“They look like a fucking Mahler symphony”–Marking Parts

Some string teachers have parts to the standard and not-so-standard repertoire marked with detailed fingerings, bowings, and, sometimes, added dynamics and even rubato markings.  These parts are given to students to photocopy, or, in earlier times, to serve as a source to painstakingly copy, like a pre-Gutenburg monk working with a Bible.  Apt simile, because it does give the teacher an at least temporary god-like status.

If the teacher is famous enough, then his or her markings are put into performance editions.  Leonard Rose, Ivan Galamian, and Janos Starker come immediately to mind–each have well-known performance editions.  Bernard Greenhouse had parts one could borrow and photocopy (most of those parts now reside in the amazing cello collection at the University of North Carolina Greensboro).  Like Starker’s, they were/are full of ingenious fingerings, some which work well for me, some which don’t. (The Rose editions from IMC are often idiosyncratic;  his fingerings sometimes only made sense to me when I saw him play them.  And sometimes the ones that don’t make sense just don’t–they are misprints.)

Pablo Casals and Gregor Piatigorsky, both giants of generations younger than Rose or Starker, did not edit performance editions, because their interpretations were often changing, with fingerings and bowings evolving.  When I studied with Stephen Kates, he not only did not have set fingerings and bowings, he also was always having me continually experiment with alternatives, and did a lot of experimenting himself in my lessons.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.  Having studied with Kates and before him with another Piatigorsky student, Denis Brott, I got hooked on creatively re-imagining a piece each time I played it (and this makes my later excursion into improvisation all the more understandable). So I don’t have parts with set fingerings and bowings, and quite often my students wish I did;  the process of experimentation can be exasperating and confusing to a young person who just wants something to play well. And who resents having so much responsibility thrust upon him or her self.  It’s a good question–how much responsibility should a student have to take for coming up with fingerings and bowings and at what point in the student’s development?

All this brings me to conductor Kenneth Wood’s recent post on the value of conductors having and marking their own sets of parts.  A symphony orchestra cannot experiment in a free-for-all-way. While a great conductor manages to incorporate and empower the unique voices of (especially) the solo players in the orchestra, and can be affected by the energy and culture of the ensemble, (s)he needs a strong vision.  The stronger the musical vision, the better.  The group needs to be led, not only facilitated (although I believe great conductors both lead and facilitate, a distinction I’ll explore in anther post).  Detailed bowings, phrase markings, and other directions in the parts make the process of realizing the conductor’s vision immensely easier.  Ken writes about being told early in his conducting life that all conductors should have their own sets of parts and how overwhelming and financially impossible this seemed to him.

However, over the years, I noted that, indeed, many of my senior colleagues did have their own libraries, meticulously edited and marked, which they sent around the world wherever they conducted. Of course, my former teacher, David Zinman, earned a great deal of press recognition for his early recording of the Jonathan Del Mar edition of the Beethoven symphonies. When we had the opportunity to ask him at Aspen about the use of the new edition, he informed us that he had used his own set of parts which he had prepared for this project, and that they were so marked up that not much of Del Mar’s work could still be seen. “They look like a fucking Mahler symphony,” was his typically short reply.

Ken points out that, for example, while Thomas Beecham famously used little rehearsal time, he had detailed sets of parts from which the orchestras he conducted played.  In his post, Ken explores the necessity, the drudgery, the expense, and perhaps most importantly, the musical growth that comes from acquiring and editing one’s own orchestral parts.

(By the way, Ken’s blog is one of the most interesting I read on a regular basis.  And how he manages to write so much, so often, while keeping such a busy schedule, often leaves me uncomprehendingly awestruck.)

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2 responses to ““They look like a fucking Mahler symphony”–Marking Parts

  1. Aw shucks, Eric, you’re way too kind, but thanks for the link and the comments, but especially for the excellent title of your post.

    Hope all is well there!

    I grew to rather detest the way some teachers impose their fingers on students to the extent that they never learn to figure things out for themselves, and often end up with tendonitis trying to exectue something that only fits a different sized hand.

    Fred Sherry was the most helpful fingering guy I ever studied with. The first time I play for him in a masterclass, he made me play all the gnarliest passages with as many fingers as I could come with on the spot. When I gave up around 10, he’d come up with as many more. That’s teaching analysis and problem solving, as opposed to imitation and hero worship. Bravo you for teaching your students to think for themselves.

    Of course, I’ve copied many of my teacher’s parts over the years, which has become a priceless library, but in the end, I learn my rep from clean parts and don’t mark fingers or bowings in solo music at all.

    Be well!

    Ken

  2. “So I don’t have parts with set fingerings and bowings, and quite often my students wish I did”

    I used to sometimes (ok, maybe often) get so annoyed when you couldn’t give me a “standard” fingering or bowing. Never was frustrated with that though. I realize that it was more my own laziness that contributed to the annoyance factor–sometimes I just didn’t want to have to work out a fingering or bowing on my own!

    Now that I think about it–and since you mention the connection yourself–that has probably helped ease my way into improvisation as well.

    I think having that openness can be good for developing ease and being comfortable in any playing situation. It sometimes can get in the way to have a set way of fingering or bowing–you don’t seem to have to fret so much if either gets “off” while in a performing situation.

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