From the Orchestra Library


Mind-Numbing Minutiae

Posted in Organizational Effectiveness,Preparing Parts by kschnack on July 26, 2009

As a violinist and someone who has been sorting orchestral music as far back as I can remember, I learned a long time ago to depend upon the numbering system that is generally used when marking parts.  I have come to understand, though, that many players don’t even see those little numbers in the top corner of the part or, if they do, don’t realize what they mean.  And why would they?  It’s not a big deal — certainly not part of the players’ job description.

So, here’s what it’s all about.  Depending on the instrument you play, your part will have a number on the front from 1-9, for example, (strings) or 1-25 or 30 or more (winds, brass, percussion and auxiliary instruments).  That number coincides with your folder – so, if you are 4th stand Viola, all of your parts and folders will be numbered as such.  This is obviously so the librarians can keep track of everything and know when something goes missing.  (That is, of course, unless someone moves the #4 part and puts it in, say, the 6th folder.  This makes librarians feel a little out of whack and just ever so cranky.  But more on cranky librarians later since that subject is enough for at least one whole blog post by itself….)

This numbering system is also the basis upon which we organize the performance materials, both in advance of the rehearsals, during the set-up on stage, and when putting everything away or sending the set back to the publisher.  It’s derived pretty literally from score order – the order of the instruments in the conductor’s score.  When I teach interns, part-time helpers and new librarians how to do the work, I start with Score Order.  Almost everything we do with the music is related to score order in some way:  buying or renting parts (and getting the instrumentation right), checking in sets, preparing, cataloguing, repertoire instrumentation database entry, and physical storage.

Then there’s the actual work on the music itself which requires librarians to be able to read and understand scores and the order of the instruments (in all languages). Like transposing a part to double another, orchestrating a new start or ending in the middle of a work, devising a workable cut, researching whether or not an auxiliary instrument’s part is covered by other instruments, correcting errata, and so on.

As for the numbering, and there being exceptions to every rule, my particular bias is to not number Piccolo 1st (not that I don’t recognize it as the highest, and, of course, a very important instrument!), but instead always give that honor to Flute 1.  This has to do with the way the orchestra sets up on stage, with Piccolo seated to the right of the flutes – and so is more logical and efficient in my view when putting parts in folders (not to mention setting them on stands).  After an embarrassingly-high number of years keeping track of orchestral parts, and having to always shift the wind folders to get them in numerical order if Piccolo is marked #1, I have come up with a few short cuts that I rely on to be logical time savers.  This is one of them.  Seems über miniscule, I know, but you do something teeny about 400,000 times in your life and it becomes less teeny.  And even though it’s teeny, if it’s inefficient, it becomes a complete nuisance.  So I’ve changed the numbering systems for all the older sets at the DSO as I’ve run across them, to put Piccolo behind Flutes.  You must be either rolling your eyes or completely glazed over at this point to think it matters. (And I’m sure many of my library colleagues don’t have an issue with this so are probably rolling their eyes as well, or are aghast that I would change True Score Order.)

A few other details you may find either fascinating or useless:  we put Harp right after Percussion since it’s considered a member of that family, then Piano followed by any other keyboard (Organ, Harpsichord, Synth).  Saxes go after Clarinets (just like in the score).  Librarians do Rhythm sections in different ways; of course, some orchestras “don’t do pops” so wouldn’t have to worry about that much, but since most of us Do Pops in a big way, we have to have a system that works for us.  I personally keep the Guitar and Fender Bass at the end after Percussion and keep the Drumset with Percussion, but, one of our regular bass players doubles on electric so physically the part just goes in his folder in the bass section.  There are always these decisions to be made, and whatever works for different libraries and their players is what’s best.

One of the by-products of all this score order business is the inevitable order in which we put the folders onstage.  By now, the DSO cellists, bassists, and low brass are used to their folders being put out after their compatriots who play the higher instruments; we don’t mean to discriminate against those who live in the lower ledger lines, but it becomes sort of a habit.  I do scan the stage when I first come out and see who is warming up, and start with that section when it’s a difficult program or when folks seem to need their music more urgently than usual.  And, of course, when picking up the folders at the end, it saves a huge amount of time to do that in score order as well – no collating heavy folders after the fact.  I’m sure many a stage hand who is trying to get stands and chairs off quickly after a concert has wondered what the heck we are doing when we methodically walk to the middle of the woodwind row and pick up 3 folders to the right, then go back to the center and pick up 3 to the left, and likewise back through the section.  Maybe the audience wonders too.  Well, what can I say?  They probably just think we are absent-minded librarians, when there is indeed a method to our madness.  Quirks of the trade!

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One Response to 'Mind-Numbing Minutiae'

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  1. Hi!

    Thank you for this magnificent blog! Seeing that I’m not alone with all the problems that occur in an orchstral library is very fun!
    I work in an wind band so all topics don’t apply for me but very much does, especially since we do over 50% of our concerts as Pops…I really recognice the problem with crappy parts!

    Keep up the good work!

    Best wishes from a cold Sweden!

    P.S. I also put the piccolo after the flutes 😛 D.S.


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