From the Orchestra Library

Triage Isn’t Just for Hospitals

Posted in Uncategorized by kschnack on June 10, 2009

Every time I hear about medical triage I think of the TV show M*A*S*H* (yes, I am a Baby Boomer, although a young one, thank you very much) in which doctors and nurses were constantly rushing to prioritize massive casualties based on who needed the most urgent care.

So I mean no disrespect to the medical profession or the wounded when using that word to describe a process of prioritization in my own profession…….a way of managing crisis for us too.  A second definition found in Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary says triage is “the assigning of priority order to projects on the basis of where funds and other resources can be best used, are most needed, or are most likely to achieve success.”  In times of high volume in the library – preparing lots of music in a short space of time – the definition is apt.

I truly wish every part we put on the stage could be perfect.  Like many other librarians, I find great satisfaction in preparing a perfect part, and consider it beautiful once completed.  Sometimes this is almost possible to accomplish, given an excellent edition to start with, time enough to correct errors, plenty of light and proper tools, a good work flow and a steady hand to do the markings well.  And, as I am sure most other librarians can relate, we always try to give a set of parts the full attention it needs and that the players deserve for their performances. Orchestra librarians are, as a species, very detail-oriented perfectionists who are often more-or-less obsessed with getting those details perfect.  Even more importantly, we are professional musicians and truly understand the necessity of the part being not only right but as close to perfect as possible. Unfortunately, reality does not always allow that.

The truth is, if we made every part perfect, we would never get all the music out, much less out on time.  It’s just impossible when there are multiple conductors doing many different programs back-to-back, particularly when there are pops concerts included.

So, we have to triage the different works in terms of priorities, do what we can, and move on.  Here are some of the things we assess:

Is it a major work being conducted by the music director?   Is it a piece of standard repertoire which we will perform many times in the future?  Is the set of parts already in play usable, legible, thoroughly marked, and in good condition?  Or is the set on its last leg, pages torn, markings obscured by too many erasures, yellowing paper?  Does the program have twenty 3-minute pieces, many of which will never be played again?  Is the guest artist providing charts at the last minute over which we will have little control?  Does the edition require significant corrections?  Are the corrections known or will every note of every part have to be compared against the score?   Is the rehearsal system “good enough” or do measure numbers have to be counted and added?  Do we have enough help to go beyond marking bowings, fixing page turns, and correcting the most egregious errors?  Are the problems in the parts enough to stop a rehearsal?

Unfortunately, not all the works can be treated with equal importance no matter how much we want to. It comes down to whether or not there is enough time.

Although our work mercifully does not deal with life or death matters, it is fast-paced, deadline driven, and involves the coordination and execution of millions of details.  And, although no one will die if we make a mistake, a player or conductor might be thrown off their best game, or, worse, make a mistake in a performance because we missed or misplaced something, or because a part wasn’t right.  We do everything we possibly can to make sure that doesn’t happen with the time, resources and (wo)man power at our disposal.  But, sometimes it does happen.  And we are truly sorry.  Because we wish it could be perfect.  Always.


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