Ten reasons to read from parts instead of vocal scores in choirs


In February, 2012, I began a long-term experiment in choral singing. It started innocently enough when I received a large, heavy vocal score of Mozart’s Vesperae solennes de confessore (K. 339), from which to sing only the first two movements. Since it was about 69 pages, I could not use a three-hole puncher on it, and so I figured I would lighten my load by extracting only those movements. At some point in that process, I thought to myself that it would be a good idea to extract just my part in Finale, and just read from that. Sure enough, I had a finished product that only had one page turn in both movements. The above image shows the difference between the first page of the second movement of that piece, “Confitebor,” and its counterpart in my bass part score. Using this, I’ll try to explain why I haven’t stopped converting every vocal score I am handed into a part.

It saves space and paper.

Obviously, the part is much smaller than the vocal score. In this example, I’ve taken a whole page and am left with a little under two staves. The two movements are 23 pages originally, but only take four pages of generously spaced part score. This not only conserves paper, but lightens the whole folder to where it weighs almost nothing. In addition, being able to control the format of the music, the whole program can be in my folder without any fear of something falling out of the folder.

There are fewer page turns.

This much should be obvious. If I can make it so I don’t have to turn a page anywhere in a piece, I have done my job. If it is larger than two pages and must turn a page in a piece, I feel good knowing that I didn’t have to turn forty pages. The entire 47-page vocal score to the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony became only five pages when I sang it last semester. I can usually get an hour program into twelve pages, or six sheets printed duplex. There is a kind of private satisfaction that has to come when the entire choir misses an entrance because it was on the other side of a page turn and they hadn’t made it there yet, while you had seen it coming for several measures.

There isn’t really any valuable information lost.

The most common thing I hear when someone notices my extracted part is that he or she needs to see the other parts in order to sing the piece correctly. While this might be true in some extreme circumstances, a few cue notes can fill in any insecurity a singer might have about an entrance. On singing most pieces once or twice, I’ve noticed that I have not had to see where my note is in relation to other parts. The logic of the piece and memory work together to let me know that I am about to sing the root, the fifth, or what have you. And in that case, the intervals are already clearly in the part, so with all these factors working together, there is no reason one really needs all those parts.

Everything in the part is for you.

Often, I’ve noticed while reading through a full vocal score for the first time, my eyes will fixate on my notes, sometimes grabbing the word if it isn’t too fast. Dynamics, articulations, and word stress can take a back seat until I am told to note them. I feel that this happens a lot in choirs, which is why rehearsals for a single piece can take months in many universities. Since switching to a part, my eyes automatically see everything that I should pay attention to. I see the crescendo that leads up to a forte six measures ahead, I see the articulations, and I see the structure of the whole sentence, which is now all on a single page. I can get straight to the fun part of making music (the “making music” part) much faster using a part.

I can sort out the edition in a way that makes sense to my modern eyes.

I would venture a guess that most choirs spend a fair bit of time dealing with an unfamiliar edition. Our modern eyes are accustomed to seeing a quarter note getting a beat, so when we see an old piece in a fast 4/2 or 6/4, I have the option of converting those sections to 4/4 and 6/8. That way, the beat structures of the measures make sense at first sight, such as in the final sections of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. If the score uses the style that is now going out of vogue of breaking beams between notes of different syllables, I can beam all of the notes according to the beat pattern and show a syllable getting more than one note with a slur. This is also demonstrated in the above example.

I also usually write out all complicated repeat patterns so that I always just read from start to finish without having to retrace steps in performance. If there is more than one line of lyrics, I can choose the one that is being sung.

There is always room to insert a word-for-word translation of foreign texts.

As you can see in the example, I made a word-for-word translation of the Latin, so that I could always have the sense of the line. The same can be done, with the help of Google translate and Wiktionary, with just about any language in which you can sing. And, of course, if the conductor asks what a word means, I can always supply an answer!

The part score can account for conductor rehearsal numbers.

Choral conductors have a notorious habit of calling the place of rehearsal by page number, rather than measure number. This is easily remedied with a few well-placed page number cues. In the above example, the (13) above the first system means that when the conductor says, “All right, let’s go to page 13,” my eyes can just look up and find the spot instantly. The same goes for rehearsal letters. When the conductor yells, “Everyone start at letter C!” instead of flipping page after page, I can glance down, find C, and await the next instruction.

The part score teaches counting!

Singers are stereotyped for being unable to count like instrumentalists can. In fact, I know of some voice majors who did not see a multi-measure rest until after graduation. The fact is, instrumentalists count so much better than voice majors because they don’t have the option of following the accompaniment or other parts on the page to find when to come in next. Singers tend to use the written accompaniment or other parts as a safety net, to the point that instead of learning how not to fall in the safety net, they always make it back to the next trapeze by means of the net. This became stunningly clear to me when I was at the dress rehearsal of the university Christmas concert, which the choir had been preparing for three or four weeks. After we struggled to figure out where to come in several times, some brass players from the university sat down to a Gabrieli piece waiting for them on their stands, and played it flawlessly on the first try. If instrumentalists can do it, why shouldn’t singers be able to do it? They’re not just dialing notes, but are counting them, finding them, and tuning them.

Since using these parts, I have found myself much better at counting to find where I am and where I will be next. I don’t think of that entrance three measures away as “when I come in after the piano plays a loud arpeggio” or “when the conductor gives us all a big cue,” but as “when I have counted three measures.” Before I used the parts, I just didn’t have the same inner pulse going the whole way through a piece like I do now. Certain patterns always look the same on my page, so when there is a particular rhythm coming, I have the advantage of knowing it is coming every time.

They’re just better.

Parts, as a whole, are just a whole lot cleaner, are more efficient, and have more consistency. There is always the same distance between two notes, so that intervals and rhythms suddenly become easier to sing at sight. In my ideal choral experience, the singers would have access to the full score for score study, and be issued parts from which to sing. That way, if there is a visual cue that needs to be used to sing a part, the singer can draw from that full score and make a part he or she is proud to sing from.

If it’s good enough for Monteverdi and Brahms, it’s good enough for me.

There is significant precedent for this sort of singing, too. Not only have people been singing from parts for centuries (the example that comes to mind instantly is any book of madrigals by Monteverdi), but they were doing it as late as Brahms’s day, as seen in his correspondence with his publisher Fritz Simrock, such as the one of October 6, 1878. The motets for which he is ordering those parts (or “Stimmen” in German) are quite difficult to sing—the Op. 74 motets, “Warum ist das Licht gegeben den Mühseligen” and “O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf.”

Since that first extracted part, I have made 331 parts, totaling 462 pages. This has included music I’ve sung in university, in church, and indeed any gig where I have had the music in advance of the performance. Through all of this, I have become much more familiar with a wide range of music than if I weren’t doing this kind of score study. It’s a wonderful excuse to sit down with a score and become familiar with it. I can usually get through a piece within a half hour or hour, while listening to a recording of a lecture or audio-book. It feels very much like doing a crossword puzzle, except at the end I have a score I can use.

I have come out of this experiment a significantly better musician.

5 thoughts on “Ten reasons to read from parts instead of vocal scores in choirs”

  1. Would you suggest this for use with younger choirs. I can see a benefit in terms of saving scores from destruction but in terms of using the full score to show other parts, do you think that the young need to be able to see a full score in order to make those connections on what is going on in the context of the piece compared to their part?

    1. It is hard to say. I am no pedagogue. I can only speak with the perspective of a singer and not that of a director. But were I a director, I would certainly give it a shot to see what would happen. 🙂 Is it easier for the young to see every part at the same time? I wouldn’t think so. Under the same principle as “If you highlight everything, you highlight nothing,” a full score gives you a blanket resource for solving problems with your understanding of the piece. If it is too much information to be reading at sight for a collegiate singer, it is probably just as excessive for a younger singer.

  2. This is very insightful, Andrew. I have to say, I really learned how to count rests when I joined Wind ensemble and Marching Band as a Junior. You have very convincing arguments, and it would be interesting to see this catch one.

    I have actually used this in preparing for my elementary programs at school. With the younger students, who are still developing their aptitude for everything music, leaving out accompaniments and extra vocal lines makes their line easier to follow. I feel elementary students need to focus on seeing the contour of their own line, first. Then, it becomes easier to add in expressions. It is much easier to ask 3rd graders “Is the note on this word higher or lower than this note?” with a part score. Plus, it makes them count during accompaniment only measures. Also, as you said, it saves paper. During our christmas program rehearsal last year, I even cut down a part score to the size of a half page. This make making 400 copies much more manageable. However, I do feel as students grow in music reading, they do need to be exposed to full score because this is the “norm” for choral music.

  3. Biggest reason NOT to use part scores is for tuning: not knowing whether you’re the root, third, fifth, seventh, +4, +6, m9 in any chord.

    Not having the whole score deprives the singer of all the extra useful information besides their own part: what are the other parts are doing, and how does his/her part relate to those other parts? Whose entrance at any seam in the music is first, and what is the musical material is that precedes a singer’s entrance? (avoiding mistaking another section’s cue after a fermata or at a similar join in the music), and what about the accompaniment? You see, ALL the other “extra” material in a score (the other vocal parts and accompaniment) is in fact information that is “for you.” So a full score is also a situation where “everything in the part is for you.” So after a year of pushing my choirs here to read the entire score like a pianist, and see what entrances happen where, watch the accompaniment, know at all times which chord tone they are singing for the sake of tuning, it would seem that to go to a part score would decidedly cause them to take two steps back.

    Also, when conductors cut a long note short because the group is…say…10 in number, the person with the part score is lost. 😀

    Scores in partbook format from previous generations grew out of an era when paper was in short supply and books were costly, precious possessions. Monteverdi was simply following tradition, since score format did not exist in great quantity even then. Gradually the score has replaced the partbook. Someone must not have told Brahms. 😀

    That said, I’ll agree that partbook singing exercises a part of the brain not often used. But while we’re trumpeting the obvious benefits, we should also be realistic about the drawbacks.



    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment. You have presented the main arguments against the use of parts. For the first one, my answer is that a part reader is perfectly aware of what element he or she is singing or playing in the chord. The only difference is that the part reader hears it and adjusts automatically, rather than looking it up beforehand (though there is still the possibility of having cues from other parts here and there in the part, just as instrumentalists do). The music becomes so internal that the singer can focus on perfecting his or her own line, rather than just anticipating to look it up each time. It is a bit like knowing one’s multiplication tables versus just using a calculator each time. The calculator provides useful information, but if you already know that 3 × 4 = 12, then there is no need to look it up every time. When reading a part, I know that perfect fourth sounds up a perfect fourth from where I was just singing, so I will just sing that, and if I have jumped into the five of the chord, I will tune slightly up. By the second run, I will already know what I am doing in the chord, so there is less need to have to look it up. There is nothing at all wrong with being able to tell by sound what element you are in the chord. It is all about internalization for a part reader.

      When I say that the other parts are not for me, I mean to say that I am not singing those other parts. If I absolutely need information from those parts to find my entrance, cues can be quite useful to reinforce confidence in problematic areas. Otherwise, a first note and faithful counting has been sufficient for singing my part correctly. The weight of showing what note comes in after a fermata is the conductor’s. If the soprano part comes in on the eighth note pick-up and the bass part comes in on the downbeat, I don’t sing until I see a downbeat. If the conductor is giving a downbeat before the downbeat, then the pattern is misleading, and such can be marked in the part for the second run. Using parts has helped me get out of the copy and watch the conductor for his or her whims.

      Ultimately, when I read from a score, I find myself multitasking to the detriment of my part. My eyes are drawn away from useful information like note durations, words, dynamics, and articulations. I have seen some scores that looked like Schenker graphs, they were trying to save paper so much; thus, I have to search up and down for the lyrics, figure out if the dynamics apply to my part or the one above mine, etc., all while actually singing it, rather than simply studying it. Thus instead of counting and being able to follow the conductor exactly, I read along in the other parts and surely hope the conductor puts me back on the rail when it is time for me to sing again. Too many singers I have sung with watch the other cars so much that they stop looking at the road.

      When conductors choose to make the music different than what is written, that can be problematic, but thus far I have been able to intuit what just happened and get back on track, and usually renotate it according to the conductor’s modifications for the next go around. One of the wonderful things about our modern notation is that to make a note shorter, one generally always adds to the note, so a pencil can show any kind of cut-off, with the right addition of a stem, a flag, a dot, a slash, a tie + another note, and/or a rest.

      Even if the practicality of paper availability was the reason for the parts being produced instead of score, the fact remains that rather complex music was printed in parts and expected to be sung. Do I think Brahms in 1867 would have cared to give his choir 65 scores rather than 65 parts (even if they didn’t cost 292.50 Marks and 65 Marks respectively)? I doubt it. I am sure he was happy as long as the choir was singing it well.

      Though I do think it makes a huge difference to be able to see the entire musical line or phrase in one glance, rather than spread into a little sliver over two or three pages. Thus it becomes easier to achieve a harmony of line, rather than a succession of chords. I think it is possible that conceiving of music as a succession of chords has birthed the kind of choral music one hears often today, which at its worst has no sense of rhythm or melody, but simply warm washes of white-note clusters changing whenever the conductor directs. For that kind of music, too, I find it much more pleasant to read my note in isolation, even if I am sitting on the 13th of the chord. It is worth mentioning, too, that with this sort of music, rules of tuning closer to the intervals of the overtone series don’t apply as much, since white-note clusters are generally conceived in equal temperament.

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