The Unsung Heroes – Guest Post by Mary Black

Putting on an orchestra concert is a huge undertaking, even when the orchestra is in its own hall. A recent news story mentioned that a major U.S. symphony has 100 musicians on its roster and 130 people working behind the scenes.  Although the instrumentalists get most of the glory (and occasionally the blame for a fluffed note or a missed cue), they could not function without those whose jobs are less public but just as critical.  Many staff members of a symphony are trained musicians who understand how their roles fit in, just as the orchestra members understand their individual and collective responsibilities.

Among the “unsung heroes” of any large orchestra, band or other performing organization are the music librarians.  Who makes sure the musicians have their parts for practice? Who sees that the parts are in the folders in the proper order for a performance?  Who marks phrasing, note changes, and bowings?  (Imagine the chaos if half the string players bowed differently than their neighbors!) Who returns the music to proper storage after a concert? Repairs a tear? Who keeps track of which score and parts a particular conductor wishes to use?  Finds out if the soloist uses the standard edition or an alternate version? Makes sure the correct version is on hand? The answer to all of these questions (and many more) is: the orchestra librarian. Many large organizations will have more than one, and most of them are the sole keepers of the music library. The conductors and musicians must go through the librarian(s) to get what they need, be it a score to study or a part to practice.  And as the rehearsals and performances are underway, that librarian must also be on hand to be sure everyone really has what they need, and be ready to make changes that are worked out during the process.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to hear a presentation by the music librarians of a venerable European orchestra. Their anecdotes were amusing, surprising, and insightful to those of us who, although music librarians, had no experience with such work.  These two individuals are responsible for maintaining 3,000 sets of scores and parts, including multiple versions of some works because particular guest conductors or soloists want to use a particular publisher’s edition. The parts are part of an orchestra’s heritage and are carefully shepherded through the rehearsal and performance period. However, after one performance on a tour, the librarians returned to the stage after a reception to find all the music had been cleared from the stands. There was panic as they contemplated the possibility of theft or sabotage, the fate of the next performance, the future of their jobs – and then they discovered that the zealous custodial staff had picked up and discarded the music. After some investigation, the folders were found in the trash and retrieved with no harm done to them. The experience prompted a change in routine: the librarians now ensure that all folders are picked up immediately after the concerts.

Ask any music librarian and you will hear about the complications of handling music in any setting. However, we should all be particularly grateful to those who help keep an orchestra such as the Moscow State Symphony performing at its peak, whether at home or under the added pressure of a tour in another country.  Rest assured, the clarinet folder will be on the right stand,  and the flute parts will not be mixed up with those of the oboe. It’s no accident when everything works exactly as it should!  Sit back and enjoy the work of the front-of-the-house musicians and give a nod to those who make it happen.

For more information, or to buy tickets, check out the show page here, call us at 1-800-WHARTON, or stop by the box office! Students, don’t forget student tickets are only $15!

Mary Black Junttonen, Michigan State University Music Librarian

Posted in Wharton Center News
One comment on “The Unsung Heroes – Guest Post by Mary Black
  1. Daya says:

    I think I died a little when I read “music in the trash”.

    (Charlotte HS Concert Band, Class of 2004)

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