The Writings on the Score

As a writer, the marks I make on paper, or via the word-processing programme on my laptop, are the outward signifiers of my creativity. When I publish an article or essay those marks are made public, put out there and held up for scrutiny.

I am also a musician, a pianist in fact, a role, which, like writing, is largely undertaken in isolation. The outward signifier of my musical creativity comes when I perform for others; like my writing, the work, the graft, the practising is done alone.

The tools of the musician’s craft, in addition to their instrument and intent, are the “text”, the “literature” contained within  musical scores, and these documents provide the map for our musical journeys. On a most basic level, the markings we make on the score relate to fingering schemes, dynamics and marks of expression, pedalling and so forth. Learning music is a complex mental and physical process, and anything that assists in that process is useful. Often it is simply not possible to remember all the details in the music, and annotations provide a useful aide memoir and an immediate mnemonic for the practice of practising. These marks are our individual “hieroglyphs”, and our own secret code, through which our scores become precious, often highly personal documents.

Our writings on the score reveal our individual working processes and practice patterns, our attempts to dig away at the surface of the music, to look beyond the notes to find a deeper meaning. The permanence of a pencil mark is such that, until we choose to erase that mark, it remains there on the page in front of our eyes.

The markings and annotations we make on our scores may also be deeply associated with memories – of significant teachers or mentors, special concerts and venues, colleagues and friends, and may even correspond to certain periods in our lives. Returning to the piano after a 20-year absence, I came upon an earlier teacher’s markings in my dog-eared edition of Bach’s ‘48’. In a curiously potent Proustian rush, I was a gauche teenager again, back in Mrs Murdoch’s living room, her big Steinway stretched out before me, the book of Preludes and Fugues open on the music desk. Returning to a score after a break from it, one reacquaints oneself not only with the dots upon the staves; in the interim, the annotations have become a snapshot of another time and place.

Looking at another musician’s annotated score is an act of voyeurism: a score liberally marked with someone else’s fingering and comments might reveal someone’s deepest insecurities and frustrations, their unspoken hopes and most secret desires…..


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The author Umberto Eco had a library of an astonishing 30,000+ books, most of which he had not, and probably never did read. Nassim Nicholas Talib (author of The Black Swan) calls this an “anti-library” and believes it represents an ongoing intellectual curiosity and thirst for knowledge, for all those unread books contain what one does not know yet. The more one reads, the more one’s knowledge increases; the books one hasn’t read are a research tool, a means to extend one’s knowledge further.

The same can perhaps be said for musical scores. On the bookcase in my piano room are many scores of music which I may never play, but I have acquired those scores out of curiosity, and many of them represent, for me at least, an acknowledgement that my musical knowledge continues to grow. Some scores are also research tools, purchased for their detailed notes and annotations rather than the music itself; others I bought because I simply wanted to possess them. Some I have been sent by composers, hopeful that I may play their music. All of them are the music I haven’t played yet.

Years ago, long before I started writing this blog and interviewing musicians on a regular basis, I went to interview a concert pianist at his home in the leafy suburbs. One wall of his piano room/office was filled with scores, floor to ceiling – dusky blue Henle, brick-red Weiner Urtext and pale green Peters editions and many more. This collection, including some very well-thumbed, much-used editions, represented a lifetime’s work in the profession, but I suspect there were more than a few scores that may never be opened, yet they had their place in this library as the music he hadn’t played yet.

In the world today, knowledge can be accrued incredibly easily and quickly via the internet, and this accrual of knowledge becomes a compulsive need to enable us to rise in the hierarchy of  perceived “intelligence” or “knowledgeability”. I am always rather suspicious of people who tell me they have played all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, this completist approach suggesting a certain lack of humility, as if to say “that’s it, I have mastered the instrument and its literature!”. I prefer to subscribe to a more humble approach, based on the knowledge that a piece of music is never truly “finished”. People who lack this humility may enjoy a sense of pride at having ‘conquered’ Beethoven, without acknowledging that learning is an ongoing process.

The music we haven’t played yet may well be the most interesting in our repertoire, for it offers new possibilities in broadening our musical knowledge, extending our technical and artistic facilities, and widening our cultural horizons. It is a sign of an ever-expanding understanding of our competence and a necessary spur to mastery.

In fact, all the music we haven’t played yet represents a wondrous opportunity – it is just waiting to be explored!

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