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Forte: Orchestra librarians are indispensable

yso-amanda simmons

Orchestra librarian Amanda Simmons pictured in February.

By the time Yakima Symphony Orchestra musicians have completed an 11-concert season, they typically will have played at least 70 different pieces of music. Some concerts may feature only one piece, such as Beethoven’s 65-minute Symphony No. 9. Others include a montage of 14 or more pieces, as in a pops concert.

It is a full experience for each musician and equally so for the orchestra librarian.

Planning for a season’s repertoire begins in the fall when a current season is underway, and it is finalized in February. Concurrently, the orchestra librarian researches whether performance materials are already in the music library, or if not, what editions are available to be purchased or must be rented from a publisher.

As a season concludes, the librarian orders music for the upcoming season, arranging for delivery with sufficient time before each concert to allow for important next steps.

Music preparation can take up to 12 weeks leading into a performance, or more depending on the number of works on a program and the condition of the music when it arrives. Each string part must be marked according to detailed instructions from the principal (leader) of each section — not only so that the entire section is visually choreographed, but also so that each player has the same cues regarding phrasing, bow technique and other factors that affect the way the music will be shaped.

Music may arrive with different rehearsal indications in the parts than in the score, so that measure numbers and other “signposts” must be added to all parts in order for the conductor and musicians to communicate efficiently in rehearsal. Any cuts or other instructions from the conductor also must be added to each part, and special performance situations (unusual instruments, offstage performers, etc.) must be arranged with the musicians involved prior to distribution of the music.

Marks are made in pencil on every piece of music. In a piece such as the 2018-19 season’s “Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life),” with violin I parts of 19 pages, violin II parts of 18 pages, viola parts of 15 pages, cello parts of 15 pages and double bass parts of 12 pages, this translated into 566 pages of pencil markings distributed to the string players alone. At the conclusion of a concert, depending on whether the music has been purchased or rented, these markings might have to be erased.

Prepared music is organized into folders and distributed to the musicians three weeks prior to each concert. After the final performance, the librarian collects and organizes the music, files it in the library and returns rentals to the publisher.

The work of an orchestra librarian is highly detailed, tedious and exacting. Its mark of success is that it seamlessly translates the music director’s artistic vision to the musicians. Often performing musicians in their own right, orchestra librarians have the added thrill of caretaking, archiving, researching, translating and troubleshooting a vast repertoire each season, thus supporting colleagues in bringing the page to the stage.

• This column was written by the Yakima Symphony Orchestra staff. Learn more at

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