You walk into a rehearsal room of unfamiliar people, or a classroom of new students, most of whom you've not formally met. According to psychologists, they’re making immediate judgements about you within seconds, seven seconds to be exact, and you’ll do the same with them.
Aesthetic clues mainly, such as how you look, how you carry yourself, your expression and overall demeanor … in seconds! Most likely rooted in our defense and survival mechanisms, we rely on clues to assess what we’re confronted with, and, by our very nature, do so rather quickly. The main point remains - we only get one chance to make a great first impression.
The same phenomenon applies to your scores. Particularly, the impression your printed music makes on performers when they first lay eyes on it. Within seconds (perhaps only seven), as parts land on the stands yet to be played, each musician is unconsciously making a visual assessment that will ultimately leave a lasting impression on them, whether good or bad. If you're thinking, "C'mon, it’s not that big a deal ...", think again. Work is hard enough to get and you need to stand out from the crowd, so everything matters. A few new habits will go a long way and fully pay off.
While a weighty topic we'd need to expand on over time, it might be good to look at a few pointers to get started. Mainly, how do we create inviting scores that make the right first impression and increase first-read accuracy? That is, charts with an aesthetic quality that anticipates skillful work and a successful performance? Well, it begins with good grammar and etiquette, in music, that is. Use of key engraving concepts and notational conventions can help organize a page and focus attention to where it’s matters. This is especially important in today’s market where everything is necessitated “yesterday” leaving little time to rehearse and refine, and placing prime emphasis on the fine art of sight-reading. Professionally, we can’t afford less. This is not to take away from the fact that your music, itself, must certainly be of the highest quality. But that is always studied in great depth with little attention given to preparation. So for now, we'll veer off the beaten path for just a bit.
Ideas to make music as sight-readable and accessible as possible can apply to any session scenario, whether in a contemporary, jazz, or traditional settings. Most of the following examples are drawn from modern scores, but can apply abroad. Remember fundamental concepts of good formatting: white-space and margins, organization, flow, and focus. We then combine best-practices based on these ideas with the simple desire to make any reading session flow as smoothly as possible. Let's begin:
An easy place to start is simply remembering to use double-bar lines at each rehearsal mark, which usually denotes major sections of a score. This simple additional creates strong visual cues for the sight reader and helps them better follow the logical flow of your chart. As a general rule, if it seems odd to to place a double-bar line at a given rehearsal location, there's a good chance that location is a bad choice for a rehearsal mark. There's probably a more logical location for a rehearsal mark and double-bar line combination a few measures forward or backward, instead.
Aside from a title possibly giving away the expected sound or performance style of a chart, the tempo/feel indications and starting dynamic are two of many crucial items for directors and performers to know up front. Amazingly, these are most often left off by arrangers. Without these starting clues, how do we know if swing or straight-8's are expected? Any tempo? What volume? Stylized feel descriptions also suffice, such as Bossa, or Shuffle, or Burn! Having these things clearly stated helps prevent wasted time and moves a session along.
Another strong visual clue, and a well established convention (for good reason) is left-justifying rehearsal marks, as much as the score will allow. Sight readers appreciate keeping these in an expected location, and it usually contributes to the overall formatting in positive ways. There are always exceptions.
For jazz charts containing improv sections with chord changes, it can be very helpful to the soloist to set a fixed number of bars across each system. On tune forms divisible by 4, for example, maintaining four bars per system helps soloists concentrate on creating the solo while keeping their place easier on the page. This could work for any division as needed, as the goal is simply to keep the repeat or recap of the form structure toward the left margin, while keeping a comfortable, readable spacing between all chord symbols. The entire part outside of the solo section can also adhere to this, as desired.
A common mistake is to place DS or DC indications on a given bar directly before an adjacent bar that contains the Coda. This is visually confusing and simply incorrect. There should be a separation between these measures, usually in the form of a split-system. On parts, this can also include an indentation that makes it that much easier to locate quickly.
A simply split system on a score is all that's needed. Depending on the length of the coda, it can be beneficial to not place it on a new score page by itself, but keep it near the previous bar so as to highlight that a split exists. This is completely subject to the content and flow of a given score.
Another often overlooked, but incredibly helpful inclusion is using title headers after the first page. Why? The next time a band passed your chart back in to you, and you discover that most of your parts are now hopelessly out of page order, you'll be thankful for this. Without it, parts will be more difficult to identify than you might realize. Most editors include a provision to easily set this, and has the potential to save much pain.
When trying to pump out a score, it's not uncommon for writers to forget to refine and think through their scores a little better. A reoccurring fallout is forgetting to give your horns suitable breathing room. Most often, breathe considerations correlate directly to musical phrases that should exist naturally. For that matter, all parts need to phrase and breathe, not just wind instruments
Another snafu are hairpin markings without starting or ending dynamics indicated. Dynamic markings are already subjective in nature. So add to that crescendos or decrescendos that instruct us to gradually adjust volume. But, just how loud, or how soft? A standard reference is the least we must offer by always considering dynamic indications on hairpins.
The grand-staff, most often used for piano, can be a source of confusion. In general, we strive to prioritize the top, or treble, clef whenever possible, and only use the lower stave if absolutely needed. Following this helps to promote a more condensed part to read without sacrificing any required information to the player by simply hiding the lower staff whenever empty. Most editors feature the ability to achieve this on parts. With that in mind, it is not recommended to mix notation or notated chords alongside slash markings, as in Ex 9.
Likewise, slash markings should not be duplicated in the lower stave of a grand staff as it is redundant and unnecessarily adds more staves to the part. This would also prevent condensing the part down through hiding empty staves. Pianists will have a better read-through when their part isn't extending off the music stand and is as concise as possible.
Drum notation is included in this roundup due to the complexity of special note-heads and symbols that writers sometimes confuse. As a general rule, a slash or slash-head (Ex. 14) always represents a generalized, non-specific sound or time indication, whereas any other note-head refers to a particular sound or instrument.
Common examples would include using x-heads for cymbals, and standard note-heads for snare, toms, and bass drum. Drum notation contains a large number of varying note-heads designating a myriad of drum and percussion instruments, such as triangle and diamond shaped notes - more on that later. Example 12 illustrates a clear use of cymbal vs drum notation. For reading optimization, keep your drum patterns simple with just enough information for the drummer to interpret. Don't overwrite or micro-manage their playing.
It is common to want to tell the drummer to play certain "hits", or "kicks" that typically line up with rhythms played within the ensemble. Sometimes these hits occur while the drummer continues keeping time, and other times it's meant to replace a time pattern, altogether. The latter is often referred to as a "whole-kit" hit; when a time pattern ceases and is replaced by a kick pattern utilizing the whole drum set. The drummer is not told exactly which drums or cymbals to use, but they are trusted to use their artistic senses within the given context. These hits are recognized when placed in the center of the staff, as to implicate the "whole" staff. However, example 13 shows an incorrect note-head being used, which in this case could be construed as meaning a particular drum instead of the whole kit. Example 14 reveals the importance of using the generic slash-head, instead.
And finally, whole-kit hits are in contrast to "ensemble hits" which are normally played on top of a continuing drum pattern. The drummer understands to incorporate ensemble-hits into the pattern they're playing, which accentuates or reinforces what the band is playing without interrupting the beat. Example 15 compares a cymbal pattern with ensemble hits. It's also common to write these hits over bar repeats, as shown. Always be sure not to confuse notating whole-kit hits vs ensemble hits.
As stated, these are but a few pointers among many that can help any reading session run a little smoother. More clarity means less questions asked, less stopping and starting, and more music happening. This of course translates to time and costs savings that mark any professional endeavor.
More to come ...
Marc J Stasio is an east-coast based composer/arranger, pianist, educator, and author who actively lives out his calling producing scores for hire, serving as collegiate jazz faculty and performing abroad for nearly 40 years. His work is heard on recordings by today's top artists in jazz and contemporary music. As professor of jazz studies, he specializes in teaching composition and arranging based on “the Hidden Score,” with a dedicated blog by that title. Marc holds a B.M. in Arranging and a Masters degree in Jazz Studies. Visit http://marcstasio.com.
This article may be freely reprinted by including the author's bio and website address, above, subject to copyright law.