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Checking the score in a concert setting

Rick Rogers Published: May 7, 2013

You rarely see them anymore, those music enthusiasts who file into the concert hall with scores carefully tucked under their arms. They often sit near the stage, flipping pages of their score in unison with the conductor. I last observed this practice in April during an open rehearsal by the New York Philharmonic. Sitting in front of me was a woman with a score of the “Symphony No. 4″ by Charles Ives. I never figured out if she was an Ives scholar (the Fourth Symphony is rarely programmed these days) or just wanted to follow along as Alan Gilbert conducted this curious piece.

This type of exercise is encouraged in most music schools, as students are expected to become reasonably proficient at score reading. Those planning to become band, orchestra or choral directors need to become adept at reading multiple lines simultaneously. The ears are capable of processing an infinite variety of sounds, pitches and timbres, a phenomenon that leads many to believe a concert experience should be purely auditory. Others prefer to link sounds with a visual image, thereby bringing two of our five senses into play.

I, too, enjoy listening to a composition unfold as I follow along in my score, but I don’t often make a practice of doing so in the concert hall. It can be an unnecessary distraction. I have also discovered that with some works, I actually end up hearing differently when I listen with score in hand. Pianist Van Cliburn once told me that whenever he played in Japan, he’d see hordes of students following every musical nuance in their printed scores. That led him to ponder just exactly what they were hearing. Was the performance providing them with an emotional response or an intellectual one? Was the eye tricking the ear into hearing something that wasn’t actually happening? Or did the visual aid of having a score in front of them somehow enhance the listening experience?

Low lighting in concert halls also makes score reading impractical, so, when one considers the potential for distracting other listeners, the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages. Score reading can be invaluable during rehearsals, however, particularly when the work in question is new or simply unfamiliar. That’s extremely beneficial when we as critics are asked to assess a performance.

Under those circumstances, one can better grasp the work’s structure, musical language and orchestrational devices.  I did appreciate having the score to Jennifer Higdon’s “Percussion Concerto” when Colin Currie gave the work its Oklahoma premiere with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic in February. Being able to watch this complex work unfold on the page was immensely rewarding.

Ultimately, it brings to mind a familiar adage heard in music schools everywhere: “You should have the score in your head, not your head in the score.”