissioned by her church choir to write choral pieces for their Sunday services.  These kids are real live composers who are in love with music and in love with learning.  They can't hire orchestrators or editors, nor would they dream of doing so!   They want to learn every aspect of writing music, not how to hum a tune and hire it out to someone who knows how to write it down.  This checklist was for them, and the only reason I posted it is because another member asked me to.  For those who don't like this kind of thing, just ignore it!  That's easy ...

And we do have over 8,000 pages of manuscripts in Bach's original hand, which is clear and flowing, imminently readable and looks like a work of art.  My nine year old adores those scores and keeps a copy by his bed at night - when he was six, he would labor over one note, making sure it was "pretty enough" for his mentor, Bach.  Of course he uses Sibelius and Finale now, but he hasn't forgotten the thrill of a beautiful score.   Everyone in my studio drools over Per Norgard's scores - I keep one on my lamp table for folks to look through - even the parents love it!   Those of us who like to perfect a score do it because we love the journey as much as the destination.

But ... please feel free to ignore the checklist!   Paul McCartney can't read or write music, and "Yesterday" is a holy relic in my book.  To each his own ...

It's important to know how to write a descent score, no objections with that. But the idea of an editor, even if that is your teacher, is not bad, in mind at least. Anyway.

On your list now, you should add a point for piano pedalling. For me, the score should specify if I am to use pedal or not, and avoid puding pedal marks all over the place, unless the pedal at that point *must* be there. I'm not explaining it properly but you'll propably understand. Also, still for piano scores, please restrain from too many expression marks, unless those are also *absolutely* needed and usually most are not. It can make an easy score a huge pain to sight read and later on learn. I have a copy of Bach's french suites- they have so many marks on them I have abandonned reading them because of how unejoyable it is. It would certainly discourage me from learning a new, unknown piece of music. 

Phrasing that is the same throughout (like the left hand on a nocturne) could be ommited after the first few bars, for me at least, to make things slightly clearer.

also, as a player, I am much more used to cres. and dim. instead of < and > and I find that a bit more legible.

By the way, the bach manuscripts (by his own hand) are far from "good looking". Any good looking hand written scores I've seen are usually either from his family members or a copyist. 


Julie Harris said:

I think we're talking about two different things here. 

I teach mostly young composers, although I do have one over seventy and one over eighty-five.  The youngest is four.  The most prolific is now nine - he conducted a professional group of woodwinds and strings premiering his five movement chamber piece at seven.  The ten year old is rehearsing her string quartet with symphony players next week.  The fourteen year old is leaving next month to enter Juilliard pre-college.  The seventeen year old has been commissioned by her church choir to write choral pieces for their Sunday services.  These kids are real live composers who are in love with music and in love with learning.  They can't hire orchestrators or editors, nor would they dream of doing so!   They want to learn every aspect of writing music, not how to hum a tune and hire it out to someone who knows how to write it down.  This checklist was for them, and the only reason I posted it is because another member asked me to.  For those who don't like this kind of thing, just ignore it!  That's easy ...

And we do have over 8,000 pages of manuscripts in Bach's original hand, which is clear and flowing, imminently readable and looks like a work of art.  My nine year old adores those scores and keeps a copy by his bed at night - when he was six, he would labor over one note, making sure it was "pretty enough" for his mentor, Bach.  Of course he uses Sibelius and Finale now, but he hasn't forgotten the thrill of a beautiful score.   Everyone in my studio drools over Per Norgard's scores - I keep one on my lamp table for folks to look through - even the parents love it!   Those of us who like to perfect a score do it because we love the journey as much as the destination.

But ... please feel free to ignore the checklist!   Paul McCartney can't read or write music, and "Yesterday" is a holy relic in my book.  To each his own ...

Hello Spiros-

Thanks so much for your great suggestions for additions, especially regarding pedal markings.  I work closely with a concert pianist who records my piano music, and twelve years ago I especially asked him about pedal markings.  He prefers no pedal markings at all, except in situations where a particular kind of pedaling is essential and/or counter-intuitive.  He says that phrasing and articulation and a knowledge of the music should be more than enough for the experienced pianist to use correct pedaling.  He goes on to say that pedal markings should only be used for color, never for phrasing or to achieve a legato.  On the music he commissions from me, therefore, I just put "with pedal" at the beginning of pieces that use normal pedaling.  When I want a dry section I indicate "no pedal", then return to "with pedal" when needed.  On one piece, which is a study in overtones, I simply mark that the pedal should remain down throughout.  This method of marking makes him very happy.  I don't know if other pianists would love or hate this method.  What's your feeling about this?

I'm so glad you brought up this subject, because it's always a point of confusion and sometimes contention among composers.  Here's what the master of the pedal had to say - I don't mind having Debussy as my mentor!!

"Pedaling was very important in the playing of Debussy.  Debussy marked however almost never any pedaling in the score.  According to Dumesnil, he gave a reason for this:

'Pedaling cannot be written down,' he explained.  'It varies from one instrument to another, from one room, or one hall to another.'  
[Nichols p. 162] "

Do other members have ideas about pedal and pedal markings?

Thanks for posting this Julie. It's great for to have these resources available to help us make our music better and able to be shared with others.

Julie, Debussy is absolutely correct. Pedaling also varies from one performer to another, because, as your pianist says, the pedal is an expression tool among others, and since everyone has a different idea about interpretation, each pianist will use it differently. 

I agree with your pianist and I think most pianists would agree with those points and guidelines. I'd start refining them and adding them to the list.
Julie Harris said:

Hello Spiros-

Thanks so much for your great suggestions for additions, especially regarding pedal markings.  I work closely with a concert pianist who records my piano music, and twelve years ago I especially asked him about pedal markings.  He prefers no pedal markings at all, except in situations where a particular kind of pedaling is essential and/or counter-intuitive.  He says that phrasing and articulation and a knowledge of the music should be more than enough for the experienced pianist to use correct pedaling.  He goes on to say that pedal markings should only be used for color, never for phrasing or to achieve a legato.  On the music he commissions from me, therefore, I just put "with pedal" at the beginning of pieces that use normal pedaling.  When I want a dry section I indicate "no pedal", then return to "with pedal" when needed.  On one piece, which is a study in overtones, I simply mark that the pedal should remain down throughout.  This method of marking makes him very happy.  I don't know if other pianists would love or hate this method.  What's your feeling about this?

I'm so glad you brought up this subject, because it's always a point of confusion and sometimes contention among composers.  Here's what the master of the pedal had to say - I don't mind having Debussy as my mentor!!

"Pedaling was very important in the playing of Debussy.  Debussy marked however almost never any pedaling in the score.  According to Dumesnil, he gave a reason for this:

'Pedaling cannot be written down,' he explained.  'It varies from one instrument to another, from one room, or one hall to another.'  
[Nichols p. 162] "

Do other members have ideas about pedal and pedal markings?

Thanks for sharing Julie. 

Have you ever seen this before? 

There are people who not satisfied with traditional western music notation. One of their reason is difficulty of reading traditional notation. So they start to make a new method. I had a conversation with some theorists. After a long discussion, we found that the traditional notation could be very difficult to read; but none of us think that making a new notation method is the best solution. So we tried to analyze (just a small experiment) to find an answer why traditional notation is hard to read for some people...etc. - and then we concluded that we have to find best learning method as simple as possible. We can't say "Don't" to someone who want to write what they want, even they try to notating the nature with traditional notation; the score will be so complicated. We need best learning method to understand the notation, making a new method like on the picture above is just give us another difficulty problem. 

The Notation Checklist you shared to us is a very good idea and helpful, not just for composers who have to evaluate their score, but also for student, so they can learn how to make a good, neat and easy-to-read score, no matter how complicated their music is. And when they have to dealing with complicated score, they could analyze or even simplify the score first through the Notation Checklist before they play it. 

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Another story: Julie, when I compose using a software, sometimes I put some notes for multiple instruments as harmony (chord) not in the right place. For example: I arrange notes (each note on different staff) to be a chord C with C F G and it's not easy to hear this kind of mistake with the playback device because they were all blend in an orchestration, so I always recheck the position of notes after the score finished. Could we add this to Notation Checklist..? 

Thanks. 

Hey Ronald-

Wow, that is so interesting!  I had never seen the demo of a new notation - whew!   And that's just "My Bonnie".  I can't imagine something like Carmina Burana written in this style!!

I agree - our notation method, as it has evolved over many centuries, is complex and maddening at times, but I'd have a hard time imaging anything better. One of my adult students wants to rewrite a Mozart sonata in graphics, placing the notes on the horizontal rather than the vertical plane.  He says that would show you exactly when to go "up"  (to the right) and "down" (to the left).   I see what he means, but whew!   It would only make sense for piano anyway.   "Up" means something totally different on a clarinet or a trumpet .. not to even mention harp, with its pedals or a natural horn, with nothing except the performer's embouchure and the good old harmonic series .   Good grief!!!   We musicians have to know a LOT to just make a few sounds!!!   ;-)    

I personally would be happy to keep our notation method but have all instruments written in the same key!   Writing for all the transposing instruments and reading full orchestra scores is something that's hard to teach to the kids -- they thought they had become experts when they mastered G, F and C clefs!   Oh well, this is why we're so lucky to be in a field where you can never get bored - there is always something else to learn.

I really like your suggestion of actually checking the score for the correct notes!   I'm not sure how to phrase that, but I'll try to figure out the best way to say it succinctly.   Any ideas?   "Double check each line for correct notes" ... would that make sense?    Thanks so much for your input.

Julie,

 

A few possible additions to your list (all learned the hard way!!)

 

     1) Check any dotted rhythms (should it be written with a tie?) to ensure readability.

     2) Slurs and ties combined, check anchor points.

     3) Repeat entire list with each individual part.  Don't assume the notation program did it correctly.

         Take extra care with transposing instruments.  Make sure the transposed part is still playable.

     4) Have a second person repeat the entire list for you.

     5) Have an actual player review each part for readability and playability.

 

Fortunately or unfortunately, notation programs are making music engraving a lost art.  It's easy for anyone to create a beautiful score, but editing still has to be done meticulously prior to presenting to a group to play or read.

 

Tim

Your student might have a market for re-notating piano music as you mentioned.

I had great difficulty learning to read music, and after many decades, still have issues. I can only describe it as "notation dyslexia". Because of this, learning piano has been almost impossible, as I gravitated toward instruments with only one line of notation (like flute).  When I went to college for a music degree, in my 40s, I knew additional practice was not the answer, as is the typical solution suggested by some instructors. Fortunately, I had  a couple of instructors who dug a little deeper for workarounds. My flute teacher recommended the book, A Soprano on Her Head, where I first heard about changing the orientation of piano music (very helpful!). Unfortunately, there is the laborious practice of having to make copies of the music in order to change the orientation (most music won't stay on the stand when turned), and it's hard to read text sideways!

For me, I still try to read in the "normal" way for piano (since I don't turn flute music sideways), and memorize a piano piece as fast as I can, as reading is almost painful. Memorizing piano music is much easier than reading it! (Flute music is easier to read when copied onto colored paper. )

Interestingly though (to me), I proof read/edit scores quite well, as in the "engraving" sense. I can spot if notes need respelling, anything out of alignment, items touching each other, space around notes/elements, etc.

Julie Harris said:


One of my adult students wants to rewrite a Mozart sonata in graphics, placing the notes on the horizontal rather than the vertical plane.  He says that would show you exactly when to go "up"  (to the right) and "down" (to the left).   I see what he means, but whew!   It would only make sense for piano anyway. 

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