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  • Ian Passmore

Passmore's Picks: Score Study Madness!

So this was originally going to be a simple “checklist” for score study; but that doesn’t really work for me, because I don’t study that way. Score study is a strangely personal thing. Everyone “ingests” music differently; and one’s own method is usually just favorite bits and pieces taken from teachers, mentors, etc. along the way. Of course, with experience, we pickup new things and discard some old...but in general, each method is really a “Frankenstein’s monster” of others’ methods. It’s a perpetuating cycle.


I had a weird path to conducting. It’s the only thing I’ve really wanted to do with any seriousness since I was nine or ten years old. When I got to college, I started out as a music education major, then switched to a general music degree sometime during my sophomore year. (Why? Well, that's a post for a different day....) Anyway, turns out that was just enough time to take all of the “hands-on” methods classes, but no conducting classes. Everything I had up until my graduate degrees in orchestral conducting was a product of either self-teaching, private lessons, or masterclasses. To this day, I still haven’t taken a formal “class” in conducting. Go figure….


I was always a bright student. I retained information very easily, and I took advantage of it. I’m also good with people. Turns out all of that translates well into music! Now obviously, as the scores got more difficult, I was forced to become more studious...but I’m also pretty impatient and easily bored. Turns out neither of those things go well with “studious-ness!” So, what the hell does all of that have to do with score study? I’ll tell you. Here’s my haphazard score study “method,” which is almost always accomplished in very short, very intense bursts, separated by a lot of purposeful breaks and distractions. It’s very akin to the way you might imagine a college student cramming for an exam.


  1. Read as much as I can about the composer and his/her music...not just the piece in question, but all of it!

  2. Consider every aspect of its construction: instrumentation, orchestration, harmony, form, rhythm, meter, phrase length, etc. Everything you can possibly think of.

  3. For “common practice” tonal music, I like to “follow the bass,” as a former music theory mentor liked to say. So, I’ll read each line of the score from beginning to end, starting with the lowest sounding parts. I’ll mark things that seem particularly interesting and/or tricky. Those spots often, but not always, turn out to be problematic in rehearsal.

  4. I mark things in color these days, especially if it’s not standard rep. My eyesight has never been great, and it’s only getting worse!

  5. Many of my very capable colleagues do a complete harmonic analysis of every piece, including “graphic” analysis. If that sounds like your jam, I highly recommend you check out Indiana University’s own Audio Variations Timeliner (http://www.singanewsong.org/audiotimeliner/)! I have never found that process to be particularly useful, unless there’s something really funky going on (e.g. dense chromaticism and/or some works from the late 19th and 20th centuries); so the amount of harmonic analysis in my scores is usually pretty sparse.

  6. Bowings! This is a big one for us orchestra folk. Not being a string player, I will usually only mark a bowing that I am adamant about...and even then, a real pro can usually help me find a better one! At that point, I erase mine and mark theirs...until the next better one comes along :)

  7. BEST FOR LAST! This is a big one, and one that I harp on constantly when I’m asked to speak to and/or coach educators and conductors: I study with a thesaurus! For every musical “character,” I’ll have 3-5 different emotions or descriptors written into my score. (I stole this one from my masters and doctoral mentors.) For professionals, that’s often enough. They’ll take that and figure out the best way to produce that effect. If you’re teaching, you’ll have to go a step further, and have a concrete technical solution to elicit the sound you want.


**The above steps usually happen very out of order, and often simultaneously. Remember when I used the word, “haphazard?” ;)  



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