Up Close and Personal With the People of Music Prep
by Linda Rapka, Overture Managing Editor
“In kindergarten, everybody had to write what they wanted to be when they grew up,” said Kazue McGregor. “There were all these nurses and flight attendants, but then there was mine: Female Investigator.”
As head music librarian of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, McGregor is essentially living her childhood dream. Librarians can accurately be described as music cryptologists, having to decode and reconstruct pieces of music into forms that translate into easily legible formats. The job requires an intense interest in the pursuit of accuracy, a high level of curiosity, and a flair for recognizing and decoding idiosyncratic notations in historical works.
“If you’re not curious about music, you’re not going to have the drive to look in scores, in different editions, know the publisher and their idiosyncrasies, know the composers, know the theory, and just dive into it,” said Steve Biagini, who does library work for the LA Phil and Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. “Sometimes we’ll spend hours and hours looking at one little issue. And most of the time there’s a reason for it. Back when we were all in college studying music theory and music history thinking, ‘I’m never gonna use this’ — we use it!”
Orchestrators also use similar skill sets. Hollywood orchestrator and composer Pete Anthony, whose recent projects include “Alice in Wonderland,” “Did You Hear About the Morgans?” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” describes his role as orchestrator in terms of architecture. “An architect draws a sketch of a building, and I provide the actual construction diagram,” he said. “All the details, the sizes of the nuts and bolts, so that it can actually be built, or so the music can actually be played by a real person.”
Bob Bockholt is an all-around music prep man: music librarian, orchestrator, composer and arranger. He used to be librarian at Warner Bros. and has spent the past several years working with the New West Symphony. Though he used to play trumpet, he got into the music prep side of the biz because it was easier to write arrangements correctly than to try to find them.
Kris Mettala, timpanist and librarian of the Riverside County Philharmonic, has a similar story of how he got into the career. “I just kept finding problems with music prep, so I said ‘Let me do the job’ so I could make sure that things were right,” he said. “I also figured out that if you do more jobs, you get more money, so I could get paid more for being a librarian and a performer for the same weekend.”
What Do They Do?
Though the purpose of music prep — getting printed music in front of musicians in as clear, concise and organized a manner as possible — is pretty well known, not many people, and in fact not many musicians, are entirely sure of all the nuances the process actually entails.
“I had no idea what it was,” said Marty Fenton-Frear, librarian of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. “I thought I would be bowing music and correcting bowings. I had no idea we would correct all the page turns, or fix so many things so musicians could just read them and not spend rehearsal time on them. A good music librarian erases bad rehearsal time for an orchestra. And Los Angeles musicians aren’t gonna screw up. If it’s right on the page, they’re not going to waste any rehearsal time.”
Orchestra librarians also provide scores, guidance and stage plots to many people in production, such as the stage crew and house manager, as well as alert management far in advance as to the instrumentation requirements for pieces so they can decide if any extra players need to be hired. The librarians also work to serve the music director. “Conductors want to make sure that what’s in front of the musicians are their messages to them,” McGregor said.
With the advent of copy machines and music notation software, the process of music copying has changed drastically in the past several decades. “Thirty years ago, they would have to correct on the page as best they could and go with whatever was printed,” said LA Phil librarian Kenneth Bonebrake. “They wouldn’t have been able to take the time to do this,” pointing to a score with extensive correction marks and notations, ready to be finalized on the computer.
“The danger in that is now everybody who owns a computer and/or a synthesizer is either a composer or arranger or does music prep,” Bockholt said. “It’s not as simple as that, just inputting parts. I get so many sets of orchestral parts from new composers that are virtually unplayable because of how they’re laid out on the page.” During his time at Warner Bros., he described an incident where the copying was not done up to par. “I went to one of the sessions for a movie recording, and the band actually refused to play it because it was so bad,” he said. “They reformatted the parts on the computer.”
However, such problems are rare and tend to lie not in the technology, but in the know-how of the person using it. “It’s all garbage in, garbage out,” Fenton-Frear said. “Who did it, and if they were sensitive to how it was done when it was printed.”
Copyists not only must transcribe the music for each instrument’s part, but also ensure things such as page turns are easy and come in at the right time for that particular instrument. “My general rule has been to give as many helps as possible,” Mettala said. “It’s easier for them to ignore something they don’t need than to not get something that they absolutely have to have.”
Where Does the Music Come From?
Music for film is typically commissioned for a composer, which is then orchestrated and translated onto paper for use by the recording musicians. Some composers, like Pete Anthony, double as orchestrators. Though he sometimes orchestrates his own works, Anthony prefers to employ an orchestrator. “It’s very tedious!” he said. “When I orchestrate another composer’s work, I’m discovering this music for the first time. If I’ve been the composer, I’ve already discovered the music. The mechanics of getting it on paper is not the fun part for me.” When orchestrating, he explains, “A lot of times our job is really just about accurately transcribing what a composer has played, but there are some who invite me to add my own ideas or play with an idea they have.”
Orchestral music librarians work mainly with classical scores, of which there are two types: public domain, and those under copyright. “All the stuff we have here is public domain,” Bonebrake said. “Things like Beethoven, we have sets and we just pull it out. But at least 50 percent of what we do comes in on rental. We pay the rental fee, the music comes here, we put our own markings in, then the music goes back to the publisher.”
It is typical for a major orchestra to have the library on site and employ a full-time librarian. But this wasn’t always the case.
“In the ’60s most major orchestras had only one librarian, and small orchestras didn’t have any,” Bonebrake said. “It was just a volunteer position. Orchestras that don’t have as many services, small regional orchestras, will often have a playing librarian. But in a place like this, there’s so many services, to do both would be really tough.”
The LA Phil has three full-time music librarians and one Hollywood Bowl Orchestra librarian during the venue’s active summer months. “Ernest (Fleischmann, former president and CEO of the LA Philharmonic Association) was the one who fought for a librarian when most other orchestras didn’t even think of it as a separate musician position,” McGregor said. They enjoy union representation as members Local 47 and also belong the Major Orchestra Librarians Association, which contains an AFM committee.
“European orchestras often don’t have a full-time dedicated librarian even now,” McGregor said. “I think the level of awareness and the level of standards (here) have risen. Conductors come knowing that we don’t have 10 rehearsals a concert as some European orchestras do. We can’t waste time.”
Pencils, Who Needs ’em! … Right?
While things have gone the way of the computer, with notation programs like Sibelius and Finale, it is still important to know how to hand-write a score. As a teacher of orchestration and conducting at USC, Anthony stresses to his students that they can’t rely solely on their computers. “A lot of these kids have never picked up a pencil in their life,” he said. “They couldn’t write a hand score if they had to. I tell them, what if you get a job and someone says, ‘Here, fix this,’ and you don’t have the computer with you? You’ve got a pencil, and here’s your big break, but unfortunately there’s no power. Whatever tool you’ve got available, that’s what you use.”
At the LA Phil, there are plenty of horror stories which could have ended up disastrous rather than as funny anecdotes if not for Bonebrake and Biagini’s knowledge of hand-scoring. Bonebrake described how during one performance, “halfway through the intermission, during the last 10 minutes, a player came up to me and said, ‘I totally forgot, during the rehearsal this morning Esa-Pekka said he wanted this line played by my instrument.'” With no time to even boot up his computer, he used a skinny felt-tip pen and transposed the part in a few frenzied minutes.
The biggest challenge faced by anyone in the music prep world is unanimous.
“Deadlines, always,” Bockholt said. “You give somebody a guarantee that you’ll have it done by the 15th, and all of a sudden they move the recording date up to the 10th and don’t understand why you’re complaining about it. Which is fine if that’s the only project you’re working on, but not when you have four or five things going on at the same time.”
The film world is notorious for pushing deadlines to the extreme, especially in the current climate. “We used to spend four to six weeks orchestrating and copying a picture,” Anthony said. “Now, routinely we do the whole thing in one to two weeks. The hours it takes to get the job done haven’t changed much, but the hours available to get it done are much reduced, which is why you must have a bunch of people working at the same time to get it done. Two guys work 10 hours each, as opposed to one guy working for the full 20 hours.”
Anthony explains the reasons for this with two words: “Digital editing. The digital editing of moving pictures has allowed them to never lock their pictures. They’re always making changes. In order not to spend too much money revising everything, there’s a tendency for composers to wait and wait, and then they let go a bunch of music toward the very end.”
Nip/Tuck: The Challenges of Downsizing
One of the major problems across the board is downsizing and cutting costs. While this has been an increasing trend for the past two decades, it’s especially hard hitting in the current economic climate.
“They’re cutting the orchestras smaller, so they’re wanting to do pieces that require fewer instruments,” Mettala said. “Unfortunately nowadays you’ll have programs at the end of the year and they will decide they can’t afford to do that expensive rental piece.” Fenton-Frear agrees: “It’s going to cut into the creativity of conductors and concert planners if they can’t afford to hire all the music prep people to put on the amazing shows. That’s really sad to me.”
Hollywood is no less prone to cutbacks. “It’s not just the music that’s getting squeezed,” Anthony said, “it’s everybody involved in every aspect of production is learning how to make due with less in terms of money available to produce, whether it’s music or special effects or hiring the crew on shooting days.”
Why Choose a Career in Music Prep?
Though life in the music prep world is tedious, arduous and stress inducing, it’s also enormously gratifying.
“Music is so much more complex as far as all the various possible problems: transposing instruments, notes, phrasing, dynamics,” Bonebrake said. “As a musician, you tend to think of the music as sacred. Beethoven’s symphonies, Stravinsky, it should all be just perfect. But there are all kinds of problems. So if the rehearsal goes through and the only reason they’re stopping is for artistic reasons, then we know we’ve done our job.”
“It’s really hard when it’s a really huge job and they make a huge change, or cancel it,” Fenton-Frear said. “But if we’ve delivered a job on time and it doesn’t come back, no matter how many hours it took, it feels good because we got the job done.”
“The end result is that sense of satisfaction that you’ve aided and helped in a successful performance,” McGregor said. “That to me is the real high: hearing that beautiful music.”
The LA Philharmonic boasts one of the largest libraries of orchestral music in the world. Unlike some librarians confined to working in a basement, the librarians of the LA Phil spend their working hours at Walt Disney Concert Hall in a sunlit office specially designed to their own set of specifications by architect Frank Gehry. Shelving units filled to the brim with music books line the walls from floor to ceiling, and a massive rolling filing cabinet stands impressively in the center of the room. Amidst giant photocopying machines and several computer stations, about a dozen standing-height tables (also Gehry-designed) are scattered throughout the space, the tops of each impossibly buried under mountains of music. Says Kazue McGregor: “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
When Good Jobs go Wrong: Horror Stories from the Frontlines of Music Prep
Marty Fenton-Frear: “There were a few years when we would spend hours, literally 30 or 40 hours, putting just one of those five-minute segments together (for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra). The phone would ring and they would cancel the one we had just finished. There was one year that happened two or three times in the same week!”
Bob Bockholt: “Six years ago I was in a car crash and I missed a deadline for a major CD recording and had to farm out at the last minute,” Bob said. “From the hospital bed, nonetheless!”
Kris Mettala: “Sometimes they’ll give you a name that’s slightly inaccurate. Say you’re doing a piece from ‘Oklahoma!’ and there will be several pieces with similar names. If the conductor is just one that doesn’t like to deal with minutiae, they’ll say, “Oh, give me that ‘Oklahoma! Overture.’ Well, they don’t actually mean that, but you get the title that they called for. Then they look at you like you’re stupid.”
Kazue McGregor: “”We had morning rehearsal, and a musician accidentally picked up the Eb clarinet part we were rehearsing earlier which had the same bright yellow cover. Here comes the matinee, and when we came to the 10-minute intermission, the Eb clarinetist walked out to us and said, ‘My part is not there!’ That was a case where it had to be done so fast, I’m not even sure if we would have had time to even set up anything on the computer, so it had to be hand written on the spot.”
Kenneth Bonebrake: “Music falls down between the slots of the stage. At the Dorothy Chandler there were two pieces that dropped down, and they said, ‘Well, you can get it in June when we tear down the stage.’ There was no way to get to that spot. And sometime in June, we got those parts back.”
Marty Fenton-Frear: “In the first couple of years at the Bowl, we did the musical ‘Peter Pan,’ and every page of the original music was so old and mildewed, I had to cut out everything that wasn’t music and paste music back on paper and make a copy of it so that it was legible. I was like a kindergartner with paste and scissors, cutting out awful nasty blotches on the page. And ‘Peter Pan,’ we did it once! We’ve never done it again.”
Originally published in Local 47 Overture, March 2010 issue