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!
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!
GUIDELINES FOR MARKING MUSIC
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.
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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