Band Director
Close this search box.

Studying the Full Score – Part III

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 for 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 be may reply: “But how shall I read, and what shall I read?” Our reply to this innocent seeming question takes on many forms.


At this time the conductor is directed toward the more subtle practices of his craft. Said the late Dimitri Mitropolous to one of his conductimg students: “Remember, as a rehearsing conductor your primary function is to be a teacher. This is perhaps the most important qualification of the conductor.” In analyzing the intellectual content of the score, the conductor should keep these details in mind:

1. It is important to analyze, comprehend, and classify the overall form ofthe work during the preliminary study – binary or ternary song form – the sonata allegro – the rondo – the fugue – the minuet with trio – any of the multitude of classic dance forms used by composers to endow their music with rhythmic grace and charm – the concert waltz – the concert march – the quick-step – and so on. If the conductor does not understand the overall form of a work, it will be difficult for him to set tempos, or introduce subtle nuances of tempo and dynamics which bespeak artistic sensitivity; and he will find it almost impossible to cloth music in an appropriate garb of rhythmic and dynamic grace.

2. The conductor must know how and for what purpose a composer uses timbres and sonorities. Better composers and arrangers of band music tend to regard the band in terms of single and double reed choirs, bright and mellow brass choirs, and an increasingly versatile and useful percussion section. Yesterday’s vast, ponderous, monotonous band sound is being replaced by today’s bright, colorful, artistic and sensitive use of timbres and sonorities. The scoring in contemporary band music must be analyzed carefully if the conductor is to achieve a sonorous realization of what the composer really had in mind. Modern day band conductors have everything going for them: bands with better numerical balance, players of improved technical ability, and new and better instruments.

Intrigued by the timbres and sonorities inherent to the concert band, excited by the superb musicianship of its better conductors, and delighted that their music finds ready acceptance and comes to such quick performance, many established and excellent contemporary composers look with pleasure on the concert band as being worthy of their best artistic expression.

3. The band conductor must know how to go about achieving internal balance in chord voicing. There are many questions to ask. “When the woodwind choir plays alone how many players on each part?” “What is the relationship of doubling parts to the ensemble timbre and overall sonority?” “Which voices have important melodic lines and should these be played ‘solo’ rather than ‘soli’?” “What balance should be maintained between woodwind and brass in the tutti ensemble?” “Is there a danger that a soprano voice ornamentation and figuration will cover important melodies?” “Is it possible that important secondary counterpoints may be obscured by inner voice accompaniments?” “How can percussion instruments lend authority and precision to the rhythmic structure without adding undue weight to the ensemble sonority?” These and many other questions relating to this subject must be asked and answered during the preliminary study if a conductor’s interpretation is to be adequate and convincing.

4. The conductor must understand the relationship of harmony to melodyand melodic counterpoint. It does the conductor little good to insist on the priority of melody unless melody is made clear to the listener, a most important consideration when principal melodies or secondary melodic arcs are assigned to instruments not possessing clear, ringing timbres. The conductor who is hazy about this relationship may find it difficult to establish melodic continuity. One need only examine the opening measures in the full score of the 4th movement to Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique Symphonie” to see what is meant here. The masterful way in which successive notes in the opening melody are alternated between 1st and 2nd violins in order to establish the throbbing insistency of the music cannot be denied. Yet, if the conductor has things under control it will be difficult for a casual hearer to identify, let alone isolate this device of orchestration. But conductor and players had better be aware of it, lest Tchaikovsky’s deathless melody be lost in the brooding melancholy of the accompaniment.

5. The conductor must maintain integrity in the rhythmic structure bychoosing the right tempo. He must be aware of the universal phenomena attendant to nature’s law of motion – tension and release – heaviness and lightness – movement and inertia – sound and silence, for it is his awareness of these things and their relationship to tempo that will determine his ultimate success as an interpreter. When a performance plods along drearily and monotonously to an unconvincing conclusion, its conductor is revealed to have so little knowledge about the basic function or rhythm that he cannot maintain a work’s rhythmic integrity. A conductor who seeks a rapport with the composer about a work’s rhythm is forced to ask many questions. “What should be the choice of a beat patter?” (Without which right choice the rhythmic exaltation of good music will never be made manifest.) “What tempi are best suited to the melodic lines?” “What range of tempi is permissible without violating tradition?” “Can a break be made with tradition without violating the rhythmic structure?” “How many baton movements are utilized to give additional impetus to rhythmic flow?” “How can the rubato be made a part of the over all rhythmic structure, its flexibility adjusted to the inexorable truth of nature’s law of motion?” “Can a strict tempo be maintained when necessary?” These questions set forth important details which the conductor must control and shape if rhythmic integrity is to be maintained.

In addition to all this, the band conductor must absorb a great body of traditional observance. “What (for example) does an allegro mean?” “Why is the classical 4/4 allegro of Mozart usually taken rapidly and all breve, and the baroque 4/4 allegro of Handel as a stately four beat intrada?” “What, if any, is the relationship of an extended work’s first movement rhythmic structure the tempo in each of the succeeding movements?” “When and how may the rubato be introduced into baroque and classical music without violating tradition?” “What is the real relationship of the rhythmic structure to tempo and meter in baroque and early classical music?” The conductor must know and understand tradition in order to answer these questions correctly. If the conductor who knows tradition wished to remove some of its ambiguities, this he can do with integrity and in good taste. Notation being what it is, a composer often finds it difficult to give pertinent clues about the interpretation on basic rhythms and speeds in his music, Maelzel and his metronome notwithstanding. Printed clues about a work’s interpretation should be taken only as a gentle hint about what the composer thinks may work. He can be quite wrong in these matters. Most composers are gentlemen of good will, however, or they would never have taken up composing. They know that when the conductor understands the basic rhythmic structure of their music all other things will be right, speeds, dynamics, rubato, and nuance. They expect the conductor to maintain the integrity of the rhythmic structure.


Every good composer expects his music to have significant emotional appeal. This is true for both “absolute” and “program” music. The band conductor must get to the heart of this matter and know what a piece of music is about before he can give a convincingly sincere interpretation. It is his search for clues about the meaning of music that sets the competent band conductor to reading books on music. Books such as Lang’s monumental treatise, “The History of Music in Western Civilization,” or Thayer’s equally monumental three volume biography on “Beethoven”. Every band conductor should read Dorian’s illuminating discourse, “The History in Music Performance”, as well as some of Curt Sach’s scholarly essays, notably one entitled “Rhythm in Music”. The conductor who seeks valid information on the basic orchestral repertory would do well to turn to Sir Donald Tovey’s witty and penetrating “Essays on Musical Analysis”. Tchaikovsky’s letters to Nadezhda von Meck and others of his friends give a fascinating glimpse into the workings of his tortured mind, and often reveal precisely what he wanted certain of his compositions to say and do. Comprehensive books on orchestration, such as those by Forsythe or Bernard Rogers, and Phil Lang’s excellent treatise, “Scoring for Band”, should be must reading for the competent band director. Beyond all this reading, however, are these specific things to be done.

6. Underline every melody and counterpoint with pencil. In so doing the conductor is directed to these important considerations:

a. He must decide the order of importance for each melody and how to make this order clear to the listener.
b. He must establish the order of precedence and how to make this clear to the listener when two or more melodies are being played at the same time. The importance of doing this must not be underestimated. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it is through melody that composers seek to focus the attention of the listener on emotional content in their music.

7. Mark all entrance cues. The competent band conductor cues all instruments entering important assignments. The nature of the cue is unimportant. It can be given directly with the baton, although in well-routined groups a glance in the right direction may suffice. When a cue is given indirectly, the conductor should anticipate the entrance by a measure or two. Conductors who cue every entrance directly are urged not to sacrifice rhythmic and melodic continuity.

8. The conductor must decide upon an appropriate timbre, balance, blend, and weight for each melodic line. This important and exciting part of his craft allows him to become a painter in tone as – more than any other time during the preliminary study – his imagination is brought into vivid and active collaboration with the composer in anticipating joyfully the actual sounds he is soon to call into being. Yet this happy hour may bring him to sober contemplation, especially as he analyzes band sonorities inherent to the transcription of orchestral masterpieces. He may realize that a melody first conceived as a song of yearning and heartbreak, like that given to English horn and violas by Tchaikovsky in the first part of his Overture Fantasy – “Romeo and Juliet”, take on quite another meaning when it is sung with impassioned fervor by unison strings at this work’s close. He may even conclude, albeit regretfully, that there is no way his or any other and can produce anything resembling the right kind of timbres and sonorities, and that it is best that he refrain from doing a public performance of Tchaikovsky’s memorable obeisance to youthful love.

The conductor is required to exercise sound judgment on all matters relating to the balance and blend of sonorities. All the more reason for him to come into a rapport with the composer and his music well in advance of the first rehearsal. There are many exciting questions to be asked during this part of the study. “What must be the balance between melody and accompaniment at this place – and this – and this?” “What precise color of timbre shall be sought for solo melodic lines?” “What should the composite timbre be when a composer uses a mixture of timbres to color the important melody?” “The composer first clothes his principal theme in this timbre, then it reappears in this, and finally in still another. What, if any, is the emotional connection in this use of timbres? Do they each confirm and amplify the work’s original emotional message? Or has the composer suggested a change in the melody’s emotional status by changing its timbre?” “What precise adjustment of tempo must be made to accommodate to this timbre – or this – or this?” the exciting and provocative questions demand the exercise of an equally exciting and provocative imagination.

In an eloquent appeal to Deity, intelligent listeners at band concerts pray thusly for mercy: “Do, O Lord, deliver us from a band that sounds like a great pipe organ, sometimes as though from an adjacent and small bedroom, but more often as though from the bottom of a deep well. Pity us, O Lord, do! We who must listen to bands that always sound the same no matter what kind of music is being played – deliver us from so dismal a prospect.”

9. The conductor must isolate all rhythmic distortions and develop rehearsal techniques to assure their integration into the basic rhythmic structure. Difficult and distorted rhythmic patterns should first be reduced to the smallest possible common denominator before being restored to integrity. The band conductor faced with successive measures say of 2/4 – 3/16 – 5/8 – 5/16 – 3/8 (which Russell Howland humorously calls “hat size meters”) might consider the sixteenth note to be the common denominator in so intriguing a succession on measures, and teach this concept to his students. When, as often happens, some sections of the band play four notes to a beat as others play three, there are perfectly obvious rehearsal solutions to this bit of rhythmic trickery. The conductor who really comprehends the purpose of rhythmic distortion will have little trouble in solving the rehearsal problems it poses.


Prior to the first public performance, the competent band conductor pencils into his score those subtleties of nuance not provided by the composer or publisher which he thinks will lend excitement and emotion to his interpretation. This is a highly personal technique. While many conductors do it during the preliminary study, others may prefer to wait until after music has made its first overall impression before coming to a decision about these things. In any case, these subtleties should be marked in the score before the first public performance lest, in the excitement attendant to that occasion, the conductor overlook some finer points of interpretation which give it warmth, meaning, and creative originality. The authors trust that the conductor uses a score. The only kind of memory that counts on the podium is the visual memory known as “total recall”. Not many conductors, either band or orchestra, have the God-given talent. Auditory memory can be a treacherous thing, the more so when the conductor deals with contemporary music. The authors are inclined to believe that the time a conductor spends in memorizing scores could be better invested in attending to other and more essential duties.

How the conductor goes about introducing subtleties into his interpretation reveals many things about the extent of his musicianship; his imaginative or lack of it; his insight into the meaning of the music; his wisdom, grace, and artistic sensitivity ; and the integrity of his aesthetic perception.

His dreaming and meditating done, the conductor cannot help but be both the happiest and unhappiest man in the world. Happy because he is faced with the joyous prospect of calling into being the sonorous realization of what his mind’s ear has imagined for so long. Unhappy because he will never have enough time for rehearsal. What should happen at rehearsal requires a monograph detailing rehearsal procedures and activities. The authors contemplate just such an effort.


This additional homework is made necessary by things that happen during the first rehearsal. The conductor may have overlooked some problems during his preliminary study. He now notes their extent and solution. Score in hand, he meditates and reflects on the more subtle details of interpretation that may have occurred to him when he first heard the music. He may find it necessary to revise or re-edit certain portions of the work in an effort to adapt it to the specific sonorities of his band, which may be strong in some sections and noticeably weak or ineffectual in other. If this latter is true, it is the conductor’s clear responsibility to re-edit and re-score the music without doing violence to the original creation. There is a point beyond which the intelligent conductor will not go when making revisions. At that time he must decide whether or not he can perform the work in public, a decision, alas, that the thoughtless band conductor refuses to admit should be made.

At this time the authors are compelled to note the current practice among arrangers and publishers of simplifying and adapting certain musical masterpieces for performance by school bands. The authors believe this is suspect, since it tempts conductors and players to believe they have performed famous musical works when, in reality, they may have played watered down versions which often bear scant resemblance to the original. Playing simplified versions of greater masterworks is and ethical teaching procedure only when the conductor show students the basic differences between the simplified version and the original, discusses the evident superiority of the original, and plays a good recording of it. Responsible music educators agree that this is the procedure to be followed.


i) The conductor studies and assimilates the score well in advance of the first rehearsal.
ii) During the first rehearsal he concentrates on all matters the preliminary study revealed as being important.
ii) He returns to his study to re-examine the score, evaluate his impressions of the first hearing, note additional subtleties of interpretation, and revise its sonorities to fit the instrumentation and competency of his band. He then returns to the rehearsal with this changed concept in mind.
iv) There is a continuous repetition of “2” and “3” until both conductor and players possess the work intellectually and emotionally and are ready to present it in public performance.
v) The work is given a public performance.
vi) If it is music worthy of repetition, it is played in public over and over again until, in due time, it becomes a permanent addition to the band’s repertory.
vii) The exciting prospect of bringing this to pass makes any serious musical study undertaken by the conductor to be a labor of love. It is to this labor of love that the authors commend their colleagues.

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.