Using a pencil like a pro

Photo, rutty

I know that my students (or I) are practicing badly when their sheet music remains in mint condition week after week. A good practice session involves lots of small successes and breakthroughs, many or most of which will be forgotten by the next practice session. Using a pencil is the obvious but somehow frequently-overlooked way to make sure tomorrow’s practicing builds on today’s successes, instead of repeating or rehashing.

It’s a mistake to think that pencil marks are amateurish or a crutch. Musicians in professional situations often have to learn music with little lead time or rehearsal, and a pencil is a professional-grade tool for making music with accuracy and poise. The most effective pencil usage depends on a couple of prerequisites:

  1. Have one. It’s embarrassing, unprofessional, and time-wasting to be caught without a pencil. Buy yourself a bulk package of cheap mechanical pencils, and stash them everywhere: Pockets, purse, instrument case, sheet music folder, gig bag, desk, reedmaking table, teaching studio. Tie one to the music stand in your practice space. Every so often, restock each space, since, if you’re like me, pencils seem to have a way of wandering off to be discovered later in the laundry.
  2. Read. If you’re the kind of player that tends to ignore markings printed in the part, then you probably won’t pay much attention to pencil marks either. Become a meticulous follower of written instructions. (If you don’t like the printed instructions, use your pencil and your well-informed artistic judgment to change them, then obey your pencil marks.)

Good pencil markings are clear, concise, efficient, and preferably easily understood by someone else at a glance. I find circles, stars, and highlighting to be so vague as to be pointless; don’t bother making a mark unless it’s adding information to the page. Most common woodwind fingerings can be readily identified with a letter or two (such as “S” for a side fingering or “L” for a left-hand fingering). Develop a vocabulary of markings and use them consistently, so that ultimately you can read them as quickly and accurately as you can read notes. If your sheet music is looking a little too pristine, ask yourself if your playing might benefit from having any of the following information right there on the page:

  • Translations of foreign or unfamiliar terms or symbols
  • Metronome markings
  • Breath marks
  • Accidentals marked in for unfamiliar key signatures
  • Alternate fingerings
  • Additional dynamics, to help shape each phrase
  • Landmarks of form
  • An outline of the harmony (perhaps in figured bass or chord symbols)
  • Corrections for pitch tendencies of your instrument
  • A little pep talk (Such as “relax” or “keep fingers close”)
  • Accompaniment cues

And don’t be afraid to erase. Pencil in some breath marks in what seem to be good places, then give them a try. If you don’t like them for practical or artistic reasons, erase and try again. But don’t just leave them out because you’re undecided—mark them and you’ll quickly discover whether they work or they don’t.

As a teacher, I find that pencil markings give me a lot of insight into my students’ thought processes. If their music is well-marked and I hear problems with their playing, I can tell immediately if it’s due to a questionable interpretive choice or to a failure to execute. It also clues me in to what “stuck” from last week’s lesson: hopefully they are actively looking for places to use that new fingering, and, if so, I can see evidence of it.

Keep those pencils sharp!

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