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Piece for String Orchestra: Standard Notation and Readability for Live Players and Conductor

Hi. I would appreciate help vetting the attached score of a piece I've written for string orchestra. It's inspired by the soundtracks from various fantasy films. Specifically, I'm looking for help with the notation. I have the opportunity to have this performed by an ensemble in town and would like to standardize/clean up the notation and engraving as much as possible. Please let me know if you have any suggestions. I've also attached an mp3 from Sibelius. The audio is pretty rough, but will give you the idea. I've only included the conductor's score, but will also adjust the individual parts accordingly.

I appreciate your help. ~ Bryan

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First off, it's a nice piece.  There are some nice ideas and harmonic movement.

As to the score;

Scores should be done in portrait format, not landscape.

On the title page, keep the instrumentation more compact.  You have strings, piano, harp, percussion and oboe.  Create a page 2 to break out the actual parts.

On the first page of music the layout should be in traditional score order.  Also, oboe is not a percussion instrument.  It should have it's own staff in the score (I would leave out the solo designation, you only have one, and it's not the featured instrument of the piece).  Piano and Harp should each have their own staves. 

On page 1, the percussion parts should indicate what instruments each has to play (This should also be shown on the instrumentation page).  On subsequent systems you can stay with perc 1 and perc 2.  You may want to review the perc parts to make sure each player has time to prepare for the new instrument.  At Rehearsal G, you have a player moving to tam-tam, without time to "warm-up" the instrument.

At rehearsal B, the viola solo should either be included on the viola staff and marked solo or given it's own staff for the duration of the solo.  Also, you have the solo marked as muted, yet at a louder dynamic than the rest of the orchestra.  You might want to reconsider this as it could create an inherent balance problem.

Unless you are writing for a special effect (brass fade while strings swell to take over etc.), all dynamic markings should be the same.  Again, at B the second time through, let the conductor determine the balance. 

Chord progression on the bottom is not needed. 

Technical instructions such as divisi and unison go above the staff, expression instructions go below.

Check throughout the score and make sure there are no collisions.  Don't rely on the notation program to catch them all.

Unless you are sure about harp pedaling, I would leave it out.  (The player will probably change it anyway.)

That's what I saw on first glance.  Hope this helps and good luck getting the performance.  Please post a recording of it if possible when it happens.

Hi Tim,

Thank you for taking the time to look through the piece and provide constructive and detailed feedback. It's really a great help. Much of what you suggested rings true to me, and I will make the changes. I also appreciate your kind words about the ideas that are in the music. It's nice to feel validated sometimes.

I am only wondering about what you said regarding adding extra staves. Is it preferable, for example, to have an oboe staff that's empty for 90% of the piece and if so, does that mean I should write more oboe lines in the rest of the piece to make it seem less awkward? (I guess this same question applies to the harp, which I'm currently only using for one section). I have the score in landscape because there aren't enough staves to justify a portrait layout, but that would be different if I added several lines and/or put two systems per page.


The first system should show a staff for every instrument.  Starting in the second system, you can hide the unused staffs.  The oboe staff can be hidden until the system where it is actually used.  Doing this is a decision you can make.  Some hide staves, others show each system identically even if it's filled with rests.  Either option is acceptable.

Look for Greg Brus' last music post.  He does a good job of hiding staves and spacing the systems on the page to create an attractive score.  I personally like the score to show each staff so that the pages stay consistent.  Again, either choice is  OK.

The score should be in portrait.  You can reduce the systems so that two or more fit on a page as long as it is still of a readable size if there aren't enough to fill a page.  (Think of the conductor reading the score from a podium desk.)

Okay Tim. I'll see what I can do. I'm not the most proficient in Sibelius but this gives me a chance to explore some of  formatting options and learn the software better. Now that I've really sat back and thought about it, it's amazing to me how I was creating the score originally for use as a reference when doing a digital orchestration and not really thinking about the many considerations of a live performance. This has been a good learning experience.

Thank you. That's a good question. I suppose the reason I chose piano is because I'm familiar with it and play it fairly well. I don't see any reason why it couldn't be harp all the way through, except for the fact that I'm much less comfortable writing for harp and there are a few passages where the piano plays more of a percussive role. But I think you're right in the sense that for a live performance, it's probably better to have a fully-formed part for one instrument rather than two half-parts for two. Is that part of what you were wondering about?


Fredrick zinos said:

Its quite pleasant in my opinion, but  wonder why you think you need the piano? Do you think that what the piano plays might be more effective in a harp?.

Thank you, Mr. Zinos. I'll definitely check those pieces out and give it a good thinking through before I continue editing the score. Vaughn-Williams is one of my favorite composers and I always learn a lot from studying his work.

There is an oboe/viola duet the second time through at rehearsal mark B. It is notated on the Percussion I staff because I didn't want to create a new one for that short section. When I redo the score as suggested by Tim, I'm going to create separate staves and hide/show them as needed.


I've uploaded updated versions of the score and crude mp3 file. Please let me know if this addresses the issues you identified or any other thoughts you may have. I think it's looking a lot better, more professional and finished.



Looking better!

There are still some issues, so I hope you don't mind my comments, but I know you wanted this to look as good as possible.

I like the format much better now.  The tabloid size with 2 systems/page makes it very readable.

Title page- The title should be in quotes as well as italics. (This isn't done with generic titles such as symphony or concerto, etc.)  You could even make it a larger font.  There's plenty of space available.

Instrumentation page- Take out solo from the oboe and viola.  The oboist is not the featured player nor is the violist, as this designation implies.  The viola solo will more than likely be played by the principle violist and the oboe is a small part of the piece.  Take out the distribution from the strings.  Unless you have a reason, the ensemble has the distribution.  I didn't see a harp part in the score?  You can leave the composer name off this page, and balance the text vertically. 

Page 1- Again, the title should be in quotes.  The first system needs a staff for the oboe.  You can hide it after, but it needs to appear at the start.  I wouldn't box the percussion parts on the left.  The boxes within the score are up to you.

measure 10-11, you have the bass going from arco to pizz.  I don't know if this is possible that quickly.

Letter B- designate the viola staff as a solo staff (Solo Vla.).  I think here is where you changed the harp to piano, so you don't need the pedaling (take out the change in mm 29 and 32 as well).  Watch for collisions in your dynamics (oboe m20).  Also unless necessary, don't let your hairpins slant.  The key change should occur after the barline, not before.

m52- divisi in cello?

I think you need to revisit your percussion going into letter G.  You have perc 2 going from snare to sus cym to tam in what amounts to 6-7 seconds at the marked tempi.  The changes are not possible for 1 player. Then you have perc 1 go to sus cymbal and back to chimes.  This one is possible, but?  The tam needs time to be warmed up.  The player will basically rub the beater around the plate to start the vibrations before striking.  This takes time not allowed in the part.  (Perhaps use a third player to split the perc 2 part?)

The copyright notice only needs to appear on the first page of music.  The title should be centered at the top of each page. (Again, italics with quotes)

Personally, I'm not big on the large time signatures as opposed to each staff, but that's a personal choice.

Hopefully, this helps.  In my opinion, the score is how we communicate our intent and ideas, therefore, should be as complete and clear as possible.  I've been spending a lot of time redoing my scores in an effort to make them better, so I know what you're going through.


PS  Don't forget that the parts need the same attention to detail as well.

Tim is good at covering just about everything (and usually much more), so I'll only mention two things.

First - I would probably drop the repeats on pages 3-4. So many things change on 2nd pass that going back is basically unnecessary. It's not like you have to conserve pages at all cost, and this clutter of stuff that only occurs after the repeat is pretty confusing. Especially when you print the parts.

Second - I guess it's up to you, but myself, I'm not a big fan of "Percussion 1 / 2" kind of staves. A good example why is page 7 - look at Percussion 2 line; should you remember what instrument it is, then it's all right, but if you do forget, you have to go two pages back to figure out that it's actually a tambourine. Score should be as easy and effortless to read as possible. Separate staves for each percussion instrument (and then lots of hiding of empty ones) is much cleaner to the conductor, imo.

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