How to Prepare a Score

Before sitting down to begin work on a piece, a few things can be done to make your life easier.

  1. Organize

    I make copies of all my sheet music and place them in a binder. This serves two purposes: (1) it keeps the original nicer while still having a performance edition and (2) it lets me keep all my repertoire for a season in one place. After making copies, arrange your pages for minimal page turns. Printed editions often lack a really great organization — fitting the stuff in X pages trumps make sure the page turns are okay.

    You can also trim the edges of copies so they fold nicely into the binder. In addition, tabbed separators can be used to organize the pieces.

  2. Highlight

    After the music is organized, hole-punched, and in the binder go through with a highlighter and mark all the dynamic changes with a color. Mark the tempo indications and alterations with another color.

    This prevents the dreaded circling of, “important things.” Teachers and students alike often just circle important things on the page (such as dynamics!). After a few months working on the music everything ends up with a circle around. This is ridiculous, but a few highlighters can fix the problem.

    In addition to drawing your attention to the expression markings during practice, this sort of pre-reading and marking will give you an idea of the dynamic content of a piece before starting work.

  3. Translate

    Let’s face it: not a one of us knows, with certainty, every musical term in foreign languages. After the first two steps are done, go through the music an translate every term you’re unfamiliar with. This is easily done with a music dictionary. Sometimes it can be enlightening and interesting to translate the terms with a simple Italian to English or French to English or German to English dictionary. Write in the definitions as best you can next to the terms.

  4. Write in Fingerings (optional)

    Some people like to write in fingerings before sitting down to work on a piece. If that works for you, feel free to add fingerings while prepping the score. I prefer to do this with a guitar in my hand. That said, fingering a piece should be done as early as possible so muscle memory can be accurately dialed in sooner.

Prepped Score
A look inside my music binder.
Prepped Score
Bach Gavottes arranged for no page turns.

Posted on in Classical Guitar Practice Tips


  • Cary Terry

    You and I have the same organization sense. I’m getting to a point where I think I will make a binder for each composer. I may need 3 binders for Bach and a couple for Sor. I think I will also ditch my sheet protectors. If you use tab dividers, sheet protectors screw it up. I like Yellow for dynamics because the contrast with the notes is greater and with dynamic markings you sometimes highlight long horizontal lines under the score. So using yellow gives you the most contrast. I like pink for tempo, orange for repeats and green for “YES” things and blue for other highlights.

  • Jonathan Wilson

    Great practical advice. I like the highlighter pen idea. I sing in a choir and last year I took on board the advice from someone in Hungary not to circle everything important. The highlighter is the next level.

    Your translation tip reminds me of the importance for singers to translate what they’re singing – word for word, preferably.

  • Kirk Keathley
    Kirk Keathley

    Excellent article. I also find it helpful when going through the exercise described in Step 4 to identify the melody, or the part you most desire to emphasize given the lack of a defined melody. That way you can let the continuity and flow of that part dictate fingering when physical limitations do not otherwise dictate it for you.

  • Mike Saville

    Chris, whilst the tips are great and I really like the ideas for marking up music in different ways. this would not float in the UK due to copyright laws. The photocopying of complete scores as you are suggesting would be illegal.

    Philip Johnson from practicespot also recommends this approach taking several copies of the music and marking each one in a different way.

    So in the UK I think we could copy 10-15% of any score – not enough for the approach you suggest – it also makes things very difficult when teaching. I’d often like to ‘take a quick copy’ for a student but this isn’t possible.

    I’m not sure what the copyright law is in the US as appplied to music – I guess it’s something I should find out.

    Interesting article nonetheless.


  • Jeffrey Bianchi
    Jeffrey Bianchi

    Copyright laws permit someone making copies for “educational / study” purposes…. How else do you think teachers are permitted to photocopy book chapters / handouts, etc. for their students??

  • Guitar teacher
    Guitar teacher

    I would not be concern about Copyright at all. Let’s spread the knowledge. Worse than illegal is not have the opportunity to get in touch with master pieces. Anyway, I don’t think you guys understand that you can make free copies of music sheet for educational/study purpose. There is no a such law to prevent this.

  • Charles Consaul

    I agree whole heartedly that highlighters can be invaluable, but you can increase that value by simply color coding! It doesn’t matter as much which colors you use, but if everyone in your peer group tends to use the same colors it can be much less frustrating. Most areas can get highlighters in yellow, pink, green, blue, and orange. I like using green for crescendos and faster tempos, and pink for decresendos, slower tempo changes and fermatas. Yellow is great for those tricky accidentals that seem to hide between the staff lines until the moment we have to play them. You get the general idea.

    Another simple techniqe that many publishers leave out is to number the measures. Many publishers number the first measure in each line, or divide measures in groups – usually groups of fives? – (Most phrases come in two, four, or even eight measure bites, but many publishers are obsessed with five bar markers. How does that make any sense?) This is especially handy if you are working with others, but even if it is a one on one relationship, being able to go directly to the measure where the problem is can be a real time saver – which in lessons can add up to a lot more lesson for your precious sheckels! I like to put the numbers under the bar lines, but that is just a personal preference. I think it tends to keep the numbers away from any other markings I might want to make. I also try never to mark my original. I might change my mind later, or somebody wiser might change it for me. Some people actually see colors when they listen to pitch by the way, so this type of a system would be much less useful for them.

    Copyright laws also very greatly from country to country, but in America we are allowed to copy only ten percent of an individual score or article for classroom use only. We cannot take those copies into a performance situation or even keep those copies and use them the following year. Copyright rules are so restrictive that many of us end up creating our own material and using the much less restrictive Creative Commons registration. This allows us to use pieces for educational purposes without any of those tiresome restrictions. Eventually the rest of the publishing industry will come to the epiphany that they are biting the hand that will eventually be feeding them. Until they realize that they need the good will of their future customers, they will continue to pile on loathsome restrictions until publishing possibly becomes irrelevant. Like any other sytem where fewer and fewer people control items of value, eventually people stop caring about what they cannot get at a resonable price and simply change their system to accomodate their needs.

  • Bob

    At last, I found someone else that uses binders; I have a couple dozen; one for Sor, one for Guiliani, one for Pujol and so on. Also, I maintain a music theory binder and another binder with “a” through “z” tabs where I maintain copies of pieces I enjoy playing (my ‘repetorio’). I have included at least one composer under each tab with the exception of Mc, O, Q, U, X and Y (still searching). Now, how’s that for crazy?

    I recommend a music theory binder. It’s really helping me in more ways that I expected.