Making Musical Decisions, Part. 1: Score Study

Making Musical Decisions, Part. 1: Score Study

As teachers, we influence our students in many ways. Probably the most influential method is our direct communication with them, both verbal and nonverbal. Don’t forget that conducting is communication!

In our rehearsals, we strive to open the lines of communication between us and our students. Throughout the rehearsal process, we can work to help our students create musical ideas, share independent thoughts, and lead their peers. It is our responsibility to demonstrate these qualities through our daily interaction with them.

With this opportunity to communicate, it is important for us to have something to say (informed from score study), to consider how we deliver the message with gesture, and to work to find ways to teach, engage, and perhaps collaborate with our students in a rehearsal setting. We’ll cover each of these topics in the course of three blog posts.

The journey begins with you!  Let’s start with thinking about our score study process.

Exploring Beyond the Print – Enhancing Interpretation (Noticing) Skills

Many times score study feels like a monotonous task, but score study can be exactly the investigative and creative outlet that we and our students are looking for.

How often have we taken out a score, written in the meter changes, analyzed a couple of cadences and called that score study? While those can be important technical pieces to studying a score, we would like to offer tips to unlock the creative energy that got you into music in the first place. When we are physically connected to our instruments we experience music in a much different way – we feel the phrase, we experience the crescendo, our body rattles with the downbeat. What if we apply this type of creativity and feeling to our score study?

The score study process should feel organic. We notice things in the score that pique our interest and we learn more about them, we dive deeper, and attempt to sing/play/gesture a certain phrase in many ways to see what resonates with us, as musicians.

Too often we stop at what the music is and don’t continue to what it could be. If our score study ONLY includes notes, rhythms, harmony – the concrete, then, that is largely only what our rehearsals will include. But, if we delve deeper into the textures, timbres, colors, phrase shapes, note beginnings and endings (of which there are infinite possibilities) then that makes our overall rehearsal and music-making better for our students. Even the slightest thought put into some of these aesthetic ideals can make a world of difference of our expectations of the music and what we hear on the podium.


Questions to Ask Yourself

One excellent way to dig more deeply into your study is to ask yourself questions like:

  • What is important to you in a piece of music? What melody, harmony, rhythm, articulation, texture, timbre… this can change from piece to piece!
  • What is the form?  Producing the formal name (e.g. Sonata Rondo) isn’t the goal here. While that information may be helpful, thinking about form will, more simply, help us to compare and contrast sections or find the differences!
  • Why did the composer put that mark there? What if the composer did something else here?

Real-Life Examples

With some new questions in mind, let’s explore a few measures of Steven Bryant’s “Dusk” for band. At first glance, the rhythms and harmonies are fairly simple. We can play all of the correct notes, at the correct time, with appropriate dynamics.

This is what that might sound like:

Now, if we dive further into the analysis and start making some decisions about how the music COULD go, then we might end up with a more nuanced performance:

How did we get from video 1 to video 2?  Let’s explore…

Of course, during the rehearsal process, we need to make technical corrections with pitch, notes, rhythm, etc. However, we should still not lose sight of the overall musical goal and ideal that we are striving to achieve. Even the slightest bit of thought into these musical shapes can make a world of difference.

It is essential that we hold our students and OURSELVES to a musical standard.

Score Study Checklist

To recap, here is a checklist of points to consider in your score study:

  • Pick a transition, phrase, or section of a piece.
  • Consider the analytical elements in that music. (Tempo, dynamics, harmony, orchestration, layers, etc.)
  • Sing or play the melody on your instrument. (Take some time here, really try and perform the music to the best of your ability.)
  • Play the melody or phrase several different ways, including ways that may seem contrary to your musical intuition. Try and find words to describe the music that you are performing
  • Repeat this process with counter-lines or accompaniment.
  • Brainstorm several ways of how these components interact and influence each other. Try to sing one line while playing another or simply use your inner-ear to picture the whole soundscape. (This definitely takes practice, but it allows your imagination to shape each part rather than relying on a recording.)

Your goal is to settle on an interpretation that resonates with you and is reinforced by information in the score. Once you do, you will be amazed at how easy it is to give musical feedback to your students.

Matthew Dockendorf is assistant director of bands and instructor of music at the University of Colorado Boulder. He conducts the campus and concert band, assists with the “Golden Buffalo” marching band, directs the men’s and women’s basketball band and teaches courses in music education. Matthew previously studied at Michigan State University where he wrote drill and arranged music for the Spartan Marching Band and Spartan Brass. He also served as conductor of the Campus Band and guest conducted the Wind Symphony, Symphony Band, Concert Band and Musique 21. Matthew holds a D.M.A. in conducting from Michigan State University, an M.Mus. in conducting from The Ohio State University a B.M.Ed. from the University of Minnesota.
David Thornton joined the faculty of Michigan State University's College of Music in the fall of 2015 as assistant director of bands. Dr. Thornton conducts the University Concert Band and Spartan Youth Wind Symphony, coordinates the Spartan Brass athletic band, and is the associate director of the Spartan Marching Band. In addition to his conducting responsibilities, he also teaches courses in instrumental conducting and marching band methods. Prior to coming to MSU, Thornton taught in the state of Florida where he was the assistant director of bands at Eau Gallie High School (Melbourne) and most recently the director of bands at Leon High School (Tallahassee).

David earned his doctoral and master’s degrees in Wind Conducting from Michigan State University and his bachelor’s degrees in Clarinet Performance and Music Education from Florida State University.

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