Guidelines for Marking Music - Yours or Your Student's

September 14, 2017, 9:31 PM · Recently I came across a student's music that was so marked up, the printed page was barely discernible, through all colored-pencil circles, arrows, stars, suggestions, etc.

I'm not saying that all markings are bad; they are often necessary and helpful. Some pieces do merit quite a lot of marking -- you should see my Bach Sonatas and Partitas. In fact, look at Yehudi Menuhin's!

Menuhin's Bach

But where are the boundaries between helpful markings and outright property destruction? And who should do the marking, the teacher or student?

I've put together some guidelines for marking music that I hope you will find helpful. Please feel free to add to or comment on this list in the comments below!


1. Keep markings to a minimum

Obviously, certain markings need to go into music: changes in bowings, key fingerings, decisions regarding dynamics and other instructions. Sometimes we need a reminder about a mistake-prone passage or note. Sometimes we don't want to forget an especially effective musical suggestion.

But beware, when markings begin to overwhelm the page, they lose their effectiveness. A circle around a note means very little if every third note on the page is circled, and fingerings become a crutch if they stand over every note. In the most extreme cases, markings can become almost an alternative language to musical notation. Beyond that, sometimes the page simply gets too sloppy to read. So use restraint.

2. Use standard musical language and markings when possible

We have a system of musical notation, so use it! Choose the most efficient way to get the message across, for example: A sharp, a flat, an "f" or a "p" or crescendo mark. There are also devices such as arrows for intonation; an "x" for an extension; etc. Occasionally a musical idea might require actual words to express. The occasional word of suggestion in the music is fine, but for sentence- and paragraph-long ideas, consider preserving them in a separate notebook.

3. Take the time to mark neatly

Make your writing neat and legible. For example, take care that arrow downward doesn't look like an up-bow symbol. Put a fingering directly over the note, not in some doubtful in-between area. Make sure something meant for one line doesn't look like it's for the line above or below it.

One of my childhood teachers took extreme care about writing in my music; when he would cross out a slur, he would make a neat and very small squiggle over it. The new slur went precisely from the beginning of one note to the end of another, no ambiguity. A different fingering would neatly overshadow the printed one, he could somehow turn an up-bow into a down-bow without needing to blacken the other out or leave a smudge. Not only could I easily decipher these instructions, but I also felt very respected by this treatment of my music, which brings me to my next point:

4. Respect someone's music as personal property

It's important to show respect for a student or colleague's sheet music, as their property. Our music is a companion to our very real efforts and struggles; it's the place where we formulate and document our plans, after hard thought, experimentation and oftentimes a lot of consultation. When someone marks it incorrectly, or without our permission, that can feel like a very personal offense.

I have a few personal examples to offer: One of my early teachers decided I should have my name written on my music books - perfectly reasonable. But then she rapidly scrawled "LORRIE" on each one of them. She spelled my name wrong, and now it was on all my music! Another time, my mischievous teenage sister wrote "PRACTICE! PRACTICE! PRACTICE!" in blue marker at the top of a page from my Mendelssohn Violin Concerto music, which I was practicing for college auditions. I bring that one up because she absolutely did not understand my reaction: I was livid. Lighten up, it was just a joke! To me, it was a violation. What if I needed to hand that music to another teacher or a judge? I could not simply buy another, after all the work I'd put into it.

Practice Mendelsssohn

5. Make markings in pencil, to preserve the option of erasing them

Dorothy DeLay, the storied Juilliard violin professor, famously took great care when marking anything into her students' music. The reason: she did not want a student to be ever-reminded of past mistakes. She marked in light pencil, to be erased when the student overcame the problem. Certain markings are actually meant to stay, but use pencil for those, too. Musicians frequently reconsider their musical and technical choices, and we should always have the freedom to change those decisions.

6. Allow students to mark their own music when practical

If a student is old enough to wield a pencil, then that student can make at least some of the markings. Not only will it help the student learn how to do it, but it help him or her to remember the point. While the younger students and beginners usually need specific guidance about what to write and how to write it, advanced and older students can take more responsibility. For certain advanced students, I don't even tell them what to mark. I just say, "Do you need to write something in there to help yourself remember that? Okay then please do so."

7. Use colored pencils or pens only sparingly, if at all

I keep regular pencils and erasers on the music stand, but I keep a red pen on my desk. (And to be truthful, it should be a pencil!) It is available only for the most dire emergencies: something that has become a perma-mistake ("permistake"?). For example, take the student who is polishing a piece for an audition and somehow is STILL playing a B natural instead of a B flat, even after being told many times, even after circling it pencil, even after weeks of reminders in the notebook. They know it's serious when I ask, "Do you need the red pen?" And as always, even a mark made in exasperation should be a modest mark.

8. When using words, use what the student understands

Occasionally, we mark a word or two into the music. On these occasions, it's important to use the words a student will relate to. (This goes for orchestra, too; if a conductor uses a colorful metaphor and you discern that it simply means "louder," then "f" is all you need to mark.)

Let's say a student receives the following advice: "Loosen your right wrist for that passage. The bow needs to be smoother, so the music can flow like running water." The advice leads to improvement, and student and teacher would like to mark a reminder in to the music. But what part of that suggestion worked? What to mark? It's best for the student to choose. Depending on that particular student's brain, her or she might write down "loosen wrist" or "smoother" or "like water" or put lines over the notes -- or something else altogether.

Speaking of "something else altogether," I'll leave you with an amusing example from my week of teaching, of the difference between what a teacher might think, and what a student is thinking. One very young student of mine, a six-year-old girl, was struggling to play "Lightly Row" with even rhythm. It was stilted, with all the repeated notes clumped together. I suggested a number of ideas, and after several tries, she finally played it with nice, even rhythm. Happy moment!

"What were you thinking about, that made you play it so nice and evenly?" I asked, wanting to write something in her notebook (not in her music!) to help them practice at home. I expected her to reveal which of my excellent explanations made it happen.

"I was thinking of Lindsey Stirling," she said dreamily.

"Ahh," I said, laughing at myself. "Okay, then please continue to think about Lindsey Stirling when you play this!"

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September 15, 2017 at 11:01 AM · I had a teacher who would encourage me to "work to frog". I developed the habit of writing WTF on my music, which gets some raised eyebrows.

September 15, 2017 at 05:33 PM · Crayola makes eraseable colored pencils which are a godsend. I use them to help find matching sections in music (either with boxes or letters) and I have a system of colors to help beginning shifters figure out where to go. I do have one student who likes using shading to mark his music. Although it's with pencil, he sometimes goes very dark. I can't figure out a good way to suggest that he might not want to do this in the future.

September 15, 2017 at 07:55 PM · For particularly troublesome sections, I use removable colored highlighter tape. Once the problem is solved, it comes up just like a post-it. Just don't leave it on the page forever because, like a post-it, sometimes that glue gets stuck after too long.

September 15, 2017 at 08:02 PM · I initiated a discussion at several weeks ago about what the best pencils are for marking scores. Typical office pencils are too hard, tend to dent the paper, and are hard to erase cleanly. I'd say the average response landed around 3B to 4B, which are pretty soft. When I went to acquire some I found that office supply stores didn't have them, I had to go to an artist supply store. But it was worth the effort. They're a delight to write with, requiring little pressure to get a clear mark, and they're easy to erase without leaving a trace.

September 15, 2017 at 08:15 PM · When I was younger I studied with Stephen Clapp. He used colored pencils to indicate a hint or correction on the page. Every week a different color. Several colors in one spot meant you were NOT getting it. Humiliation! But he was an excellent teacher. I learned alot and felt honored and humbled that he took me as a student.

September 15, 2017 at 08:32 PM · Karen I love "WTF"! With the improvement of things like removable tape and post-its, this is another good option, Krista. And Danielle and Mark, you are so right, the choice of pencils is so important. It's very dismaying to write something, go to erase it, and find that the eraser simply smudges everything all over the page!

September 16, 2017 at 02:01 AM · I always mark in pencil, but recently found some erasable Sharpie highlighters, and have been using them sparingly to bracket sections to be drilled. They are such a novelty, that my students don't mind at all. We erase the marks after a week or two, and the music is clean again. It's been an interesting experiment.

September 16, 2017 at 05:40 AM · I do write longer notes and practice instructions directly into the margins of my music. Coming back to music, especially difficult concertos and the like, years later, I'm actually very grateful that all the notes were in the margins rather than in a separate notebook.

September 16, 2017 at 05:53 AM · I'm with Lydia on that. Markings are notes we've taken showing the trail of our thought process in learning a piece. The only problem for me is that during performance, markings can cloud my mind and mess me up.

Pencils and erasers are super important. Pencils are basically about how soft you want to get. I've got HB (for my wimpy first try), 2B&4B for my teacher's marking, and 6B for last bits of reminder before performance.

A great eraser is a life saver. I've just found one. It's the Faber-Castel eraser cap. Guys, if you've not tried it yet, you are in for a treat. It goes on pencil as a cap to protect the tip when the pencil is not in use, and put the other end when you are using it. It will not break like other cheaper eraser cap and it won't smudge even for 6B pencils markings.

September 16, 2017 at 02:45 PM · Interesting points. The reality is that printed music is already filled with lots of information written in symbolic logic. To be sure bowing markings and finger numbers are of value but all of them add to the amount of data that the player has to assimilate while attempting to play. Hence, keep the markings to the minimum which is Laurie's advice.

Personally, I resist marking until it is obvious that I need a subtle reminder to play the notes correctly.

September 16, 2017 at 03:55 PM · One of my teachers, with surgical skill, would use a very sharp pocket-knife and scrape away unwanted slurs, dynamics and other assorted items in the print and replace them with his penciled opinions....very delicate but perhaps some of the flimsy paper used today wouldn't withstand even his delicate alterations....but it did make for a neater page.

September 16, 2017 at 05:20 PM · I think one difference, when it comes to marginalia, is if you wrote it yourself, or if someone else did. And then this is not black and white, there are some markings from former teachers that I love and value. As long as it is done with care and intention.

September 16, 2017 at 11:52 PM · over the years various teachers wrote in music theory notes in the margins of my music. I find it helpful and sort of fun going back and looking at those notes.

September 17, 2017 at 01:00 AM · I'm with Yixi and Lydia. Returners unite! Doesn't matter who wrote it, because if I wrote it, my teacher must have said it. Something like "from the elbow" or "normal flowing sound" would be cherished.

Another thing I'm glad to see in my old books is the date that my teacher assigned something. He was a new-study-every-week kind of guy (okay, maybe two weeks for trickier ones). Nate Cole did a video on Mazas No. 23 here recently, and I went back to my old book to see when it was assigned: December 22, 1980.

September 17, 2017 at 07:15 AM · A pocket knife!!

September 18, 2017 at 06:59 PM · I write on music a lot, though it's always my own, and usually photocopies of the originals. My teacher used to say "A sharp pencil beats a dull memory."

September 20, 2017 at 02:01 PM · Thank's for this information

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