How much should you mark up your sheet music?

Writing on something that is already published is controversial. Remember back in English class when you were asked to *annotate* in the book? This is not too far off. Some teachers feel that a well-marked piece of music shows how well the student learned it. However, beware of the downfalls of this popular belief.

Here is a picture of a piece I played as a child. Look how beautifully I marked it up!6271401_orig

The best part about this is how I mixed regular pencil with red pencil. Of all the glorious colors in my Polly Pocket pencil case, I chose red because it is urgent and alarming.

I was so full of anxiety that I thought this would surely scare me into playing this piece right!

This key signature looks like it is on fire.


Even though this is marked in regular pencil, there is no subtlety here. “LOUDER!!!


In case you forget what it takes to make a sound on your instrument, break it down to its simplest explanation.

Here, “Just blow” is put in a drawn in box, accompanied by several breath marks.


And then, my favorite.


” it says across the entire top of the page in terrifying capital letters, followed by a never-ending arrow that winds in between the staff lines. Perhaps I meant this no nonsense command to take place only where the arrow ends. Or was it for the entire piece?
(Scholars will obviously investigate this for years to come.)You might have guessed that the normal pencil markings were put in first, and they got darker, more jagged, and panicked as time went on.

Of course, I whipped out the red pencil right before the recital, in an act of desperation when my brain pleaded with…my brain…to actually do what was on the page to begin with.

You might be wondering how my performance of the above piece went. Unsurprisingly, it was as panicked and anxiety-filled as the markings on the page.

What can we notice from this, other than my interpretative spelling?

1. There is no shame in marking up your music.
Seriously, there really isn’t!

2. However, don’t overdo it!
If there are too many markings, you will literally start to not see them. Not only does it get confusing to look at, but additionally, studies show that looking at any one thing for too long will actually make your brain tune it out. Not helpful if you genuinely want to concentrate.

3. Therefore, PENCIL is usually your best friend in these markup situations.


The eraser, of course.

Believe it or not, 17+ years after the fact, I still cannot erase the red pencil from this piece of music. Unless you plan on blogging about this later in life (which is cool), stick with the classic pencil, especially if the piece of music is an original copy, on loan, or both.


However, when you do start marking, do what you like as long as it is beneficial. By all means, if drawing ornate colorful landscapes or funny faces is what inspires your interpretation of the music, go for it.

4. For basic markings like notes and breaths, simpler is often better. In other words, be polite to yourself. Take a breath (no pun intended) and calm down before getting carried away with smoldering exclamation points and giant letters.

After I shared this infamous red pencil story with one particularly great student, she used humor to learn scales.

 In the end, whatever works for you works for me.

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