How to Study a Score

Every composer, conductor, and performer knows the importance of understanding a score. Quite literally, written music means little to nothing if it is not interpreted. As a composer and conductor for many years, I have picked up a few tricks to help you analyze scores efficiently and effectively.

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1. Pretend it is your favorite piece of music in the world.

This may sound like an odd first step, but it truly makes the difference between a good conductor and a great conductor. If you purposefully chose a mindset of excitement and interest, then the work of learning a score feels like good work that does itself.

2. Learn every non-musical detail you possibly can about the piece.

Before even looking at the music, great conductors tend to research everything they can to discover the context and purpose of the piece of music. Once you understand who wrote the music, why they wrote it, and where they were both physically and temporally you will be able to make wise interpretational choices. Other details to explore would be: publication information, dedication/commision info, and performance history.

3. Prepare physically and mentally to study a score.

Although you may find it silly, research has proven that prolonged study of material from a bad posture will perpetuate bad posture whenever that information is recited. In other words, if you study a score while laying on the couch in your sweatpants and watching tv, then you will return to that mental and physical state whenever you try to conduct that music. On the other hand, you can train yourself to conduct with great posture and a clear mind by studying your scores in a position of great posture.

4. As you learn the actual music, make associations.

This is a trick I have picked up recently that has vastly improved my conducting. Instead of analyzing and circling every tiny change in dynamics, I generalize sections of music and associate them with other things in life. For example, if a section of music grew louder and softer over and over again, I would simply write the word "ocean" next to that section, and then seek to portray the waves of the ocean in my conducting. You can also make harmonic, rhythmic, and timbral associations so that, once you become really familiar with a piece of music, you don't even have to focus on the details because they will naturally arise out of your associations. When I go to conduct something that I am really familiar with, I may simply think "grass, clouds, sunset, prickly, sturdy, gold".

5. Learn to sing every part.

This final step is simultaneously the hardest and the most important. No matter the music, vocal or instrumental, you should learn to sing every part from beginning to end. If you truly master every line in the piece, then you can stand on the podium with 100% confidence in your ability to conduct and teach the music. A complete understanding of every line is necessary to be a great conductor, but it takes hundreds of hours of dedicated practice. Complete this final step whenever you wish to be completely confident on the platform, and make great music.

Cheers,

Jeremiah Tabb

What Should I Practice?

Not all practice is created equal.

This is a hard truth I learned when I first picked up the piano. Coming from a background of bluegrass festivals and parking lot jams, I assumed my mandolin experience would quickly and effectively transfer to the piano. I understood a fair amount of theory, so I picked up some Chopin and dove right in!

Needless to say, months passed without making any progress at all. I still felt extremely uncomfortable on the piano, and I was feeling discouraged beyond belief.

Then one piece of information changed my life; I learned how to practice.

Practice is taught to most musicians as a one size fits all system because of the natural progression that all musicians have to go through:

Technique -> Repertoire -> Musicianship

Any person who wishes to be a musician must follow this natural progression, and any person who wishes to be a great musician has to follow this sequence over and over again for their whole life.

But just because there is a natural sequence to musical improvement does not mean that every journey should be identical! This is where we traditionally get everything mixed up!

Practice is a personal journey, and every human should engage with practice as a personal journey.

Intensity is more important than content.

This is the secret to practicing effectively: practice whatever you feel like practicing, but practice it with all of your might.

If today feels like a day for ragtime, practice ragtime. If today feels like a day for pop, practice pop. A day for improvisation should be spent improvising. 

As you invest all of yourself into the things that you naturally want to practice, you will start to notice that you need a better understanding of technique to achieve the sound that you want.

Then, and only then, will you be motivated to practice technique in a way that sticks with you.

Practicing what you want with a high level of intensity creates a demand for advanced technique, and you will find a superhuman level of motivation arises from that need.

Practice is a way of life.

One more concept that will change your musical life: break down the barrier between your musical life and your "real" life.

Every moment of every day is musical if you chose to observe the musicality of the world.

What is that bird singing? How would I play that on my instrument?

Is that microwave buzzing a perfect fifth?

Woah! What crazy rhythm did that passing car just play when it bounced on that speed bump?

Can you identify the scales being used in that elevator music? The harmonic progression?

What sound could possibly convey the loving glance your friend just gave you?

Cheers,

Jeremiah Tabb

Why Study Music Theory?

“I can’t even read music, I only play by ear!”

Frequently I run into musicians and performers who cannot read sheet music and, more often than not, they happen to play their instrument way better than I do.

When first running into these individuals I often get very discouraged. It seems like a complete waste of time to spend years of my life and thousands of dollars to learn music theory if that knowledge does not even make me a better musician than these “by ear” prodigies.

It is especially upsetting when I run into composers who sit down at the piano and melt my soul with an original piece, only to find out that they have never learned the basic rules of harmony.

Some may even say “music theory takes the soul out of music” or “stop analyzing it bro, you just have to feel it”. Interactions like this used to make me doubt my place as a composer, and question how important this whole “music thing” was to me in the first place.

“Music theory is the scat of music; what music leaves behind”

W. A. Mathieu writes in his book “Harmonic Experience” that music theory is the “scat” of music.

And the funny thing is, I completely agree with him. Music theory is not music, music notation is not music, and theoretical elitists are seldom great musicians. The groove, joy, purpose, and life of music is not communicated by music theory. No amount of functional harmony is going to move an audience or convey a story, music is.

So… why study music theory?

Rather than answer this question directly, I want you to consider three other questions:

  1. What is the intention behind your music?

  2. What fear is holding you in place?

  3. Who is a musical “winner”?

Musical intention

Every note that has ever been played, every word that has ever been sung, and every beat that has ever been drummed has contained a specific and pointed intention. That intention can be heard by anyone that is listening.

If you are playing music to make money, it will sound like you are playing music to make money. If you are singing to impress a crush, it will sound like you have a crush. If you are playing because music is the only thing left in this world that brings you hope, it will sound as so.

Quite often, when I meet “by ear” prodigies, their music fills the room with a boastful shout saying: “Look at me! I am sooooooo much better than you! I have a gift and you are just a silly poser! I deserve attention and you deserve to be forgotten!”

I struggle to even hear their music over the screaming narcissistic intention.

To beat fear

Some days theory, technique, and creativity can seem unattainable because it feels impossible to get off of the couch. I use to think I was just lazy on these days or that I “deserved the break”, but I always knew in my gut that that was not true.

In reality, when you are struggling to find motivation or creativity, it is because of fear. Fear sneaks into your mind and spoils your practice with thoughts such as “I will never be good enough”, “this is a waste of time”, or “I don’t need to know this, the best pop songs in the world only have four chords”.

When you spend some time in conversation with this fear, it is a form of musical practice. Why are you scared of wasting your time learning technique? Why are you scared of modulating to a new key? Why are you scared of spending money on that ear training book so that you can sing with more confidence?

Winning music

Many of us have a mental image of the “ultimate” musician. For me - John Adams. For many - J.S. Bach. It is an extremely helpful practice to have these huge musical “idols” so that you aspire to their level of talent. And, in fact, it is extremely hurtful to your musical development if you stop looking up to people.

But, you must also hang on to music itself. As you learn, toil, work, and edit, the music you produce gains an increasingly real value. If you play a chord that sounds great to your ears than I guarantee it would sound like a miracle to those behind you in the musical journey. As you play, listen, and learn, you have to hang on to the small musical wins, the small moments of pure musical joy and beauty that make this whole journey worth it.

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Music theory is not music. Music theory teaches perspective, humility, and a dash of craft. The lessons you learn as you uncover the secrets of music, in western culture and beyond, will do nothing but inrich your musical journey and your life as a whole.

Cheers,

Jeremiah Tabb