Please lose the music binder

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For some reason a high percentage of my incoming students each year like to make a 3-ring binder for their sheet music and lesson materials. I don’t know why.

They apparently put a fair amount of time and money into this project, which often involves custom cover artwork, dividers, and plastic sheet protectors. As the semesters go by, the binder fills up with every bit of sheet music they have used, until the binder is so heavy that a music stand won’t support its weight.

I applaud and relate to their interest in keeping things organized and their enthusiasm for the course. But the big music binder just doesn’t work very well. Here are my complaints:

  • Putting everything in sheet protectors discourages marking, which is crucial to effective practicing. Even if your intention is to pull the sheet music out to practice and make markings, are you really going to go to the trouble every single time? Or will some things go unmarked when you feel too lazy to pull the music out for the umpteenth time?
  • You will discover quickly that sheet music doesn’t all come in a neat, uniform 8½”×11″ size.
  • Carrying everything with you is pointless and impractical. I do think you should keep basically all of the repertoire, etudes, and other materials that you work on. But unless they are part of your active practice regimen, they shouldn’t be cluttering your music stand or weighing down your backpack. Get a big cardboard or plastic file box (you will probably need “legal size”) and keep your older materials neatly organized in a safe place.
  • While good organization is important, sometimes it turns into an excuse to procrastinate the real work of practicing. Your organization system should suit you, but shouldn’t turn into a time drain.

I do think it’s handy to have something to organize and protect what you are currently working on, especially if you are a student and need your practicing to move easily between multiple locations. Consider a large manila envelope, a pocket folder, or even a commercially-available music portfolio.

6 thoughts on “Please lose the music binder”

  1. At this point, why even bother with paper? PDF and tablets make so much more sense. All the time wasted printing, organizing the stuff. Ugh. Go get an iPad. They have the cheap non-pro ones for about $300 now. Or even an android tablet. You can easily take pictures of sheets, or scan them. And you can even get a PDF reader for Kindle’s now.

    Just makes so much more sense. My iPad 1 from 2011 STILL is a great thing to read PDFs on. I can take hundreds of books, and it remembers where I was. I can make notes on the sheets. Game changing.

    • I look forward to the technology improving on this. I was in a symphony rehearsal recently and someone in the orchestra had scanned all of their music to read from an iPad. It seemed to work pretty well until the conductor made a comment. The rest of us made a quick pencil mark while the iPad user scrambled through menus. I’m a mostly-digital kind of guy, but I still need the immediacy of paper and pencil for score marking.

  2. Bret, I agree that housing sheet music inside of 3-ring binders is a fruitless endeavor. I’ve observed that band programs today require their students to use 3-ring binders for storing and transporting sheet music. It’s especially common in beginning band programs, where uniformity using binders is useful for homogeneous instruction.

    Nowadays the older oversized ensemble folders we’re accustomed only appear in all-state bands, collegiate programs, large orchestras, and community bands.

  3. I use a notebook to hold the music for a specific project. For example, the music for an ensemble performance this weekend is in a notebook. The music comes out after the performance. No dividers, just removable tabs. The notebook keeps the music protected, easy to find, and safe from stray wind gusts. A notebook fits in my backpack. It also provides a way to neatly get blank paper into rehearsals for notes. I do agree with your objections to sheet protectors. Another problem with them is glare, especially when performing outside or with stand lights.

    I also use an iPad for sheet music, mainly solos. I’m hoping the latest iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil solves the problem of quickly annotating music.

  4. But for flipping pages when you’re playing, a ring-binder makes things much easier and “safer” (pages can’t go flying). And even when studying sheet music, a binder means that you won’t mis-order sheets or flip double-sided sheets the wrong way.


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