Full score? SCORE!: Why singers need it

I’m not much for actually…doing something…on Facebook. Most of my time on Facebook is spent updating pages for organizations that I either run or of which I am an active member. And when I do post something on my personal Facebook, I try not to post something too polarizing because, frankly, I find Facebook exchanges that go down that road are generally self-serving and petty. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

But, I really couldn’t help myself with a post on Monday that I see as more of a PSA than anything else….here’s the post:

Composers, I love you gals and guys, but please: friends don’t let (composer) friends give singers “parts”. I need my full score! Y’all are with me, right? Please spread the word…

This comes after some extremely frustrating exchanges with multiple composers over the past six months. I had to release some angst. I AM SOPRANO, HEAR ME ROAR.

Don’t get me wrong: I love composers. (This is one of the reasons why I have devoted the bulk of my career to new music!) I love how their brains work. I love how they conceive of sounds that I can make without me even knowing it (until I try). I love arguing with them, exploring artistic boundaries with them, struggling and succeeding with them, being a team. (Insert *high five* here.)

One thing I don’t like: when they deliver a score very late. And when that score is not something that I can move forward with in my study process.

I want to be clear: I understand and respect the work of composers, both the artistic and practical work. I know how difficult and all-encompassing it is. But I expect respect from a composer in return, for my skill set and training, my artistry, and my time and process. I feel extremely disrespected when I receive a score much later than promised, and when that score is not something that I can work with. I didn’t go so far as to say that on Facebook, but there it is.

Maybe the root of this problem is the mystery of the singing process. It’s still a mystery to me, and I imagine to many of my singer colleagues, too. The voice is amazing; the voice is frustrating as hell. I can usually control it; sometimes, I can’t. I know what it can do, but I also am still discovering what it can do, and it’s morphing all the time.

The mystery continues with how singers study and prepare for rehearsal and performance. For me, it goes like this: the brain is smart, the body is stupid. My brain can comprehend and hear everything much quicker than my body and voice understand it and then work it into the muscles to a point when I can make music rather than just vocalize strings of pitches, rhythms, and whatever else may be there.

(This is not to say that I cannot learn music quickly when necessary. But, it’s not ideal for either my process, nor the composer, nor the composition. Sure, I learned an entire opera, and memorized it with staging in the space of about 10 days for a performance at the Beijing Modern Music Festival….but that doesn’t leave anyone satisfied. And the stress is shit on the body—I lost my voice at one point during the rehearsal process of this opera, not to mention ended up in the ER in the days after that project. STRESS!)

In response to all of the lively, and much appreciated, Facebook chatter on the topic of parts/scores, I can only respond with my own experience and needs. Singers are all wildly, WILDLY different, and that’s something that should be stressed. Speaking from the only position that I can—mine—I have to say that I am still shocked when a composer whom I respect, who is no longer “young,” and who has received serious commissions still hands me a “part,” i.e. literally just my line in a larger musical work.

I really, really, truly do not know how one can make music like this. Sure, I can learn the line on the part, but that’s not music. That’s just disconnected sound. (I also have trouble understanding how my instrumental colleagues get by with just a part in chamber music. This does depend on the size of the ensemble, but…still…we spend half the time telling each other what’s in our parts.)

Also, on the topic of the piano/vocal score: I know that every singer is different, and some singers do need PV scores because their study process is heavily dependent on the piano or a pianist. This is also something that may be required for the rehearsal process of an opera, no matter what. I personally am not interested in a PV version, since most of the music I sing is in conjunction with unique instrumentation, and timbre is relevant.

I’ll repeat that: timbre is relevant. I sing differently when I am singing with a flute, than with a double bass, than with an accordion and electric guitar. Not every singer is like this, but this is one of the blessings and curses of my voice: while I don’t have the typically warm, operatic sound in my voice, I do have a voice that is very flexible and am hence able to play with the timbre of my sound according to the situation.

I would also make the case to any singer that, no matter what piece you are singing—whether it’s Mozart, Berlioz, or Grisey—you had better know what instruments are playing with you and what that has to do with YOU. So, a PV score is awesome when you are learning staging for an opera or music theater, just trying to get pitch/rhythm cues…but you had damn well study your full score before the Sitzprobe.

As for you, dear composers (and theorists, and musicians of all shapes, sizes, and instruments), if you are teaching composition, please please PLEASE:

  • Force your students to write for voice when they are still studying so that they don’t get scared of it…or think that music with voice (which is usually with “words”) is not “real music”. While they’re at it, they might find some interesting literature to dive into…
  • Encourage your students and colleagues NOT to ask singers what their range is when composing a piece for them, but to ask more probing questions about comfortability of range, color, flexibility, passaggi (where the voice changes registers), and special aspects of a singer’s voice. Maybe some interesting compositional ideas will come from that conversation…
  • And, for the love of our sanity, please do not give us singers “parts”. Some situations and performers require PV scores, but everyone needs access to a full score.

Let’s keep this dialogue going. Much love to all of you from Germany…