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Strings Music Festival: Language of Music

As if the black-and-white whirl of notes and dots, key signatures and codas, time signatures and accidentals weren’t enough information on a piece of sheet music, composers like to throw in key Italian and Latin phrases to further communicate their intentions. Here are a few of the phrases that help musicians understand what a composer wanted the music to sound like:

• A tempo: return to the speed you were playing before a speed-up or slow-down direction

• Allegro: joyful, moderately fast



• Decelerando: slowing down

• Forte: loud



• Lento: slow

• Ma non troppo: “but not too much” — modifies another direction, as in forte ma non troppo, or “loud, but not too loud”

• Molto: “very” — modifies another direction, as in molto allegro, which means “very moderately fast” or “pick up the pace a little bit, but not so much as to move on to presto”

• Tacet: “silent” or “don’t play anything here”—this is the musical equivalent of “this page intentionally left blank”

• Presto: fast

• Vivace: lively

When you look at an orchestra onstage, it’s easy to imagine that they’re all looking at the same music. But each instrument has its own sheet music that includes only the notes and directions for that instrument. For example, even though both violin sections are made up of the same instrument, the Violin 1s play a different musical line than the Violin 2s, so the two sections are playing from different sheet music.

In a large orchestra, each pair of violins, violas, cellos or basses will share a single music stand to play from the same music, because they’re playing the same musical line. But two oboes sitting next to each other will each have their own stand and sheet music — they’re playing the oboe 1 and oboe 2 parts, and the music is different.

In smaller groups, like chamber orchestras, it’s more likely that each player will have a separate musical line to play and thus their own sheet music, even if they’re playing the same instrument as the musician sitting next to them.

The conductor uses the entire score, which is all the parts together. It’s usually quite large (folio size) and relatively heavy, since there’s so much information in it. Full scores are too dense with information to be used for playing, but the conductor is driving the musical bus, so he or she needs the entire map.

That being said, some individual parts are still quite dense with information and go on for pages and pages — violins, for example. Other parts can fit an entire movement onto a single sheet of paper because the middle of the page says something like “TACET – 172,” which is Latin for “be quiet for 172 measures while other people play.” In my opinion, it should also include the Latin phrase for “try not to look too bored” or “don’t lose count of the measures or you’re going to miss your entrance in seven minutes.”

Percussionists get hit with tacet pretty regularly, and that’s why I give each of them a chair onstage, even though they play their instruments while standing up.

During rehearsals, communicating where to start and stop can be complicated, since page numbers differ between parts with lots to do and parts with little to do on a particular piece. When musicians are lucky, the sheet music has measure numbers or letter markers printed by the publisher as a road map.

It cuts rehearsal time down a lot if the conductor can just say, “Let’s start four measures after letter B,” instead of, “You know that spot where the cellos do that cool triplet thing and then the trumpet comes in with the D flat and the violins are plucking?”

As we enter the final weeks of Strings Music Festival’s molto presto summer season, the schedule will begin decelerando to a comfortable lento ma non troppo pace perfect for enjoying the last few concerts in the pavilion. Once the Michael McDonald concert is over on Aug. 20, the pavilion will be tacet until Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn on Sept. 8. The year-round staff will rest for a bit and then will come back a tempo to prepare for a molto vivace Summer 2018.

Ali Mignone is the stage manager for Strings Music Festival, among other things. When she’s not telling roadies and musicians what to do, you can find her hiking, biking or skiing around the Yampa Valley and blogging at thequirkyquill.com.


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