Robert Estrin - piano expert

How to Read a Score - Part II

How to read a conductor score, from concert pianist Robert Estrin.

In this video, Robert continues with useful tips and interesting insights about approaching a conductor score.

Released on May 22, 2013

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, I'm Robert Estrim here at, with the second part about scoring. That's right, last week it was how to approach a score. Today is what is a conductor score. This is a great question. If you've ever seen a conductor score you know it looks very complex. If you play violin or flute, trumpet you just have one staff of notes to deal with. As a pianist you have two staffs, generally treble and bass. Organ might have three. One for the foot pedals, one for each hand. A conductor score however has all the staffs from the top of the page to the bottom. A full orchestral score covers the strings, the woodwinds, the brass. Now the string players double the part, so you have a number of first violins all playing the second part. A number of second violins playing that part and the cello, violas and bass each doubling, tripling, quadrupling their parts or more. But the woodwinds and brass generally have their own part.

So you have all these parts. Now, how do you make sense of this. Well before I get to how to make sense of this I'm going to complicate it even more because it is more complicated because you have more than just treble and bass clefs. That's right. Viola has its own clef. There are C clefs which can occur on almost any line and they can change within the piece, so that the viola might start in viola clef, the C clef in the middle line and then it might change to treble clef at a higher part right in the middle and the same thing is true of other instruments.

Now to make matters even more complex, many of the instruments are not pitched in C. That's right, they're transposing instruments. You might be aware of this that a clarinet or a trumpet, for example, usually are pitched in B flat, sometimes in other keys in different compositions. French horns could be in almost any key. So that means that when a conductor sees a C written for a French horn in F, he knows that the pitch, the absolute pitch is actually an F. So conductor has to be able to translate instantly a score with all these different clefs, all these different keys and make sense of it.

How is this possible? I have seen some amazing conductors who can actually look at a score, reduce it down to the piano at sight and they learn how to see absolute pitch on a score instantly and they do this usually with fixed do solfege. So they know absolute pitch on a score and they can communicate with an orchestra so they can tell the different instruments which notes to play and understand when there's a wrong not. Now to be able to get fluent at this you really need to be comfortable with all your clefs and all your transpositions.

It takes years to master that, but for most purposes if you look at a score, realize the string parts are going to be in C and if you have other instruments they may transpose, you can get a sense of the score without necessarily knowing the absolute pitch of all the notes up and down the huge score. It takes years to master that technique but I strongly recommend as I did in the last video, familiarizing yourself with scores of the piece you are playing, whether they are orchestral works that you are playing a part in, chamber music or pieces with piano. Knowing what's going on in the other instruments is essential to be able to play with clarity and structure. Thank you for joining me. Robert Estrim here at
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