When It’s (Mostly) Okay to Mark Your Parts in Blue Pen
By Drew Holmes
This week my visit to the schools in the Thompson School District happened to coincide with the first day of school. Over the last year and a half, I have not had the opportunity to see these educators with any regularity, so the day was spent reconnecting and catching up.
One fantastic conversation I had was with a middle school orchestra director. As usual, we talked about our families and what we had been up to this summer. And of course, we talked about the past school year and the one just started. Numbers are down across the board for music programs and most teachers I know are thrilled just to have participation in their programs.
An online group she’s a part of is having a debate amongst middle school directors centered around letting kids write note names into their music. The idea is they should not do this but rather learn to read the notes. There are even some educators who are choosing to police their students’ parts and limit the number of note names written on the page.
“That’s not a hill I’m willing to die on” she told me.
I wholeheartedly agreed. Even today I will extensively mark my parts as needed, so I do not get lost or miss a note. Then I remembered one of the most heavily marked parts I have even seen. This came not from a student who was just learning but from a world renowned professional.
While working as an orchestra librarian for the Mostly Mozart Festival, I found a cello part that was so heavily marked it was borderline illegible. My heart sank when I saw that the marking had not been made in pencil, as is customary, but blue pen.
“Bob” I asked my fellow librarian, “what happened here?”
“Oh” he replied, “that’s a Martin Ormandy part. You’ll find those from time to time.”
Martin Ormandy had been a cellist in the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra (and the New York freelance scene) for about 30 years. The 36 years prior to that he had been a cellist with the New York Philharmonic, a position offered to him by Arturo Toscanini. At the time of his death at age 95, he was the oldest working orchestral musician in America.
“Why did he mark the parts in pen?” I asked.
“His eyesight got so bad it was the only way he could see the markings. Unfortunately, we can’t salvage this to use again, so you’ll need to replace it”
I was awestruck. Here was a world class musician with one of the longest professional careers on record and he had marked his parts more thoroughly than I had ever seen. Doing this may have rendered them unusable to other musicians, but it had effectively extended Martin Ormandy’s career by years if not decades. Instead of sitting silent, his cello entertained audiences long after most people would have retired.
When we teach a child to love making music, we are giving them skills that truly last a lifetime. Long after their last track meet or soccer game, they will still be able to participate in music. If part of that journey involves excessively marking a piece of music, that is perfectly fine!
I just hope they do not use blue pen.