During my senior year of college, I had the honor of being chosen as a student composer for a reading with Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. I didn’t have time to write a new piece, so I arranged a simple piece I’d already written for the three instruments available at the reading. My advisor suggested I give the parts to the performers ahead of time if they were difficult. Since the piece was not difficult, I kept the parts until the day of. When I handed them out, one of the performers (all of them were professionals) got upset with me for not giving him the part sooner. “I’ve been asking for these parts for days!” he said, clearly irritated. I explained to him my understanding of the situation, adding that the parts were not difficult, and that it was a preliminary reading, not a performance. He grumbled a bit more and took his part.
Obviously we hadn’t been on the same page about the procedure, but I’m not sure we were even on the same page about what a “reading” meant, now that I look back.
The term “reading” can mean slightly different things depending on its purpose, but most musicians understand it as a preliminary reading (sight-reading, technically) through of a piece of music, with little to no time spent preparing ahead, either alone or as an ensemble. It’s similar to a reading of a script with a new cast- everyone goes through it to get the feel of the lines, to play off each other based on first instincts or interpretations of directions, but it’s not necessarily the way an actual performance will sound.
Composers need readings because they need to hear their pieces. It’s not enough to have a piece of music on paper; music by definition is heard. But besides that, readings are a tremendous learning experience because they provide that crucial “third hearing,” as I call it. Once a composer has finished editing parts and scores, she’s heard her piece twice: once in her head, and once electronically via her composition software. As tempting as it is to rely on these versions, in reality they tell you very little about what your music actually sounds like. Readings, on the other hand, tell you a lot. Because chances are you’re writing for real people and not Finale, so you need to see how real people respond to your writing.
Grad school afforded me several reading opportunities. At least half of our seminars were dedicated to readings, and they were one of my two most valuable learning experiences during my two years at UMASS. And that brings me to my reading purpose number 1: mandating readings force students to produce clean scores AND parts. My first time preparing parts for a real public performance was for an orchestra piece of mine during my senior year of college. The process was tedious, nerve-wracking, and expensive (so much printing!). Because before that, only one piece I had written had been performed- at a small, short concert. No pressure. And I was a first-year. But because readings weren’t mandated (they hardly would have been possible at a small liberal arts college with a small music department), I didn’t have to produce parts. I didn’t even have to produce finished pieces. Mandated readings force students to prepare parts (because that’s the eventual goal of composers, right? To get pieces performed. And to do that there need to be parts) and edit them. Pieces are not like research papers you can give to your friend for editing. Pieces must be edited by the composer over and over again, until they are ready to be read.
But even then you might not be done editing. Because what you hear in your head and what Finale plays back to you aren’t what real people will sound like. Reading purpose number 2: composers learn just how clear their notation is. Let me clarify: continuous mistakes in a piece that keeps moving (under tempo is fine) aren’t a sign of poor notation. Constant stopping, questioning, and starting over are. You might think you’re being clear as a bell, but it’s not you who will be playing the music. If your performers cannot understand what you mean the first time they read your music, you might need to change what you wrote. This is arguably the most important reason to have readings. I never understood when my professor suggested we give performers parts ahead of time. If I can’t be there with a musician or ensemble while they’re sight-reading my music for the first time, them preparing ahead of time is useless to me if one of the purposes of a reading is to help me improve my notation. Because if performers do prepare, I have no idea what their first instincts were. I don’t know if they read it wrong before, and are reading it right for me now. Composers need to be present at the very first sight-readings if possible.
Reading purpose number 3: composers get to see how performers interact and communicate in an ensemble setting. Composers see how they cue each other, lead their sections, physically connect with the music, how they prioritize during a rehearsal, and how different instrumentalists interpret instruction. Again, preparing for a reading takes away the first natural instinct musicians have when sight-reading- and that’s information you can use to make your writing better technically and musically.
I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule. If I had written a very difficult piece, I’d have considered giving it to the performers ahead of time since our seminar readings were also meant to let us hear our peers’ music, not just watch it being rehearsed. And professors may have different expectations from school to school. But I am of the opinion that a reading is foremost for the composer, and rehearsals are for the performers.