Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Music Librarian: Seriously, Someone Has to do That?

A composer finishes his opera. He mails it to his publisher who prints copies and sells them to opera companies all over the world who in turn take the published parts and distribute them to their orchestras. Easy right? At least until the rehearsal starts…

(Photo: Glenn Crytzer, Seattle Opera Music Librarian)

Imagine: The conductor gives the downbeat to begin, and the strings turn into a cacophony of various interpretations, the trumpets play triple forte, the first horn raises his hand to point out that his third page is printed upside down, and the second flute player has no idea whether to play flute or piccolo.

It would take hours and hours of expensive rehearsal time to work out all of those details in an opera. That’s where the music librarian comes in. When the parts arrive from the publisher I go down through the list of things that could go wrong in rehearsal and make notes in the parts that will help the musicians to avoid these pitfalls so that the conductor, instrumentalists, and singers can spend their rehearsal time making music. Here are some of the most important things I keep an eye out for.

First I check to see that the parts have adequate rehearsal markings – that way if the conductor asks the orchestra to begin in measure 235, they’ll all know where that is. The next step is to check the parts for errors. Most opera parts are engraved from sources that were made many years ago and were written out by hand. I’m sure you can imagine how painstaking it might be to write out every single part for Götterdämmerung by hand. Chances are you’d make a few mistakes while copying over those thousands upon thousands of notes, dynamics, and expression markings; therefore, it’s worthwhile to give them a once-over so that the instrumentalists aren’t spending their time in rehearsal correcting wrong notes.

After that come the bowings. It’s important that the string players all draw the bow across the strings in the same direction if they are playing the same part because the direction that the bow is drawn determines the phrasing of the musical line. Parts are usually given to the section leaders in advance to decide on bowings for their section, and then I copy bowings from their parts into the other section members’ music.

Cuts and transpositions specific to a production must be accounted for. If the director and maestro decide to cut 10 bars of music in act 2 and take the tenor aria up a 3rd in act 4, then it’s my job to make sure that this these details are marked into the musicians' parts. In the case of a transposition, I’ll generally take the whole section of music that is transposed and make a new part for each musician to use in the new key.

Bandas, or back-stage music, are often parts of an opera that were never orchestrated by the composer. Usually backstage music was played by the local town band in whatever city the opera was being performed, and the bandleaders were expected to orchestrate a piano part for that section of music to match the instruments they had in their local group. I confer with the Maestro and the Assistant Conductor to find out what instruments will be used, which version of the orchestration will be used, and from whom I can borrow a copy (banda orchestrations are usually not available from a publisher).

Anomalies of all shapes and sizes can present themselves when preparing to produce an opera, so it’s important to be flexible and to be prepared for just about anything that might come up with regard to the music. There are not, to my knowledge, any degree programs that prepare students for a career in orchestra librarianship, so librarians have generally acquired all the skills for the position through their own hodgepodge of musical experiences. My degrees are in music composition (MM Cleveland Institute of Music 2006, BM Florida State University 2003), but skills gained from my experiences leading jazz groups, playing in symphony orchestras, singing opera, and even playing in rock bands have all also proved to be valuable in one way or another as the librarian at Seattle Opera. Every day presents a new challenge and requires you to find a new and creative way of overcoming it.


Glenn Crytzer has been the music librarian at Seattle Opera since June 2008; he’s the man who you see wandering around the pit in a funny hat. Glenn is a composer as well as a jazz band leader. His original compositions can be heard at and his jazz band can be found at


AB said...

Are these things computerized these days?

Heidi said...

How are you going to computerize writing bow markings into a part? Every group is going to do it a little differently so it's not like you can print it into the score. I'm sure he does the transpositions with Sibelius or something like that but a lot of it has to be hand done.

Anonymous said...

Hallo, Glenn!
My partner, christened the "Lovely Librarian" and I greatly enjoyed your extensive explanation of what a music (opera) librarian has to do!

Thanks for sharing this valuable information. Here's wishing you a long and successful life at SeaOP in your valuable work for it!!!
Win H. (& the LL)