Score Questioning- The Practical

“Conductors question scores for a living. Actual conducting is something you just have to do to share the answers you’ve found to the questions you’ve asked.”

Practical questions about music are important (and fun!) to answer.

When a real music lover tells me he or she has no interest whatsoever in the practical, technical issues of performance, I always feel I should try to change their mind. They’re probably the kind of people who always watch the “making of” feature on their dvds, so why be scared off by trying to understand how music works? It’s less scarey than trying to understand how pyrotechnics work.

So today we return to the practical issues of score questioning. You might want to make sure you’ve read episode one and David Hoose’s comment before proceeding.

I learned (through the much undervalued experience of humiliation) how important they can be when I took my first conducting final exam. We were to conduct the first or last movement of Brahms 1 and Der Freischutz Overture (the overture was to be memorized) with piano. I’d never really tried to analyze a symphony, let alone a Brahms symphony, right down to its DNA, and what I discovered completely and totally blew my mind (I can still remember the afternoon I did most of the work on my old sofa in my apartment, what the light was like, when the fire truck drove by- I’ve never looked at music the same way since that day). I got so excited I decided I would do both movements from memory as well as the Weber.

Well, that was all fine- I conducted my heart out and got through everything without falling apart.

Then the professor (Chris Zimmerman) started asking some questions to test my knowledge of the score.

I was actually looking forward to this bit!

He started by asking me to begin somewhere random, then he stopped me and asked what came next. I happily answered something along the lines of “the second theme enters on the third beat in inversion, while the bass completes the statement of the same theme in augmentation, which prepares the arrival in the new key on the downbeat, which has the third of the chord in the bassline and a suspension which is not resolved until the next bar.”

“Okay,” he said with great patience, “but who are you going to point at?”

I had no idea! I’d been so busy learning the music I completely forgot to learn the score, and I couldn’t have helped an orchestra to get through it. I had done the work needed to understand the music, but not to make it happen.

So, a good practical question might be- “who comes in next?” This might be quickly followed by “why that instrument/section at that moment?” Another practical question might be “what are they playing?” by which you could be asking “what notes are they playing?” “What rhythm are they playing” At a more enlightened level you might ask “what motive or theme are they playing?”

Where does that motive come from? Is it related to other ideas? Has this material appeared before? Is it scored differently this time? What are the dynamics? What part of that instrument’s range are they in? What else is going on at that moment?  What happens next? Is there something interesting about the harmony at that moment? How loud do they play? What is the articulation? Are they doubled? Is it an imitative entrance (that is, does another instrument or voice play the same or very similar material before or after it)?

One can see that a simple, practical question quickly leads to all kinds of other, more artistic questions. Back to my early final exam- I thought

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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