Why classical musicians read music - a performance story for St. Cecelia's Day...

There have been a couple of threads in the last six months about why classical musicians perform with the music in front of them. Please, allow me to tell you about last night’s little gig that almost didn’t happen…

In ways, it was no big whoop, but in other ways, it was huge. Last night was “The Feast of the Founding Master” at University of Toronto’s Massey College, the Founding Master being the late Robertson Davies. While Robertson Davies was still Master of the college, this was traditionaly an occasion where he would read a ghost story written specially for the day, and it would often feature musical performances chosen to reflect Mr. Davies appreciation of the both the rarefied and the popular. Since he stepped down as Master, and especially since his death, the Feast has come to be a celebration of him.

I have had the honour of performing with the Talisker Players many times, including their inaugural concert in 1999. They started out as a string quartet that wanted to specialize in vocal chamber music, and have branched out into an ensemble that commissions and encourages composers to write for various small instrumental ensembles. The focus of their concerts is also interesting - rather than concentrate on the instrumental resources and program the concert based solely on what musicians are playing, they select repertoire based on the connections between the poetry as well as the composers, so that there is a literary theme to their concerts.

The Talisker Players have had a close association with Massey College for a number of years now, and one of the many benefits of that association has been the generous use of the music room of the Master’s Lodging for our rehearsals. Because of the Master’s generosity, what might otherwise be a casual, one-off evening gig or gigette has become an important evening where the professional musicians want to perform at their absolute best for an appreciative audience.

There’s the background. For last night’s performance, we were to do selections from “Ellis Portal”, a collection of poems by Rex Devrell, music composed by Andrew Ager, all to do with various aspects of the city of Toronto and its night life. The piece had been written for Talisker Players - string quartet with clarinet/bass clarinet, Soprano and Baritone. It had been premiered by one baritone, GD, and it appears on the recent, soon to be released recording, sung by yet another baritone, AD, (AD and I are both on the recording, but I sang a different piece.) who has recently moved back to Montréal. So I got gigged in to sing for last night’s performance. No biggie; but when we sat down to compare schedules, we discovered that there was no way for us to rehearse before the actual day. I was the only new guy - the quartet, the clarinetist and the soprano had all done the recording earlier this summer. So, I had the music, which I learned on my own, and we would put the piece together for the first time at 5:30, with the performances after dinner somewhere around 8:30 or 9. Nerve-wracking, but we could do it.

Then, at around 5:20 or so, the cellist and I are wondering why we’re the only ones there when we find out the 2nd violinist has fallen down the steps on her way into the subway. She hit her head rather badly, and is in the emergency ward awaiting triage for stitches.

What follows is a frantic mix of concern for her and figuring out who can take her place on such short notice. Most folks who have the ability do it are already working, as about 10 phone calls confirm. Someone who plays in another quartet (coincidentally, with the cellist and the 2nd violinist) is free that evening. She jumps in a cab, rushes to the college and is ready to go by 7. The music is collected from the hospital (!), and we run through everything once without a 2nd violin. It went well, but Og! it sounded like there was something missing. We grab a quick bite, new 2nd violinist arrives and we have time to run through everything twice before we hit the stage.

So here’s the point of my post - because of the marvelous invention of notation, we are able to do this. Consider music as a graph, with pitch marked vertically and time marked horizontally. Because of the time signature, we can tell where the other players are in time by counting, even when they aren’t playing. Because of the combination of playing the note you see and listening to the notes everyone else is playing, you can create complex sounds together without a visual awareness of what the others are playing. It truly is one of the most remarkable accomplishments of human ingenuity, to be able to combine different sounds at different times into a fluid, coherent unity.

If we weren’t all reading from the music , this scenario could only have resulted in canceling the performance. The instrumentalists read from parts, mind you - there are too many page turns in a full score to be able to read and play at the same time. The clarinetist has only his part in front of him, the violinist likewise. The singers have full scores for two reasons - one, we have our hands free and can turn pages easily. Two, unless we have perfect pitch, we can only find and tune our notes in relation to what we hear. Therefore, we have to be able to look at what we’re hearing to determine our place in it. An ‘E’ is a very different note to find in an FMaj7 than an E Major chord, for example.

The performance went remarkably well, as it turned out. Not perfect - we all had tiny glitches that more rehearsal could probably have ironed out, but well. Worthy of our best efforts, and worthy of the man we were all honouring. I wouldn’t want to do that sort of thing on a regular basis - the stress would send me to an early grave! But it’s moments like that when I contemplate the impressive depths of this strange accomplishment that we call music, and the incredible things we can do when we work together toward a common goal.

And that’s what’s buzzing around my mind on this Saint Cecelia’s Day.

Great story! My wife is a music professor at UCLA and a couple of weeks ago she hosted a conference on “the technology of musical notation”. It was a collection of papers by medievalists looking at how the invention of notation changed how music was performed and even how it was conceived. Would our composer-centered idea of a musical work even exist if we didn’t have written scores to fix the composition as a THING?

Thanks for that story.

We celebrated St Cecilia’s feast day yesterday with a concert of music in her honour. It went very well, although we didn’t get much of a crowd. I suspect the 40 degree heat had something to do with it.

I actually know where the Ellis Portal is in Toronto.

Great story, Le Ministre, thank you. I am an alumnus of the U of T, and while I had nothing to do with Massey College in my years as a student, it’s nice to hear again about the University’s colleges and their traditions. Sometimes I wish I was still in Toronto, just to be a part of the life of Hart House again.

Amen,** Le Ministre**! I love your explanation about the differences between the way instrumentalists and choral singers work from their scores.

Great story **Le Ministre **- sounds like you saved the day! And I am a HUGE Robertson Davies fan (I have first *Canadian *editions of all 3 trilogies!) so I am really glad to hear you were able to honor the Master given all the plot twists you guys went through - and I hope the original 2nd violinist is okay!!

btw, is Talisker taken from the Scotch, or are the players and whisky named after something in common?

oh, and as a non-reader, I woulda been totally screwed. But I suppose I would’ve cranked the overdrive on my amp and tried to fake it with a cloud of distortion…not sure the Master would’ve approved…:wink:

This isn’t just why musicians read; it’s why they’re trained (not “taught”) to read at sight. The economics of professional performing demand a player who can execute pretty much immediately.

Many thanks, everyone. I just heard back from RG, 2nd violinist #1. She’s fine except for some stitches in her head. Apparently, she played a quartet concert yesterday afternoon.

The Hamster King I’d have been fascinated to have been at that conference - will anything be published from it? Please, let me know…

Cunctator I’d have gladly come to that - I love the Britten, and that’s a great combination of composers. I’m having trouble wrapping my head around 40 degrees on St. Cecilia’s day, never having been outside of Canada for it. We were up to the forties in Farenheit yesterday, but that’s almost unheard of. And no one wants to talk about last November…

Spoons I’m a geek about Toronto historical and street name trivia, but I confess Ellis Portal was a new one for me. I don’t sit in the front often enough…

freckafree It’s a long, unbegun project of mine, to collect/commission/compose pieces of music that let the audience in on the musicians side of the experience. For instance, I plotted out a three movement piece for solo classical guitar called “New Strings”, where the guitarist sat at the back of the stage for about 25 minutes and put a new set of strings on the instrument during someone else’s piece. Then the first movement was spent wrestling the guitar into tune, with the guitarist fighting to keep the strings at pitch while he was playing. The second movement involved leaving it where it was and playing a tremolo piece with the strings slowly sagging. For the third movement, the guitarist played one-string melodies while tuning the other strings. Someday, I’ll get around to it. I’ve also got plans for pieces that are meant to be sight-read in public, as a way of letting people in on what’s really going on onstage. When I get some spare time (HA!) I’ll see if I can get anything actually done on them…

WordMan Talisker whisky, you say? Interesting, I’ll have to try it sometime… :wink: Yes, it’s one of the fringe benefits of working with them - the final performance of a concert usually features a few drams. There’s no direct connection, and I’m not sure anyone at the distillery has noticed, although Googling reveals that even with just the word ‘Talisker’, the Talisker Players website comes up at about number 14 in the results.

Beware of Doug Yeah, it’s quite incredible what reading animals some of the classical musicians can be. I’m particularly astounded by horn players, who are often not just playing at sight, but transposing at sight. At one time, they would play in different keys by changing a tuning crook, but their parts would be written out in C - made it easier for them. Then the instrument got standardized, but the way of writing the parts didn’t change. Wagner was particularly difficult because he wrote parts as if the players were using the old-fashioned crooks, but in his extended harmonic language. The mind that it takes to sort through Wagner horn parts, let alone having the stamina to play the damn things for hours on end, it’s quite remarkable.

Something else I didn’t mention - the quartet that the cellist, 2nd violin #1 and 2nd violin #2 play in specializes in the Quartets of the early 19th century (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, etc.) on period instruments tuned to an A at 423 hz. I don’t know how they manage to switch between tuning systems as easily as the do, but they play magnificently. Sunday’s concert program was Ludwig van Beethoven: Quartet in F Op. 135
Felix Mendelssohn: Quartet in E-flat Op. 12
William Rowson: Divertimento (2009)
commissioned by WSQ in honour of Joseph Haydn
Sadly, I had to miss it so I could take the kids rock climbing. There’s too much good music going on for me to take it all in!!

Sight reading is what makes church gigs financially beneficial, IMO. If I had to practice, it would never make the pittance worthwhile. But to just show up and play bits and pieces here and there for an hour, yeah OK. Don’t know how many times I picked my Offertory and Postlude pieces while flipping through books during the sermon.

Besides which, there’s something about the secret thrill of sight reading along in a new piece and hitting a hair-raisingly complicated passage where, by the skin of your teeth and a little faking, you make it through and nobody even notices you’re pulling off something akin to a musical triple axel. Or you’re playing along with both hands and both feet going and the publisher puts a page turn in the most awkward place possible, but you somehow manage to conjure up a third arm and make it through with hardly a note missed. And the little old ladies compliment your playing just the same as if you slogged through yet another rendition of How Great Thou Art. :stuck_out_tongue:

(And yes, I’ve stepped in for quite my share of sick organists in my time. The music is the easy part. The tricky part is when the minister decides to change up the order of service and doesn’t bother to tell you, and then there’s either an embarrassing moment when you suddenly start playing and he suddenly starts talking at the same time – or, alternatively, there’s this patch of awkward silence…)

The disadvantage to having to use a hymnal or other book is that once in a blue moon one of those suckers will take a swan dive off the stand and land with an embarrassing tone-cluster cronk on the keyboard. (Mind you, this never happens after a quiet piece with flutes, but only occurs when you have a butt load of stops still open with a piercing reed of some sort to top it off. ) Or even better, a gently-curling piece of sheet music will catch a draft and go sailing off while you desperately try to read the notes as it settles to the ground. Upside down, of course.

40 was unseasonably hot for us in November. The next day temperatures were back down in the low 20s.

Oh! This is the place to ask my question!!

Last week in my daughter’s music class the teacher was giving out the game that teaches the kids to read notes. (They’ve been developing their hearing for the past couple of years and are now learning to sight-read for reals.) She said that the treble clef is a G clef and the bass clef is an F one, and that there are other clefs that are based on different notes. Or something. I was totally blown away by the idea and am having a hard time wrapping my head around it.

So someone please give me some information on this! Where can I see other clefs? Explain this to me!

(I can read music to some extent, sing amateurly, and play the piano badly. That’s how far my musical education goes.)

Here’s a start, poor though it may be.

Wow. I’ve never seen that C-clef before. Very interesting.

Yeah, you wouldn’t really see the alto clef unless you were a violist, and then you’d see an awful lot of it. It solves a huge problem for the instrument, though - violists don’t need to read more than one ledger line on the bottom, and when the part stays an octave or more above middle C, they switch to treble clef.

As mentioned in that Wiki article, bassoons and celli have to be able to read 3 clefs - Bass, Tenor and Treble. Trombonists have to be able to read 4 - Bass, Tenor, Treble and in Mozart’s day, Alto, because the alto trombone parts were all written in alto clef.

It’s interesting that you can be fluent in reading in the clef and still have it be a bit of a mind-f*ck when you read that clef on a different instrument. My wife, a trombonist, talked about playing string quartets on the piano for the first time, and even though she read all four clefs very well, she made a total fool of herself because she’d never played an alto clef part on a piano before.

The C clefs are also really handy for sight transposition, but that’s another story…

I first came across one of those when singing Mahler 2. I had a terrible time until one of my fellow tenors told me how it worked.

Speaking of mind-f*cks, for some reason the faculty of my musicology program required that we be able to read scores with multiple clefs for our keyboard proficiency. For example, my exam required me to play a section of a Mozart string quartet score with treble, alto, and bass clef all at once – on the piano. And then some Baroque thing with treble, tenor, and bass clefs. Gaaaaah! I passed, but jeez. Talk about a useless life skill that I spent hours of my life mastering but will never, ever, EVAR use again.

I think their rationale was that we should be able to demonstrate a passage from these types of pieces on the piano while giving a music history lecture. As if! Any normal person would cue up a CD and press Play.

Back in high school I played violin, but played viola in the school orchestra. Had to be able to switch back and forth, between G clef and C.

Now, over 45 years later, I’m singing Bass in a men’s chorus. Occasionally we have to sing something where all the parts are notated in G (treble) clef. My high school experience comes in handy.

In one of my musicianship classes in college (sophomore-level, but I took it as a freshman), we had to play Bach chorales at the piano, reading from music with the parts separated out into soprano, alto, tenor, and bass clefs. We had to sing one part and play the others. It was a real bitch, but good for me, I suppose.

Now I’m in grad school for musicology, and my piano proficiency is next Friday (oh shit). We have to score-read part of a Shostakovich string quartet (#4, mvt. 2), so that involves alto clef, and the cello goes into tenor clef at one point. We got the music a few weeks ago, but I’ve been too busy writing papers to do much practicing. I’d better get on that!

The website for my program mentioned a figured-bass part of the proficiency, so I got a book and practiced for hours over the summer… and then got here and found out that the website was outdated and that hasn’t been on the test for years.

Well, in fairness to them, it is very difficult to predict the skills you will or will not ever use again. From church organist to having to conduct a ‘small’ instrumental ensemble for a ‘simple’ cantata would be one easy side step down a slippery slope. Next thing you know, you’re conducting the St. Matthew Passion…

We had similar assignments in Keyboard Harmony class. Not that the profs ever explained the rationale for their personal systems of pedagogical torture, I mean, syllabus and curriculum choices, but there were two reasons given to me. A) A bunch of the profs used clefs as the basis for sight transposition. To transpose a piano part down a tone, pretend the treble clef is a tenor clef (and think up an octave), and pretend the bass clef is an alto clef (and think down an octave). To do this sort of thing at sight requires proficient sight reading in all the clefs. B) It’s easier to conduct an orchestra if you can read the score well enough to play it for yourself, even when it isn’t a ‘C’ score.

The late Richard Bradshaw, conductor and General Director of the Canadian Opera Company, was just a devil in the yearly auditions for the position of ‘Apprentice Coach’. The published requirements were a solo piece, the preparation of a specific opera score and advanced sight-reading. Invariably, the candidates would end up first having to investigate the full score of the opera they’d prepared, and play some of it from the full score, (“No, no, not to worry - I just want to hear the woodwinds and strings for this passage. Don’t play the brass, at least not until you get to letter E.”) and finally having to sight-transpose from full score. And if they blanched at it, he’d calmly sit down at the piano and show them how it went, then say “Now you have a go!” in his most avuncular tone.

The thing was, he didn’t want the sort of people who try to play every note on the page - he wanted the people who could figure out, often on the fly, what was important for the singers to hear and what could be left out. And he was never asking for anything he couldn’t do himself, which made it that much more challenging - the pianists instantly knew that he’d know if they screwed up.
And speaking as someone who started working seriously at piano at the age of 41, I’m deeply envious of anyone whose sight-reading is up to the stress of playing pieces at first sight in public. It has been 6 years of hard work for me to get to the level of butchering, I mean, playing the Bach Sinfonias and easiest Debussy…