Monthly Archives: March 2013

How To Make Parts: Circles

Luciano Berio’s landmark 1960 piece Circles is one of the most problematic scores I’ve encountered. It isn’t especially difficult to play, but the printed music is completely unusable, at least for the two percussionists. As you can see from the diagram below, the percussionists are more or less surrounded by instruments:


So to accommodate the setup, each percussionist must have several stations of music to facilitate reading. Some pages of music should be next to the xylophone, some next to the vibraphone, etc. To make matters worse, there are of course no parts for this piece, only a score. Here is what we are dealing with:

My favorite part is the 50% negative space.

My favorite part is the 50% negative space.

I first played Circles when I was 24. Back then, I wasn’t quite as adroit at part making as I am now, and this is what I came up with:


…and for perspective…


Also, because of the aforementioned set-up issues, I had to make two of those. I think it took three full days to complete. That’s three full days cutting up paper and gluing it to poster board, then taping those pieces of poster board together. The parts I made were problematic for a number of reasons. First of all, your sheet music should not be more difficult to carry around than your vibraphone. More importantly though, the audience doesn’t want the performers to be hidden behind such monstrosities.

I’m about to play Circles again at the upcoming Fromm Concerts at Harvard. I suppose I could have used my old parts, but I knew I could do better this time because now I have a system that works.

This requires somewhat of a digression. The ideal part for me is coil bound (NOT COMB BOUND. Sure it is cheaper, but it sucks.) with protective front and back covers. This will make for durable parts with pages that are easy to turn. Until recently, I had to go to copy shops to get this done, which anyone who has bothered to read this much about this subject knows is a giant pain in the ass. Your average copy shop worker has no knowledge or interest in the intricacies of printed music, and why should they? After a series of bad experiences, I became determined to eliminate Kinko’s from my life.

My initial research was discouraging. The machines that punch oversized paper for coil binding cost at least $400. I have no intention of making that kind of investment in a hole puncher. I was ready to give up when I found, which sells pre-punched coil binding paper. It is a little more expensive than normal paper would be, but after doing the math I figured out that I would have to buy 6,000 pieces of pre-punched paper before it became more expensive than just buying a hole punch. So using the pre-punched paper was an easy choice. also sells protective covers, the actual coils you need for binding, and pretty much anything else related to binding that you can think of. On top of that, their customer service is superb. I can’t recommend them highly enough.

The only other bit of equipment I needed was an all-in-one printer that could handle 11×17 paper. I bought this one:

So now I can do everything that I used to have to do at Kinko’s from the comfort of my house. If you hate Kinko’s as much as I do, it is well worth the investment.

My first step with my new equipment was to make a pdf scan of the entire Circles score. With the right printer, this is pretty easy to do. From there, I used the Preview program on my iMac to copy and paste bits of the score on to a Microsoft Word document formatted for 11×17. Unfortunately the source material is 11×17 in landscape format, so there is nothing I can do about that. As a result, my finished parts are also 11×17 in landscape format. I wish I could do portrait layout, but you can’t alter the source material.

The first three pages of the printed score, for some inexplicable reason, look like this:


Screen Shot 2013-03-31 at 12.21.52 AM

With a layman’s knowledge of computers and 60 spare seconds, you can turn these three pages into usable performance materials:

Screen Shot 2013-03-31 at 12.22.23 AM

This exemplifies the strategy I took with making my percussion part: I eliminated the negative space from the score, copied my part on to a new page, and generally included the vocal part in my own part (sometimes I included the harp part as well). The cues I needed from the percussion 1 part I wrote in to my part with a red pen. So these two pages:



became this page:


To cover the contingency of needing several parts on several music stands, I made a part for xylophone, vibraphone, and toms with the appropriate edited pages in each part. My finished parts now look like this:

A lot better than my 2.5 ft tall aberrations from 2008.

A lot better than my 2.5 ft tall aberrations from 2008.

These parts are coil bound with protective front and back coverings, and I did it all from home. No more Kinko’s.

How To Make Parts: Developing a Method

Frequently in modern music, parts are not provided with performance materials, thus requiring the performers to construct their own parts. This is most often the case with composers that came of age in the Darmstadt scene of the 1960’s. I wish publishers like Universal Edition and Ricordi would go through their back catalogs and modernize some publications. There are some pieces for which I have the score but that I have not yet programmed because doing so would require having the music re-engraved. And there are some pieces that, barring an incredible performance fee, I would simply refuse to play again if asked because the performance materials are such a nightmare to deal with. I’ve unfortunately come to expect these nightmare scenarios with one of my favorite composers: Franco Donatoni.

I’ve had the score for his Cinis II (for clarinet, marimba, and percussion) for years, but the music is written so large that each oversized page only has three measures of music.

This page is 11x17. Three measures of music. Thanks, Ricordi.

This page is 11×17. Three measures of music. Thanks, Ricordi.

Since I am no wizard with Finale (i.e. I don’t know how to use Finale), I would have to pay someone to re-engrave the music in order to play this piece. Professional engraving would reduce the 35 page score to a part that is 10 pages or less and with workable page breaks. The piece is only 105 measures long, after all.

As bad as that is, the score for Cloches III for two pianos and two percussionists is even worse. The percussion set-ups are so large that both percussionists would need multiple copies of the music spread across several instrumental stations. However, the single score that each percussionist receives from the publisher is so large that it can not be photocopied. And again, the music is written so enormously that each performer has to make a page turn every 10 seconds. Needless to say, the page breaks are not in convenient locations. It would take a talented copyist a week to fix both of those scores and then Ricordi would actually be able to give out workable performance materials for one of the most respected composers in its roster instead of the oversized study scores they currently send out.

In a perfect world, all sheet music would come off the shelf ready to use and performers wouldn’t have to fuss with it so much, but sadly that isn’t the case. It is not uncommon for me to spend more time making my own part for a piece than I do practicing it. The two most frequent problems I have to solve are making a part from a score and binding a part from loose pages.

I recently received the performance materials for Barbara White’s Third Rule of Thumb for percussion quartet, which I will perform at the upcoming Fromm Concerts at Harvard. It is an expertly prepared score. My part (player 2) is enlarged, while other parts are miniaturized in the staves below. Furthermore, only relevant parts are included in full, and other important events are indicated with text (see bar 232).

Screen Shot 2013-03-30 at 2.31.25 PM

My part consists of 15 loose, single sided 11×17 pages. It won’t work well to just have all these loose pages sitting on a music stand during performance. That would increase the chances of the music falling off the stand, and it would make page turns needlessly awkward. So, I’m going to bind the pages together with masking tape. It is a quick, easy, and low-tech way to deal with the issue.

Since the pages are formatted to be turned every two pages, I’ll start by taping two pages together at a time. Here, I’ve taped together pages 1 and 2, and pages 3 and 4:


In order to set up the bind, I’m now going to tape together pages 2 and 3:


To finish binding the first 4 pages together, I’m going to fold the pages in half, with pages 3 and 4 facing up, then turn page 4 on top of page three, then tape down the middle for a center bind:


The finished version of the first four pages looks like this:


Repeat these steps until there are no more pages. From start to finish, binding all 15 pages together took 15 minutes or so, and now my page turns are all worked out for performance.

In the next post, I’ll discuss my more recently developed high-tech method of part making.

How To Make Parts (part one)

I first realized the importance of page turns when I was a sophomore in college. I was auditioning for a chamber music honors concert with Elliott Carter’s Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux II, and all three members of the ensemble were playing from the score instead of from the provided parts (a wise move with that piece). Since we were all around 19 years old, no one had a better idea than to just tape several pages together at a time and then discard them to the floor when the time came. Before we could finish the last bar, a judge said to us “you can play in the concert but only if you do something about the page turns.” I still see people throwing 4 or 5 taped-together pages to the ground during performance regularly, and it is one of my biggest pet peeves (along with the old fortress of music stands trick that wind players seem to enjoy so much, but really just makes their performance look like watching something download.)

In the decade I’ve spent playing mostly contemporary music, I rarely receive a part or score that I can perform from without altering it in some way. I’ve toyed with various solutions over the years, from cutting and pasting music on to poster board to binding loose pages together with masking tape. In part 2 of this post I’ll detail one of those processes, and later will explain my newest solution which I think is a keeper.

Not to state the obvious, but the best solution to this problem would be for composers, copyists, and publishers to see to it that the parts they give to performers actually work. Every minute I spend making a new part is a minute I don’t spend actually practicing a piece. This is especially important advice for student composers. The quickest way to make an enemy out of someone performing your piece is to give them a part they can’t play from. No one is expecting the next Pierrot Luniere to come out of a conservatory undergrad, but as long as the printed music itself is prepared on a professional level, the experience should be positive. This first of three posts on this topic will address common pitfalls of music copying.

1. Don’t use landscape layout

For the life of me, I can’t comprehend why so many composers insist on using landscape (horizontal) page formatting. It causes many problems:

  • Landscape layout necessitates more music stands. If using ledger sized paper (11×17), one sheet occupies the space of the entire music stand. If in portrait layout (vertical), two sheets of ledger paper fit on one stand.
  • It is easier to move one’s neck and eyes up and down than it is from side to side.
  • Landscape layout puts the extreme sides of the music further away from a stationary performer.

(Update: John McDonald wisely pointed out that landscape format works well for piano parts, since the piano’s built in music stand isn’t tall enough to support portrait layout in most paper sizes.) 

2. Insert page breaks in convenient spots in the music

Don’t worry about leaving half of a page blank or inserting a completely blank page if that is what it takes to make the page turns work. In the last month I have played pieces by students and professionals alike where no thought whatsoever was put in to the page breaks. I wish I didn’t have to state the obvious again, but:

  • Musicians can not turn pages in the middle of a rapido passage.
  • Percussionists can not turn pages in the middle of a roll.
  • Page turns should be avoided during dramatic pauses in music.

3. Mind the gaps

I’m referring here to the distance between staves. This can make the difference between legible and illegible. I recently performed a 35 page part that easily could have been around 20 pages if not for the 40% negative space per page. A later post will address Berio’s Circles, which contains more blank paper than any piece of music should.

4. Consider whether or not performers should work from parts or scores

Factors that determine whether a performer would perform from a score include the size of the ensemble and thus the amount of music possible on one page of full score, and whether or not a piece will be conducted. When dealing with complicated music for small unconducted chamber group, I prefer to play from a score with my line on top and the other instruments miniaturized below. If performers prefer scores, you should still prepare different page breaks for each musician if necessary.