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Studying The Full Score – Part 1

Dr. James Neilson and Dr. Karl M. Holvik
Sponsored by Conn-Selmer

The authors presume that the conductor has been given adequate formal training and now is ready to begin a searching, probing study of the full score, which task is far removed from the ephemeral joy of making music. Perhaps he has been so busy with other necessary but non-musical details of his job that the hour approaches midnight. This being so, the authors take him by the hand, gently lead him to his desk upon which has been placed a pot of hot coffee and his favorite pipe then they say to him, “Open the score and read therein”. To which he may reply: “But how shall I read, and what shall I read?” Our reply to this innocent seeming question takes on many forms.


And we mean – “SING THEM ALL”. There is no other way by which to assimilate them. No matter that the hour is midnight, that he may disturb his neighbors, that his voice is raspy and strained through over use, as he begins his study, the conductor must first sing his way through the score. Hot coffee will keep him awake. Despite the Biblical junction to do so, he is not required to love his neighbors more than himself. And he must sing even when his singing voice has a timbre and sonority similar to that of a bullfrog in deep pain. True, many conductors have developed the ability to hear melodies in the mind’s ear, but they did not come easily by this talent. First they had to sing a lot of them. What better hour for this than midnight? Conductors who refuse to sing all melodies during the preliminary study miss an even more rewarding experience, the delightful joy that comes with the dawning comprehension of what melody is about, its meaning and emotion. Then, too, as the conductor continues his singing, the shape of the phrase will be revealed to him in a most tangible and direct way. Moreover, he will find it possible to anticipate difficulties which may occur during the rehearsal. Melodies difficult for him to assimilate will be found just as difficult by his students. Why begin the preliminary study of the score by singing its melodies? The answer is so simple. Melody gives face form to music, depth and perspective to its structure, intelligent meaning to its rhythms, and plausibility to its emotional message.


In order to come to an intelligent comprehension of the full score, the conductor must have the ability to quickly perceive the phrase structure. So much depends on the depth of this perception – an understanding of the shape of the phrase and its points of stress and repose – instant recognition of the incidence and kind of cadence – the selection of proper breathing places – making the right decisions about introducing nuances of tempo and dynamic to highlight phrase climax – the selection of the climax phrase in the musical sentence – and so on almost ad infinitum. It is at this time the conductor is advised to take an overall look at the larger sections of the work by combining motifs into half-phrases, half-phrases into whole, phrases into sentences, and sentences into a complete section. While it may be possible for a conductor to comprehend the entire phrase structure of simple scores at a glance, this cannot be done in more complex, or contrapuntal and polyphonic music. In complex scores the phrase structure comes to light only after a detailed study and analysis of the harmonic content has been completed. When the conductor possess the routine knowledge necessary to do this, all manners of counterpoints will then be made clear to him, and his interpretations will bring increased joy to the listener since they cannot fail but bring to light hitherto overlooked and unsuspected moments of beauty.


As he does this, the competent band conductor finds himself getting to the heart of things, and well on the way to clearer understanding of the composer’s ideas and message. He will then be able to answer the question, “What is this piece of music about?” a question that should be asked and answered long before the rehearsal begins. There is, however, a more practical reason for marking the phrase structure and breathing places in the score. Band performances are not noted for clarity of phrasing. More often than not the phrase structure is mutilated beyond recognition because players breathe incorrectly, mostly at bar lines. Teaching students the proper concept of breathing as it related to phrasing is as important as teaching them correct tone and articulation. The conductor is faced with many questions about phrasing which must be answered prior to the rehearsal. “How can the phrase be made to sing as it should?” “How can its contours be defined clearly?” “How can it be enunciated properly?” “Will the listener comprehend it?” When both conductor and players find the correct answers to these and other questions about phrasing, the interpretation cannot help but be sheer delight since it will literally “sing” its way into listeners’ hearts.


Good composers always endow their melodies with appropriate rhythms which often provide significant clues about the emotion inherent to melodies, clues which lead a conductor to an intelligent choice of speeds and dynamics. The conductor must also study the melodic rhythmic structure in order to become completely aware of rhythmic counterpoints such as diminution, augmentation and the like. When the conductor thoroughly understands the melodic rhythmic structure, he will make sure that stress and relaxation come at the right places within the phrase, and the agogics of music are allowed to lend their fluent, freedom to the ebb and flow of rhythm. When melodic rhythms are delineated clearly, the interweaving of harmonies will make sense to the listener as the performance becomes to him a “living experience.”


Which means analyzing and understanding these details:

  1. The conductor must be completely aware of all key centers and modes used by the composer. He must know in advance of the rehearsal what difficulties may be faced by players forced to play in unfamiliar keys, and be ready to offer a quick solution.
  2. The conductor must comprehend the composer’s use of key centers and modes in order to have greater insight into the emotional and dramatic meaning of the music.
  3. The conductor must discover and underline all modulatory tones and chords, or other modulatory devices, as well as noting sudden key shifts. When traditional harmony is used and modulations are based on predictable factors, a work’s key cycle may be comprehended at a glance. In more complex music however, especially that written in contemporary idioms, the conductor must be prepared to encounter atonality, polytonality, unprepared key shifts and the like. So much is this so, that it has become the custom with certain publishers to publish contemporary band music without key signatures. Which makes it even more important to analyze key relationships in contemporary scores carefully so the proper voicing and balance can be given to both the chording and melodic lines. The importance of this analyzation is based on the conductor’s duty during the rehearsal to make precise adjustments of timbre and sonority through which modulations and key shifts can be made effortlessly and convincingly. The conductor should understand the vast difference between a true modulation and a temporary escape from the prevailing key; or know which tonality to bring to the fore when two or more are used simultaneously; or be able to balance sonorities accurately when a composer uses serial techniques of composition. It seems quite reasonable to expect the conductor to be alert to sudden key shifts since these are accompanied by an increased use of accidentals.

Dr. James Neilson served a lengthy tenure as Leblanc’s educational director during the 1960s and ’70s.

Dr. Karl M. Holvik was a professor of music at the University of Northern Iowa